Transformation of the Hanukkah Tradition

With a lookout posted outside to watch for SS guards, prisoners at the Buchenwald concentration camp lay in crowded beds in their dark barracks and sang quietly to celebrate Hanukkah in 1938.

Former inmate Walter Schnell of Reseda says the defiant singing was all the prisoners at the wintry, mountain camp could manage to commemorate the traditional eight-day Jewish festival, but it cheered them.

"Even if we were not especially religious, we knew that this was a tradition," said Schnell, 82. "It had significance for me. It was something I will never forget. It was so important and so dangerous."

Made His Way to America

Released from Buchenwald shortly afterward when his mother bribed officials to obtain a visa for him to emigrate to Shanghai, Schnell made his way to America in 1947. When Hanukkah starts at sundown tonight, he will remember that grim time in Buchenwald and he will take part in that traditional holiday again at the Jewish Homes for the Aging of Greater Los Angeles, where he now lives. He will pray, light candles, sing, eat potato pancakes called latkes and give visiting children small amounts of coins called Hanukkah gelt .

But Schnell, along with many other Jews, notes changes in the American celebration of the holiday, which commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BC after a three-year war for religious freedom by the forces of Judah Maccabee against Syrian occupiers.

Experts say the changes are caused largely by Christmas and yet are interwoven with major modern events such as the growth of television and the birth of the state of Israel.

As a result, Jews give more gifts than ever, often to children every night of the eight-day holiday. They exchange more Hanukkah cards than ever and buy more streamers and other Hanukkah decorations for their homes and synagogues.

Most experts say that although Hanukkah is unrelated to Christmas, the celebration of Christmas at the same time of year is largely reponsible for changes in the Jewish holiday.

"It's something people need to reinforce their Jewish identity at a time of year that's very difficult for adults as well as children," said Sara Lee, the director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. "They're a minority in a majority culture that's suffused with holiday decorations, gifts, celebrations and parties.

"What happens," Lee said, "is that suddenly you're decorating your house with all kinds of streamers and artifacts. You're doing that for a Jewish kid who is so attracted to Christmas so that he or she also has a holiday which is bright and cheery and fun.

"The other thing is this proliferation of giving gifts, which is really a change from the notion of giving Hanukkah gelt . That also makes the kid feel better."

Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel-Air says the coming of television changed Hanukkah in America shortly after World War II.

"Only the really observant families celebrated Hanukkah, and there was always a question of it being overpowered by Christmas," he said. "But that was before the days of television, and Christmas was in the street and in the shopping center, but it wasn't in your home.

"With the advent of TV, Christmas penetrated the Jewish household. Almost in self-defense, Jews then began to enlarge the scope of the holiday and if there were to be Christmas decorations, there were to be Hanukkah decorations.

Increased Pride, Interest

"The next thing you knew, greeting cards were exchanged. Now . . . instead of giving children one present they were given one present a night, so they received eight."

Simultaneous with the growth of television in America, the birth of Israel in 1948 increased pride and interest in the holiday, said Bea Chankin, early childhood consultant at Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Van Nuys.

"Hanukkah was talking about the rights of Jews and every other people for self-determination and the birth of Israel seemed to be about the same issue," Chankin said. "I think that (Israel's emergence) reached out and touched Jewish people all over the world in a very positive way."

Modern Jews seeking an ancient parallel with the birth of Israel found a guerrilla war led in Judea more than 2,000 years ago by Judah Maccabee, whose tactical skill overcame regular armies of superior force. Maccabee marked his triumph by declaring that every year at the same date Jews would celebrate Hanukkah for eight days.

Some teachers explain the holiday by saying that after the victory, the Jews found only one jar of undefiled oil in the temple, which should have lasted one day but miraculously burned for eight. Even today Jews fry traditional potato pancakes in oil to commemorate that event.

But whether the holiday is explained as a struggle for religious rights or as the commemoration of a miracle, people are celebrating in a different way.

"People committed to Judaism and comfortable with it are doing more with presents and decorations than people 30 years ago who had the same identity and comfort," Chankin said. That change is seen at many spots in and out of Los Angeles.

At Solomon's bookstore on Fairfax Avenue last week, a bright banner saying "Happy Hanukkah" hung in the window as a stream of customers bought Hanukkah decorations.

Nathan Solomon, one of the proprietors of the 50-year-old business, says clients buy decorations in big volume. "They make the holiday more of a rejoicing," he said. "There's so many decorations that never used to be 20 or 30 years ago."

Wearing a traditional Jewish skullcap, Solomon pointed out paper menorahs, paper dreidels (tops) and ribbons, streamers, plates, napkins and tablecloths with Hanukkah symbols.

At her Westwood Toyorama store, owner Marion Levenson noted a proliferation in Hanukkah gift wrapping over the last 25 years.

"Twenty-five years ago a customer would come in and they wanted it wrapped for Hanukkah but they didn't know how to ask. They'd say, 'Do you have any blue paper?' Eventually we got blue paper and then Hanukkah paper.

"It's standard now. Even the synagogues and temples have gift shops where it's availble," said Levenson, whose sales people offer gift wrapping for Christmas or Hanukkah at three Toyorama stores.

A spokesman for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo., said the company started making Hanukkah gift wrapping in 1981 to take advantage of a growing holiday gift market.

Rachel Bolton also said that the company has experienced a big increase in Hanukkah card sales since it began printing them in the 1920s. Sales jumped from about 8 million in 1980 to about 11.5 million in 1986 and will reach a projected 12 million next year.

Chankin said that no matter how the holiday has changed, it still has an important message to teach.

"When I was growing up, very little was done to celebrate Hanukkah," she said. "You lit the little candles and you had a small party and sang a few songs and ate potato pancakes. But in the scheme of the whole year of Jewish theology, it didn't rank too high and now it certainly does.

"It's an opportunity to remember our history and have pride in who you are. . . . I think the world still needs Hanukkah because what we're saying is that no individual or king has the right to say you need to do it my way. Every nation has the right to its own ethics or values and we still live in a world where a lot of people don't believe that."

Remembering the quiet Buchenwald celebration with 500 other prisoners in his barracks, Schnell would agree.

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