Hanukkah in America

This week’s review examines how the Festival of Lights has evolved according to changing American-Jewish values and a host of other complex factors

Hanukkah in America : a history

Ashton, Dianne. New York University, 2013
343p index afp, 9780814707395 $29.95

American Jews and non-Jews alike understand that, in the United States, Hanukkah has evolved in tandem with the extravagance of the American Christmas season. But Ashton (Rowan Univ.) offers a stunning history of this holiday that reveals just how much more there is to the story. Hanukkah in America draws on two centuries of diverse factors: Jews’ desire to see their history as consequential; their aspiration to equate Jewish and Western values; their need to reengage increasingly disaffected Jews and keep Jewish children excited about Judaism; the emergence of Zionism; the Holocaust; and a host of factors pertinent to contemporary Jewish history and American life. Ashton demonstrates how such influences shaped a minor holiday into what today is perhaps the signal celebration of the American Jewish year. Through engaging and exacting detail, she treats her readers to an inside look at the evolving American Jewish psyche, as it is played out in American homes and synagogue celebrations. In so doing, she articulates an important point toward understanding religion in general: Hanukkah has evolved so as to narrate the story of the Maccabees in ways that meet the distinctive needs of successive generations of Jews.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates through researchers/faculty; general readers.
Reviewer: A. J. Avery-Peck, College of the Holy Cross
Subject: Humanities – Religion
Choice Issue: May 2014