Spin that dreidel: For American children, Hanukkah has become a festival of funDecember 09, 2009
Comedian Adam Sandler sings about it. Dreidel competitions celebrate it. And there are even blue-blazoned cards and t-shirts and menorah hats.
Hanukkah isn't a hugely important holiday on the Jewish calendar, but, over the past few decades, it has become decisively more hip...and fun, says Rowan University Professor Dianne Ashton, an expert on Hanukkah.
"It has become tremendously commercialized--just like Christmas," says Ashton. "Among Jews, Hanukkah was categorized as a minor festival and was considered to be fairly insignificant. But, in the United States, Jews began to make Hanukkah more significant after the Civil War."
In part, says Ashton, a professor of American Studies and philosophy/religion, Hanukkah's rise in popularity in the U.S. grew out of the efforts of two rabbis from Cincinnati. The rabbis, both leaders of influential national Jewish newspapers, led a movement to Americanize Judaism. The movement coincided with the growth and popularity of home-based Christmas customs among German Christian immigrants in the U.S., Ashton says.
Interest grew when one of the rabbis began writing serialized accounts of the Maccabean War, romanticized, cliff-hanging accounts of heroism and bravery--two qualities that were extremely important to Jewish immigrants, says Ashton. Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day commemoration of the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the successful Maccabean Revolt.
"Its core meaning is commemoration of the time God rescued the Jews from foreign oppression," says Ashton.
The other rabbi sought to promote the idea of a fun holiday festival for Jewish children, according to Ashton, who is writing The American Hanukkah for New York University Press, which examines Hanukkah from 1860-2000.
"The rabbi said Jewish children shall have a grand and glorious Hanukkah, a festival as nice any Christmas, with songs, dramatics, candle lighting, ice cream and candy," Ashton says.
"This really shifted Hanukkah from primarily an observance of Jewish adults to a festival seen as particularly important for Jewish children, a way to keep them interested in Judaism," says Ashton.
Growing up in Buffalo, Ashton, herself, remembers her family's own Hanukkah celebrations, which included her dressing up to light the candles in the living room--and eight days of gifts.
"I got a lot of sweaters. It was Buffalo," she laughs. "My parents dressed me up to in a black and blue skirt. It was just to go to the living room, but it was a big event."
"In America, there was a shift that Hanukkah was something for kids to do, something to do to have fun being Jewish."
Hanukkah's "hipness" has grown even over the past two decades, says Ashton.
"In the last 20 years, as religion has become more dominant in the U.S., it has become more acceptable to talk about people's many religious practices," she says. "Yet, ironically, the different December holidays tend to help us see how much we have in common."