Children from the School of Music play songs in the lobby of 92nd Street Y during Hanukkah in the 1950s
While Hanukkah celebrations in America probably date back over 350 years ago when Jews first came here, they developed a formal flair in the late 19th Century with social clubs in New York. Such as one in 1863 at Irving Hall under the auspices of the Orpheus Club, reported in The New York Times as a “Fancy Ball and Masquerade.”
In 1995, historian Jonathan Sarna published an essay titled “A Great Awakening,” that included the first celebration in the 92nd Street Y’s history (then called the YMHA):
The New York Times reported on this occasion as well and noted: “The throng that assembled in the Academy last evening completely filled the building...The evening’s entertainment included a series of tableaux, interspersed with Hebrew melodies, the whole followed by a ball.”
Of primary significance, for our purposes, was their campaign, carried out in association with the YMHA of New York (founded in 1874), for the “Grand Revival of the Jewish National Holiday of Chanucka,” complete with appropriate pageants and publicity. This was an effort “to rescue this national festival from the oblivion into which it seemed rapidly falling,” and was a direct challenge to Reform Judaism, which had renounced national aspects of Judaism as antithetical to the modern spirit; presumably, the campaign also sought to counteract the evident allure of Christmas. In 1879, the “revival” proved a triumphant success. “Every worker in the cause of a revived Judaism,” one of the organizers wrote, “must have felt the inspiration exuded from the enthusiastic interest evinced by such a mass of Israel’s people.”
That spirit lives on today with our annual Hanukkah Festival, this year on Dec 5, a family favorite and highlight of the season.
For the downtown set, we’re having a Beer + Latke Hanukkah Party on Thursday before Soulfarm and Pharaoh’s Daughter play at 92YTribeca as part of the 6th Annual Sephardic Music Festival.