Hanukkah Reflects America’s Religious Liberty

1 Comment

In 1974 in Philadelphia, a small menorah was lit in front of Independence Hall, home to the iconic Liberty Bell. The menorah was crude and made of wood. Five people attended what is now considered to be the first Chabad-Lubavitch public-menorah lighting. Regardless of the constitutional implications of this action, the idea of religious freedom embodied by the Hanukkah holiday deeply resonates with the core principles of American democracy. The attention currently lavished by American Jews on Hanukkah makes it difficult to imagine that there was once a time when it was a minor holiday. Yet, across America, Hanukkah’s magnification as a Jewish holiday now has broader implications.

In recent years, Hanukkah has evolved into a symbol of religious liberty for all Americans. In 165 BCE, after the Maccabees, a minority, successfully revolted against the majority – the Syrian kingdom led by Antiochus Epiphanes IV – there was a rededication of the Jerusalem Temple and the rekindling of its golden menorah for eight miraculous days. This origin story naturally translates into contemporary American motifs of religious liberty and survival represented by a Hanukkah festival of lights. The story of Hanukkah also recalls the first pilgrims who arrived on America’s shores after fleeing religious oppression in Europe.

Three vignettes from Montana, Idaho, and Utah exemplify how the holiday’s underlying Jewish message of religious freedom is now embraced for its strong American values.

Consider this: the largely non-Jewish residents of Billings, MT, used the menorah as a means to fight the anti-Semitism and bigotry that surfaced in the town in 1993. In December of that year, Isaac and Tami Schnitzer placed a Hanukkah menorah in their window. A town resident hurled a cinder block through the Schnitzers’ window and threatened other families and institutions displaying menorahs. The townspeople decided to take a collective stand against bigotry. Through a campaign waged by the Billings Gazette and the town’s sheriff, families and businesses were asked to display pictures of menorahs in their homes and jobs. People responded so enthusiastically that by the time the campaign concluded, an estimated 10,000 people had answered the call. This community-wide protest dramatically decreased the incident of hate crimes in Billings.

Indicative of Hanukkah’s mainstream popularity, even in states with small Jewish populations like Idaho, then-Governor Dirk Kempthorne signed a symbolic proclamation on December 1, 2004, naming December 7, 2004, National Menorah Day in the State of Idaho. The governor declared, “the message of Chanukah resonates quite powerfully with the fundamental principles of American life, as this nation was founded on the principles of hope and religious freedom.” The proclamation reads, in part:

WHEREAS, This year [2004] marks the 25th anniversary of the National Menorah which was first lit in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter and given its name by President Ronald Reagan in 1982; and

WHEREAS, Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, is among the most widely celebrated of Jewish holidays;

NOW THEREFORE, I DIRK KEMPTHORNE, Governor of the State of Idaho, do hereby proclaim, December 7, 2004, to be national Menorah Day in Idaho.

Finally, the Americanization of Hanukkah is evidenced by the popularity of “Eight Days of Hanukkah,” a song written by Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, a Mormon with an affection for Jews and a love of Barbra Streisand. A video of the song debuted via Tablet, an online Jewish cultural magazine, just prior to Hanukkah in 2009.

The production of this song was a multicultural endeavor. The writing was inspired by a challenge to Senator Hatch from journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. Hatch’s collaborator was Jewish songwriter Madeline Stone, who hails from the Upper West of Manhattan and now writes Christian music in Nashville. She said, “I’m a pretty liberal Democrat. But it became more about the music and the friendship for me and Orrin.” The song was performed by Rasheeda Azar, a Syrian-American vocalist from Indiana. [According to Goldberg, “Rasheeda’s participation closes a circle of sorts, since the Syrian King Antiochus was, of course, the antagonist in the story of the Maccabean revolt.”]

Senator Hatch calls “Eight Days of Hanukkah” a “gift to the Jewish people.” He said his ultimate goal would be for Streisand to perform one of his songs. “It would be good for her and good for me,” Hatch said, while acknowledging that given her outspoken liberalism, “that union might require another miracle.”

Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah Songs: Old Wine in New Vessels

Leave a comment

There is a recent American tale of old wine in new vessels,  a part of  our national folklore revealing that Woody Guthrie composed Hanukkah songs. In a 2003 concert  the Klezmatics, a popular Grammy Award winning Klezmer band, performed Hanukkah songs that showcased a selection from the many lyrics written from 1949 through the early 1950s by Woody Guthrie, the iconic American folk troubadour and songwriter. The lyrics had laid fallow and long forgotten in Guthrie’s archives until their discovery in 1998 by Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie. Nora asked the Klezmatics to write original music for the lyrics, which fuses strains of Klezmer music with American folk and bluegrass. The 2006 album, “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanuka,” comprises many different songs, including “Happy, Joyous Hanuka” and “Hanuka Tree.” Two of the eight songs, “The Many And The Few” and “Hanuka Dance,” had lyrics and melodies penned entirely by Guthrie. The songs were in part biographical. Woody was married to Marjorie Mazia, a Jewish dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company who was the daughter of Aliza Greenblatt, an activist and Yiddish poet. Nora remembers “For Hanukkah actually, we had a hat—we didn’t get presents—but we had a hat with different amounts of Hanukkah gelt, and every night we’d pick out five cents or twenty-five cents of gelt. My mother played piano, and we used to sing and dance every night.”[i]

At the 2003 debut concert with the Klezmatics at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, folk legend Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son and Nora’s brother, joked that as children they would dance “around the Hanukkah tree.” Happy Joyous Hanuka” counts down each candle on the menorah (“Seven for the sons of Hannah that died/Six for kings and the tricks they tried/Five for the brothers Maccabee”), while “Hanuka Tree” has a lively simple melody (“Round and around my Hanukah tree/Round and around I go/Round and around my Hanukah tree/Because I love you so”). According to Nora, most of Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah songs seem to be written within November or December within five days of each other “because he had  bookings in December for children’s Hanukkah parties in assorted Brooklyn community centers.”  As was his wont, Woody would “write songs only for the gig a few days before and then go on to other songs for other gigs.” For the Guthrie family, a family of improvisers not of traditions and for whom the approach to religion was “all or none”, the tree was a “Christmas tree, a Hanukkah tree, and a holiday tree. It was a fluid thing!”

Indeed, the popularization of Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah songs by the Klezmatics demonstrates the vital role that music plays as an  intrinsic cultural force  contributing to the  Americanization of this Jewish holiday (coexisting  side by side with  Christmas)


[i] Telephone interview with Nora Guthrie, August 17, 2011.


So What About Jews and Chinese Food?

1 Comment

We all know that eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve is a sacred Jewish tradition. Chinese restaurants became a favorite eatery for Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States and to New York City, in particular, in the early twentieth century. The origin of this venerated Christmas Jewish tradition dates back over one hundred years to the Lower East Side of New York City. Jews found Chinese restaurants readily available in urban and suburban areas in America where both Jews and Chinese lived in close proximity.

Historically, the first mention of this phenomenon was in 1899. The American Hebrew weekly journal criticized Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants, singling out in particular Jews who flocked to Chinese restaurants.  And in 1903, the Yiddish language newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward coined the Yiddish word oysesseneating out–to describe the growing custom of Jews eating outside the home in New York City.

Chinese cuisine clearly was an inexpensive and exotic alternative to the more familiar and expensive foods served at Jewish delicatessens. It was a happy coincidence that Chinese restaurants stayed open on Christmas Eve and gave Jews across the United States a natural venue in which to partake of their own version of Christmas dinner. “Eating Chinese” on Christmas was a recognized Jewish preference as early as 1935, when the New York Times reported that restaurant owner Eng Shee Chuck brought chow mein on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark, New Jersey. This is the first recorded incidence of  Chinese take- out and home-delivery to American Jews occurring on Christmas Eve.

“Eating Chinese” soon became a national sensation that defined Christmas-time activity for Jews all over the United States.  As immigrants arrived from other parts of Asia, the concept of “easting Chinese” on Christmas Eve has broadened to other types of Asian cuisine, as evidenced by a recent New York Times Magazine article  entitled “Joy From The World” on December 7, 2014, which reports about a Jewish-Japanese Christmas repast. Sawako Okochi and Aaron Israel meld their traditions together for shared Christmas meal which includes “okonomi-latke.” (A combination of potato pancakes often eaten on Hanukkah and okonomiyaki, a savory pancake popular in Japanese street food.) According to the Times, “what started in their home has made its way onto the menu [on Christmas] this year of their restaurant, Shalom Japan, in Williamsburg…”

As a popular joke reflecting on this affinity for Jews to eat in Chinese restaurants states: “The Jewish people are 5000 years old and the Chinese people are 3000 years old. So what did the Jews eat for 2000 years?” Perhaps you have a story to share about your own Christmas Eve and Christmas Day restaurant outing!