STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins tonight. Now, in Israel and in many other Jewish communities around the world, Hanukkah is a very modest holiday. But it has a much more prominent status here in the United States, which is why we're about to talk with Dianne Ashton. She's a college professor who's writing a book about the history of Hanukkah.

Welcome to the program.

Professor DIANNE ASHTON (Director, American Studies, Rowan University): Thank you.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the way that this holiday has developed in the United States. What was Hanukkah like in America a couple of centuries ago?

Prof. ASHTON: Very modest, indeed. A couple of centuries ago, we have almost no record of people celebrating Hanukkah, which does not mean that they didn't. We just don't have records of it.

INSKEEP: What then began to change as the years went on in the United States?

Prof. ASHTON: In the late 19th century, after the Civil War, there's a lot of social change. There's urbanization and industrialization and migration, and things are unsettled. And so people in Germany and England and the U.S. began to think that sentimental home celebrations would help to stabilize all of these social changes. And marketing was emerging. The economy was beginning to produce more and more consumer goods. And so this also gave a way for the rising middle-class to display their wealth.

And so customs for Christmas became wrapped in this garb, and you get Christmas presents under Christmas trees. That became very important in late 19th century - the U.S.

INSKEEP: Oh, because Christmas was growing from the kind of holiday that it had been in the past at the same time, you're saying.

Prof. ASHTON: That's right.

INSKEEP: And then where does Hanukkah come in?

Prof. ASHTON: Hanukkah begins to be an important holiday when a couple of rabbis in Cincinnati - reform rabbis who were looking to change the synagogue -noticed that their Jewish children really didn't have a lot of connection to the synagogue. And so they developed a new celebration for children at Hanukkah in the synagogue.

And this became a very important event among reformed Jews around the country, because both of these rabbis had national newspapers. And so they publicized it.

And all around the country, for the second half of the 19 century, you have congregations creating children celebrations in the synagogue at Hanukkah. And they also gave them some presents.

INSKEEP: It was a promotional event.

Prof. ASHTON: It was a promotional event. Yes.

INSKEEP: Why did they select Hanukkah, this relatively minor holiday, and not Yom Kippur - any number of other Jewish holidays?

Prof. ASHTON: For a couple of reasons. First of all, Hanukkah happened at a time when the American culture had a booming holiday going on, and these Jews really wanted to be part of what was happening in America.

They didn't see Christmas as something that they could do easily because it's Christian, but they did want to do something like that because it was American. And so they began to reshape Hanukkah as something that families could do when other American families were doing the same thing.

And certainly, the very important holidays, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, are very serious synagogue events that you don't play around with.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you're saying that there were Jews who wanted to cement their Jewish identity in America. But at the same time, they wanted Jews to fit into America a little better than may be they did.

Prof. ASHTON: Yes.

INSKEEP: Did it work?

Prof. ASHTON: Yes, it did. When you had over two million Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920, Hanukkah became something else again. It became an occasion for them to do activities in the U.S. that they really couldn't do freely.

They had concerts in public halls. Restaurants had Hanukkah specials. And one I remember, there was a kosher restaurant that featured a turkey dinner at Hanukkah. But notice it was a turkey dinner. You know, you don't eat turkey in Eastern Europe. You eat it in America.

INSKEEP: Dianne Ashton is head of American Studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, and author of an upcoming book on the history of Hanukkah in America.

Take care, Happy Hanukkah.

Prof. ASHTON: Oh, thanks very much. Merry Christmas.

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