Americanizing Chanukah

Posted on December 14th, 2012 by

A blog post by Historian Deb Weiner.

Last week, a reporter from the Jewish Times called to ask when Chanukah gift-giving first became popular in America. I had no clue, but I knew where to find the answer: in the book Wonders of America, by Jenna Weissman Joselit, a leading historian of American Jewish popular culture. I pulled the book off the shelf, looked up “Chanukah” in the index, and relayed the relevant details to the reporter. I thought it would be pertinent to share Joselit’s observations with you as well.


In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Joselit writes, “more American Jews were inclined to experiment with Christmas than with Chanukah. Beguiled by its charms, they adorned their homes with greenery and eagerly exchanged gifts.” Along with other Americans, Jews ignored the religious meaning behind Christmas and enjoyed its “secularized, commodified, and mirth filled dimensions.” The holiday’s appeal was not limited to “well-established Jews”—it trickled down to immigrants as well. “According to the Jewish Daily Forward, a startlingly large proportion of new arrivals took quickly to the custom of giving Christmas presents, a practice allegedly as widespread as the exchange of Purim gifts. ‘Who says we haven’t Americanized,’ the paper quoted several immigrants as saying. ‘The purchase of Christmas gifts is one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn.’”


Hutzler’s gift box, 1997.83.9a


Jewish leaders tried to promote Chanukah as an alternative to Christmas, but “no amount of rhetorical excess could disguise the fact that Chanukah’s charms paled in comparison with those of Christmas.” Joselit does not identify who came up with the idea of giving gifts as part of celebrating Chanukah, or precisely when the custom took off, but gift-giving was clearly a key part of the holiday’s revival in the 1920s. That’s when Chanukah “began to come into its own as a notable Jewish domestic occasion and an exercise in consumption.” Not surprisingly, this was a time of upward mobility for the increasingly Americanized immigrants, who were looking for ways to combine their American and Jewish identities. What better way than to fit Chanukah into modern American consumer society?


Yiddish newspapers of the 1920s “carried dozens of tempting advertisements for Chanukah gifts, from automobiles to waffle irons.”  While advertisers saw Chanukah as a way to sell a wide array of products, newspaper editors saw the products as a way to sell Chanukah. Editorials encouraged readers “to add the exchange of presents to the roster of Chanukah customs.” As one newspaper counseled, “To command the attention and affection of Jewish children, the holiday must become an occasion for storytelling, gift-giving, and merrymaking.”


In addition to its commercialization, Joselit writes, “a search for religious parity” proved to be the other key factor in Chanukah’s success in the years after World War II, “when it emerged not only as the Jewish antidote to Christmas but as its functional equivalent.” For second and third generation Americans, Chanukah became an important way to express Jewishness.  By the 1950s the celebration of Chanukah had become “one of the few Jewish ritual practices actually to grow rather than diminish in popularity.”

The perfect Chanukah gift, available from the Museum shop.

 Happy Chanukah everyone!

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Lost in Transliteration

Posted on December 12th, 2012 by

A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.

I think I’ve finally adjusted to Hanukkah. I don’t mean “Hanukkah”, the holiday I’ve celebrated for 60 years, I mean “Hanukkah” the spelling that has become popular in my lifetime.

Taking the holiday decorations out of the closet is my annual reminder that transliteration can transform tradition.  I grew up with a beautiful blue banner that proudly proclaimed “Happy Chanukah” right above our menorah (a metal candle holder of very simple design that made up in weight what it lacked in elegance).  I never for a moment questioned the perfection of this spelling.

But in the 1980s, – when our kids were young and our old banner disheveled from years of Scotch tape being applied and removed – I had to purchase a new banner and discovered that a lot of options had been added to the transliteration list.  I settled on a multi-colored model with fringe and the phrase “Happy Hanuka”.  It appeared that this peculiar spelling was an aesthetic choice, as the nearly even number of letters allowed the Star of David that separated the words to be placed exactly in the middle.

For many years I continued to look for “Chanukah” cards (just one of my atavistic preferences – like my nostalgia for the German beer hall melody for “Adon Olam”).

Of course, Hanukkah and its problematic initial letter are not unique.  I understand that before we renovated the Lloyd Street Synagogue there was a lively discussion about “mikveh” vs. “mikvah”.  As a former volunteer for Congressman Abner Mikva, I confess that I would probably have come out on the losing side of this debate.

Hebrew transliteration is actually relatively straightforward compared to my experience in East Asian Studies.  I still cringe when I hear commercials for Toyota Camry (to rhyme with “lamb tree”).  The Japanese word is “kanmuri”, meaning “crown”, and there is no “‘a’-as-in-‘can'” sound in Japanese – the sound is “a” as in “Genghis Khan”.

Speaking of Genghis Khan, when I started studying history his birth name was Temujin.  But in many articles written today you will find that he was born Tiemuzhen.  This reflects one of the most dramatic changes in transliteration in the 20th century.  Until the thawing of relations with mainland China, most Western scholars used the Wade Giles system to romanize Chinese words (named for the British diplomats who developed and refined the system). The dominant system today is the “pinyin” system, the official transliteration practice of the People’s Republic of China.

In “pinyin”, Mao Tse Tung became Mao Zedong and Mah Jongg became Ma Jiang.  No matter how you spell it, it’s still fun to play (I mean “Mah Jongg” not “Mao Tse Tung”).  So I hope you’ll join us on December 25 when we all have “phun” at the Dragons and Dreidels program – no transliteration required.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

It’s that magical time of the year…

Posted on December 10th, 2012 by

A blog post by Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik.

It’s that magical time of the year…when everything smells like oil and onions. That’s right, it’s Chanukah time! This is my first year after graduating from college, which means that it’s the first time that Chanukah has not been overshadowed by exams and term papers—a fact for which I am very grateful. No more squeezing in a Hillel candlelighting and Rugrats Maccabee episode study break between marathon paper-writing sessions. Instead, I’ve got a whole week of holiday parties to look forward to (and probably a few Christmas-centric parties to follow afterward).

Of course, the grand holiday season kickoff event was Esther Fest, last Thursday—never mind the mayor’s monument lighting ceremony, which was missing the key ingredient to holiday fun: Esther and fried foods.  In fact, the museum (and my clothes) still smelled faintly of oil, onions, and good times when I came in on Sunday morning!

The holiday cheer continued for me last night (even though I wasn’t at Diner and Donuts) at my parents’ Chanukah party, where my mother managed, yet again, to invite a seder-level number of people to the house and still make too much food! As my dad likes to say, “she’s got a bit of the Catskills in her.” My brother and I are always pleased when this happens because it means we can each take home left-overs to our respective houses (in other words, the young adult version of our sibling rivalry takes the form of “tupperware wars”).  Our roommates have come to love the Krolik Family Supermarket.

But back to Chanukah.  And parties. Later this week, my roommate and I will continue the festivities with a small gathering of our own in which we will teach our goyish friends to play dreidel. However, we will probably not teach them the meaning of Chanukah. They will probably go home still thinking that Chanukah is the Jewish Christmas.

Which brings me to an interesting op-ed I read in the New York Times this week, entitled “The True Meaning of Hanukkah.” The author, Hilary Krieger, delivers a kind of short d’var torah on what Chanukah (in its many spellings) really celebrates. Is the holiday all about the miracle of the oil? Or is it simply a celebration of a military victory? Krieger’s conclusion is very interesting.  She says that by having observing a holiday that celebrates both a bloody war and a spiritual miracle, we are invited to reflect on the presence of light and dark in the world. Krieger also reminds us that these conflicting messages are a common motif in Judaism. At Passover, we celebrate our independence from slavery while also spilling out some of our wine to acknowledge the suffering endured by the Egyptians, and on Yom Kippur, we reflect on the confusing story of the Sacrifice of Isaac. So, while Chanukah does not have the theological significance for Judaism that Christmas has for Christianity, it is an opportunity to remember and practice the ancient Jewish tradition of self-reflection and questioning.

Apparently, you can take the student from compulsory essays, but you can’t take the compulsion to write essays from the (former) student.

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