I was holiday shopping at my local bookstore and was delighted to encounter Emily Jenkins’ “All of a Kind Family Hanukkah.” In the book, a Jewish immigrant family prepares for Chanukah in their Lower East Side Tenement in 1912. The family’s four daughters share a room, make latkes, throw tantrums, and in the end light their menorah on Henry Street (and you can meet Emily Jenkins this Chanukah).
East Side tenements were home to New York’s Eastern European Jewish community especially in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Chanukah on the Lower East Side (which included what some of us now call the East Village and Loisaida) and the stories of the neighborhood’s Jewish immigrants helped make the winter holidays – and the Village – what they are today.
Chanukah and Christmas in New York
The Jewish Village has been well documented through time, and this time of year brings the winter holidays into focus. The Tenement Museum wrote, “Passengers riding the elevated train through the Lower East Side on a December night in the 1890s would have seen hundreds of tiny candles illuminating the windows of tenement apartments inhabited by Eastern European Jews… Hanukkah offered an opportunity for many Jewish immigrants to openly celebrate their religion—something that wasn’t always possible in their countries of origin.”
The Festival of Lights was news to many New Yorkers. In 1894 the New York Sun published an article titled “Christmas or Chanukah?” A 1905 headline was more informative, reading “Chanukah, Commemorating Syrian Defeat, Lasts Eight Days.” These headlines signified an interest in Chanukah, and a connection between it and Christmas as being seasonal winter holidays. At the time, Chanukah was not considered a major celebration, but the candles were lit.
Celebrating American Christmas, too
The conception that Chanukah was linked to Christmas was new, and distinctly of the time and the place. It also served as an opportunity for marketing: in the late 1800s, urbanization, industrialization, modernization, and immigration combined with increases in the marketing and selling consumer goods to make the holiday season about more than candles. Soon, gifts and parties were a status symbol.
So was celebrating Christmas, even for Jewish New Yorkers who were looking to fit into the American story. The New York Tribune noted on Christmas Day, 1904, that “Santa Claus visited the East Side last night and hardly missed a tenement house.” Jews brought Christmas trees home with them as well.
Jewish New Yorkers were shaped by – and themselves shaped – Christmas. The best example of this is Russian Jewish Immigrant Irving Berlin, who is famous for writing White Christmas in 1943. Berlin, who began writing music while he was living in one of the Bowery’s lodging houses that sheltered thousands of homeless boys on the Lower East Side, wrote some of the most memorable anthems of Americana and Christmas music, but he was not alone in show business, or in the music-making culture of the Bowery.
Irving Berlin said he never forgot his childhood years when he slept under tenement steps, ate scraps, wore secondhand clothes and sold newspapers. “Every man should have a Lower East Side in his life,” said Berlin.
Jewish Community Claims Chanukah
It was in response to this trend of assimilation that Jewish leaders had become concerned that their religious traditions would be abandoned to those quickly acclimating to New York City. Jewish organizations started forming. In 1883, the New York Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) opened a Lower East Side immigrant district branch, which was said to be the first Jewish center for immigrant groups in the country. After years and some mergers with other organizations, the downtown YMHA became the Educational Alliance – which continues to run the 14th Street Y and others.
These groups played a significant role in the emerging settlement house movement, an institutional trend largely led and staffed by women. The YMHA and other Jewish community organizations held candle-lighting events that became a time to gather together in a space that was intentionally and visibly Jewish.
Chanukah in Our Time
Today in New York, a 32-foot tall menorah stands on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street near Central Park. There’s another one, also quite large and grand, in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. And many more. These sites of visibility and celebration have their roots in the earliest candle-lighters in their East Side tenements.
On a more factual note about Chanukah; David Brooks of the New York Times wrote: “Hanukkah is the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today. It’s a holiday that accurately reflects how politics is, how history is, how life is.” He goes into the full story in his 2009 article here, outlining the real complexity of Chanukah.