Hanukkah in the Library’s Collections: Celebrating Freedom, Light and Latkes

An old fashioned family Hanukkah celebration. Image from a calendar created by artist Arthur Szyk, 1950.

Hanukkah scene. Artist Arthur Szyk, 1950. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

This year, Hanukkah runs from December 18th to 26th. The winter festival of lights celebrates the 2nd century B.C. victory of the Jewish Maccabees over the Greco-Syrian King Antiochus and his forces. When the Jews sought to rededicate the temple in Jerusalem, the remaining one day’s supply of sacred oil miraculously lasted for a full eight days. This post looks at the history of Hanukkah celebrations in the United States and shares some recipes suitable for the season.

Hanukkah is such a well-established tradition in the United States today that it may be surprising to learn that it was only in the later 19th century that it became a widely observed Jewish holiday. The history of Hanukkah is well documented in Library collections. Chronicling America, an extensive collection of historic newspapers, includes several Jewish papers printed in America from the late 1800s. The earliest press mentions of the holiday seem to date from then too, around the time that it began to assume greater importance in American life. Newspapers ran stories that informed a wider audience about Hanukkah, such as these similar pieces published in New York and Nashville in 1869. In 1874 a description of Hanukkah services appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune. Articles like these from 1875, and 1907 outlined the origins and message of Hanukkah. Displeasure with how some were celebrating the holiday is evident in this column from 1879.

Image showing a 20th century solider holding a menorah, with a Maccabee in the background,from the Southern Jewish Weekly, December 12, 1941.

“The Light of Courage”.  Southern Jewish Weekly, December 12, 1941.

Naturally, newspaper accounts reflected the times in which they were written. In December 1941, mere days after the United States entered the Second World War, the Southern Jewish Weekly devoted a full page to parallels between “Modern Maccabeans” and their ancient predecessors. The article included excerpts from a 1912 speech by Louis Brandeis, and the image of a 20th century soldier brandishing a menorah (see image, left) to reinforce the comparison. In 1945, Hanukkah was from November 30th to December 7th. That year’s articles, penned in the immediate aftermath of the horrors of World War II, are particularly moving. This piece takes a hard look at the realities of the situation during Hanukkah for Jewish populations in Europe and elsewhere. One column noted efforts to ship Hanukkah candles to liberated concentration camps; another credits the holiday with cementing Jewish “pride and reassurance” and as central to the efforts to establish a Jewish homeland. The Hanukkah story’s emphasis on freedom remained a recurring theme, as this December 1961 issue of the Arizona Post clearly stated.

If you celebrate Hanukkah, latkes (potato pancakes) probably play a central role in your festivities at least once over the eight days. It’s traditional to eat these fried delicacies to acknowledge the miracle of the long-lasting temple oil. You may already have a favorite recipe, but why not try some variations from Library collections?  Again, Chronicling America is a veritable goldmine; here are just a few of the many resources to be found. This article from 1955 likens a good latke maker to Leonardo Da Vinci. Some recipes came with helpful cooking tips, such as the best fat for frying. As an alternative from the traditional potato latke, one article suggested a buckwheat version or cheese pancakes. Ones made with apples and with sour cream were other options.

There was plenty of press coverage of Hanukkah parties and expression of good wishes, as in these pages from 1950 and 1953. If you preferred to celebrate at home, there was advice on how to do that, ranging from holding a traditional latke party to the “Latke and Cocktail party” (presumably for adults only!) suggested in a 1960 Lil’s Letter column in the Phoenix Jewish News. In 1962, the same author provided a latke recipe and described an interfaith synagogue tea held to explain the holiday and its significance in the fight for religious freedom.

Additional Resources

Explore these Library resources for more about Hanukkah:


Transcript: TEXT

  • Dianne Ashton’s talk begins at 22:40
  • The stages of Hanukkah becoming a major holiday (23:18)
  • A new hymn reshapes Chanukah (27:30)
  • Rabbi Max Lilienthal and Hanukkah’s growing prominence (32:14)
  • The role of women (36:38) and the introduction of Hanukkah cards (38:09)
  • Hanukkah’s meaning for American Jews and for Judaism (42:09)

The history of Hanukkah reminds us how struggles for freedom resonate through the ages. But it’s also a time of lights, games and laughter, supplemented by good food and fellowship. Happy holidays – and may your latkes be neither grey nor soggy!

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