Rutgers Professor Talks History of Hanukkah in America

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

It may be an old holiday, but the Hanukkah we commonly celebrate in America is a relatively new creation.

“It has a long history of being rethought and re-imagined,” says Jeffrey Shandler of the holiday. Shandler is a Jewish Studies professor at Rutgers University. He says Hanukkah isn’t a major holiday in the Jewish religion, but began to gain broader public attention around the turn of the Twentieth Century because of its proximity to Christmas.

Shandler says it was seen by members of the Jewish community as an opportunity to explain to the Christian majority what happens in their homes during a time of year when it may seem like everyone is celebrating Christmas.

“They would explain it as something that was part of this American commitment to freedom of religion,” he says.

At that time, Shandler says, Jews were standing in for the ‘religious other’ — non-Christian and atheist Americans. These early and mid-century reminders of religious diversity would lead to menorahs appearing alongside Christmas trees, and eventually the annual White House Hanukkah celebration.

Shandler sees these acknowledgments as important for preserving freedom of religion and making the holiday season feel inclusive.

“I know people who find it a very difficult time of year because they have to think about their otherness, their difference, in ways they don’t have to think about the rest of the year,” Shandler shares. He says that’s also why the last century has seen a shift in the holiday’s rituals.

“A core feature of diaspora Jewish life for millennia is Jews come to a new place to live, they look at what their neighbors do, and they say, ‘How can we do this in our own way?'” Shandler explains.

Where do kids come into this?

“Well I would say, especially one of the things we see by the mid-20th Century is the giving gifts to children, because of kids getting Christmas presents, Jewish parents not wanting their children to feel left out,” says Shandler. “And at this time is the rise of all the paraphernalia come around gift-giving. Creating analogs that are clearly Jewish analogs to the rituals around Christmas.”

Most recently, Mench on a Bench — the Hanukkah version of Elf on a Shelf. And while Hanukkah remains a relatively minor festival on the Jewish calendar, Shandler says it’s important as a yearly reminder — be it through the silly or the serious — to acknowledge and celebrate the different faiths around us.