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An American Hanukkah

Hanukkah for us has become the Jewish Christmas, as Jews replicate the gift giving and seasonal cheer that mark the Yuletide holiday.  Indeed, the public display of Christmas trees is legitimatized if a Hanukkiah is placed beside it.  Holiday choirs add a dreidel song to their repertoire of carols.  Yet, in memoirs and oral histories of North Carolina Jews, Hanukkah is rarely mentioned.  The holidays mostly recalled are gatherings at the Sabbath table, Passover seders, and Purim balls and spiels.  Many recall the High Holidays as reunions when relatives gathered from afar, and country Jews joined their cousins in the cities.  What these holidays had in common was that they were family celebrations.

Recently, historian Diane Ashton has published a study of the American Hanukkah, noting how the celebration has acculturated.  Rabbis grew concerned that American-Jewish children were missing out on holiday fun.   The Hanukkah narrative was reinvented to represent America’s own revolutionary war as a tiny nation improbably overthrew a tyrant to win its independence.  As American Jews grew materially prosperous, they adopted many Christmas customs including the sending of holiday cards or the decorating of doors.  Last year, the Raleigh News & Observer pictured a local Jewish home decorated with lights on Hanukkah themes.  When a newspaper asked Chapel Hill celebrities how they celebrated Christmas, then Mayor Ken Broun responded that they didn’t, rather they gathered around the Hanukkah lamp and sang Maoz Tzur.

Jewish holidays, however ancient the events that they celebrate, are constantly reinvented to reflect the place and times, and that process continues in North Carolina today.

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