Hanukkah case in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Legends and stories surround the origin of Hanukkah, whose name means “dedication” in Hebrew. Hanukkah celebrates the 165 B.C.E. victory over the Jews’ Syrian-Greek oppressors, who had seized the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. According to Rabbinic tradition, the Jewish victors—a rebel army known as the Maccabees—set out to purify and rededicate the defiled temple but could only find one day’s worth of ritual oil. Miraculously, the small amount of purifying oil burned in the temple’s lamp stand, or menorah, for eight days.
For centuries, Hanukkah was a modest occasion, a minor holiday. Jewish law and custom only required the lighting of candles for eight nights, with one candle to be used as the shamash (“guard” or “servant” in Hebrew) to light the others. The lighted candles were to be kept by a window where they could be seen by passers-by. In Eastern Europe, the celebration included eating latkes (potato pancakes), distributing small amounts of Hanukkah gelt (coins) to children, playing games with a dreidel (a spinning top), and playing cards.
In America, Hanukkah continued to be celebrated in this modest way, if at all. After the Civil War—as the American Christmas began to transform itself into a holiday of decorations, parties, shopping, and gift-giving—American Jews were drawn to the bright lights and excitement of that holiday.
Leading rabbis worried that, compared to the increasingly popular celebration of Christmas, Hanukkah lacked “romance” and allure. The campaign to revive and enhance Hanukkah began in the 1880s. Families were encouraged to create a festive atmosphere at home, to have Hanukkah parties, and to exchange gifts. By the 1920s, Hanukkah had begun to assert itself as a major Jewish domestic holiday.
Hanukkah reached its full flowering in the child-centered culture of post-World War II America. Beginning in the 1950s, not only did more families celebrate the holiday, the celebrations themselves became more elaborate. Jewish organizations encouraged this with books and manuals to help families make the holiday more appealing (and discourage the celebration of Christmas). Families might exchange gifts for eight nights, light several menorahs, give parties, prepare special foods, and decorate their houses.
Today, the eight-night Hanukkah holiday still usually involves menorah-lighting, latke-eating, and dreidel-spinning, but Jewish celebrants can choose from a wide variety of items and ways to celebrate the traditions and rituals.
Items selected for this year’s Hanukkah display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation:
One couple used both of these menorahs to celebrate Hanukkah. The brass menorah was an heirloom, passed down through three generations. Its design incorporates traditional Jewish cultural symbols. The contemporary design of the other menorah, featuring popular cartoon characters, delighted the couple’s grandchildren. Traditional Hanukkah Menorah, 1900-1920 and Modern Hanukkah Menorah, 1998 / 2005.121.62 and 2005.121.61
Just after dark each night of Hanukkah, one additional candle is lit in the menorah until all eight candleholders are filled with light. A ninth shammas (also spelled shammash)—or “attendant”—candle is used to light these candles. Detail from 1953 book, We Celebrate the Jewish Holidays. / THF111666
The alternate and more traditional spelling of the holiday starts with the two letters “Ch,” which is an English transliteration of the eighth letter in the Hebrew alphabet.The words “Chanuka candles” are written in both English and Hebrew on this box. Hanukkah Candles, 1946-1980 / 2010.2.178
Forty-four candles light the Hanukkah menorah—a shammas (also spelled shammash), or “attendant,” candle plus an additional candle (beginning with one) for each of the eight nights. The candles are inserted from right to left (the direction in which Hebrew is read) but kindled from left to right. Spinning the dreidel (pronounced “dray’-duhl”), a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side, is a traditional children’s game played during Hanukkah. A blue dreidel is depicted in the lower left corner of this box of menorah candles. Hanukkah Candles, 1990-2010 / 2010.2.176
This recipe booklet suggests traditional dishes for the Hanukkah celebration, including mandelbrot (a crunchy almond bread also known as mandel bread) and latkes (potato pancakes fried in oil). Famous Recipes for Jewish Housewives, 1940 / 2005.29.79
Ideas for this Hanukkah table arrangement from the 1955 book Jewish Home Beautiful include traditional dishes as well as gelt—chocolate coins often given to children during the festival—and small boxed gifts. Detail from 1955 book, Jewish Home Beautiful / THF111655
Also on exhibit, but not pictured here:
Fried potato pancakes, or latkes, are a Hanukkah staple. This packaged mix offered a convenient alternative to the traditional preparation—grating numerous potatoes by hand. Product Package for Kosher Potato Pancake Mix, 2000-2010 / 2010.2.100
In 2020, families celebrating Hanukkah can use everything from traditional spinning dreidels for playing the dreidel game to electric blinking menorahs to face masks for family get-togethers during the COVID-19 pandemic. These are part of a larger acquisition of contemporary items relating to the Chanukah celebration from the online store, www.TraditionsJewishGifts.com. This is an online extension of the Traditions Judaica Gifts retail store, located in South Florida’s Pompano Beach—a family-run business that is one of the largest purveyors of Judaica gifts in the world. Items were selected to represent the wide spectrum of ways in which people express their style, personality, and values in celebrating the holiday. Traditional wooden dreidels, ca. 2020 (2020.140.4-.7); “GO” Menorah (electric or battery-powered), 2018 (2020.104.1); Face Masks, “Happy Chanukah” and “Eight Crazy Nights” (referencing Adam Sandler’s 2002 animated musical), 2020 (2020.104.2, .3).
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She enjoys explaining the Hanukkah traditions that she grew up with to others. Thanks to authors Saige Jedele and Judith Endelman for their previous blog posts about the history and traditions of Hanukkah, from which this blog post heavily draws, and to Saige for writing the initial exhibit labels for many of these objects.
This year’s holiday season is definitely special. The first day of Hanukkah (25 Kislev, 5774) overlaps with Thanksgiving Day (November 28, 2013). Call it Chanksgiving; call it Thanksgivukkah; call it what it is: a rare intersection of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars. Unless either or both calendars change, 25 Kislev won’t intersect with the fourth Thursday of November until the year 79,811! To commemorate this extraordinary meeting of two holidays closely associated with food traditions, let’s look at a Hanukkah staple: latkes.
Although deep-fried turkey achieved some popularity on American Thanksgiving tables over the past decade*, foods fried in oil are much older and more symbolic traditions for many Jews during Hanukkah.
Hanukkah celebrates a 165 B.C.E. victory over Syrian-Greeks who had seized the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. According to Rabbinic tradition the Jewish victors, a rebel army known as the Maccabees, set out to purify and rededicate the defiled temple but could only find one day’s worth of ritual oil. Miraculously, the small amount of purifying oil burned in the temple’s lamp stand, or menorah, for eight days!
Remembering the Miracle of the Oil
Lighting the menorah is another Hanukkah tradition that plainly commemorates the miracle of the oil. Many Jewish families light a branch of this special candelabrum each night of Hanukkah in remembrance of the Temple’s historic rededication.
Many foods, especially desserts, are prepared with or fried in oil during Hanukkah to commemorate this miracle. But perhaps no recipe is more closely associated with the holiday than the latke – whose name can be translated to mean “little oily.”
By the mid-19th century, when German immigrants brought latkes to America, the little potato pancakes were a product of centuries of transformation. Hanukkah pancakes probably began in southern and central Europe as dairy treats: cakes of soft cheese fried in butter or oil and accompanied by sour cream. In other areas, where cooking oils were scarce and expensive, fried foods were usually prepared with animal fat. Cheese and butter were also hard to come by in these regions—besides, Jewish dietary laws forbid mixing meat and dairy products. Innovative cooks fried cakes of batter or vegetable patties instead.
Then, slowly, the potato took root in European cuisine. French and German cooks incorporated the starchy South American transplant into existing dishes around the turn of the nineteenth century. Some German Jews fried cakes of grated potato in schmaltz, or rendered poultry fat, to serve alongside a Hanukkah goose.
In the coming decades, as Europe’s population boomed and other crops failed, the inexpensive and abundant potato became an important staple across the continent. Eastern European Jews borrowed potato recipes from their German coreligionists, and the potato latke – along with applesauce, its newest consort – became the most widespread Hanukkah pancake.
Jewish Americans continued the potato latke tradition. In the early 20th century, when vegetable shortening – and, later, vegetable oil – became available, fried latkes with sour cream were once again a kosher dairy option. The versatile latke, already a cornerstone of Hanukkah tradition, only grew more popular in the United States as the holiday transitioned from a modest occasion to an elaborate domestic celebration throughout the 1900s. Not unlike fine olive oil, you’d be hard pressed to find a twentieth-century Jewish cookbook that doesn’t include latkes among its Hanukkah recipes.
Check out The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center for books that help document and preserve the latke’s traditional place on the Hanukkah table. And for more on these storied little pancakes, see Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
Hanukkah in Postwar America
Holidays numbered among the many changes Americans experienced after World War II. In this “baby boom” era, American families celebrated with new traditions and more decorations, gifts, and parties than ever before. Jewish organizations published books and manuals that suggested ways to maintain centuries-old domestic religious traditions, and the 1950s saw a revived and enhanced American Hanukkah. In addition to preparing special foods, families might light several menorahs, exchange gifts for eight nights, decorate their homes, and host gatherings.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford and lover of most things potato.
*Frying has been a popular turkey preparation in areas of the Southern United States since at least the early 20th century.