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American Inventions - Game 5, Cincinnati

עבור בולס!

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For each game this basketball season, we're highlighting an invention from each city in the American Athletic Conference. So far we've seen Federal Express, the Astrodome, the Liberty Bell, and the Neiman-Marcus catalog. Today, we highlight an invention from Cincinnati -- one that might surprise you.

It's well known that Cincinnati has a strong German heritage, from early 19th century immigration. What's less well known is that many of those Germans were German Jews, escaping repression in Europe. Cincinnati thus became a major center of Reform Judaism.

From the all-American city would spring Manischewitz, makers of kosher foods; Bloch Publishing, one of the longest-running family businesses in the U.S.; and a University of Cincinnati basketball recruit named Sandy Koufax, who famously refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it was Yom Kippur.

Also having roots in Cincinnati was rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a towering figure in American Judaism. He was incredibly progressive: sermons in English or German; mixed-gender choirs; greater integration with American society, and so forth. He once served non-Kosher food at a seminary graduation banquet, an act so outrageous it contributed to a major schism in Judaism.

After a nasty split with his Albany, New York congregation -- involving a fistfight with the synagogue president, and/or being fired by his congregation -- Wise moved to Cincinnati in 1854. One of his first acts was to launch the American Israelite, a weekly Jewish newspaper which still publishes today. It plays an important role in the story of today's invention.

After the American Civil War, the holiday of Christmas started to become what it is today. (If you need a reminder, re-read that Neiman-Marcus catalog story.) Americans had new-found wealth, new mobility, and a yearning for sentimentality in an age of industrialization and upheaval. So gift-giving, decoration, and family time began to take on more of a role in the celebration of Christ's birth.

Meanwhile in Cincinnati, Isaac Mayer Wise and like-minded rabbi Max Lilienthal wanted their congregation to participate more in mainstream America. They also noticed the children didn't have much of a connection to the synagogue, and wanted to create an event especially for them. And those kids were getting a raw deal on the gift-getting aspect of the holiday season. But they couldn't get on board with Christmas, for obvious reasons. What did they do?

They invented Hanukkah.

Of course, they didn't really invent Hanukkah. It was long an event on the Hebrew calendar, commemorating the dedication of the Second Temple around 165 A.D, and the well-known story of the lamp that burned for eight days with only one day's worth of oil. Hanukkah was not historically a bacchanal of gift-giving, parallel to the American version of Christmas. (Check this entry in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia. There's no mention of gift-giving or dreidels, but there are alternate rituals and origins for the occasion.)

And the good rabbis weren't afraid to call their re-purposed holiday what it was. "Our children shall have a grand and glorious Hanukkah festival as nice as any Christmas festival," Lilienthal said. An 1870 editorial by Wise was titled, simply, "American Jewish Response to Christmas." The two began hosting Hanukkah celebrations at the local synagogue, which included pageants, feasts, and of course, gifts for the children. When this proved popular, Lilienthal and Wise began promoting the idea in Wise's American Israelite newspaper. It began to spread around the country.

The years after that (1880-1920) saw about 2 million more European Jews emigrate to America. For the most part, they embraced this old-and-new custom. It allowed them to be part of American society, while also honoring their Jewish heritage, just as Wise and Lilienthal envisioned.

It must be said that some Jews are ambivalent about Hanukkah, or even think it has been misappropriated. But however one feels about Hanukkah, the holiday as we know it in America unquestionably has roots in Cincinnati.

(For further reading, see Hanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton, or NPR's story on the book here.)