Bookworm: The Trip of a Lifetime and the history of Hanukkah

“Death, American Style”

By Lawrence R. Samuel

c.2013, Rowman & Littlefield

$40.00/$44.50 Canada

189 pages

No tickets required.

“Hanukkah in America: A History”

By Dianne Ashton

c.2013, New York University Press $29.95 / higher in Canada

343 pages

“Death, American Style”

By Lawrence R. Samuel

c.2013, Rowman & Littlefield

$40.00/$44.50 Canada

189 pages

No tickets required.

Photo with no caption
Photo with no caption

No standing in lines, either, when you take your final trip. You won’t tote luggage, fret about transportation, lose a reservation, miss a connection, or endure a pat-down. It might be, in fact, the Trip of a Lifetime.

Or Deathtime, as in the case of that last monumental voyage.

Does that frighten you, or are you intrigued? Curious or repelled? Your attitude may come from the outlook surrounding you, as you’ll see in “Death, American Style” by Lawrence R. Samuel.

In the years immediately following World War I, Americans were reeling. Not only was there a “sheer volume of people” dead from battle, but the 1918 influenza epidemic also claimed many victims. Americans thought hard about death and reached for spiritualists, who purported to communicate with the newly deceased.

By the 1930s, researchers had an inkling that maybe death wasn’t “necessary.” Alas, according to one nurse of the era, people continued to expire and they all “died the same, more or less”

In the years prior to World War II, although there were marked increases in death by automobile and by home accidents, dying was “a relatively normal, even innocent affair.” During the war, however, parents suddenly realized that they’d “better be prepared to explain death to their children.” Death on “such a massive scalewas itself frightening and potentially scarring to children.”

Post-war modern medicine benefitted by the increasing acceptance of autopsies, the advancement of medical procedures and medicines, and the growing notion that death could be reversed. The timing was fortuitous, at least for research studies: more people died in hospitals than at home in the 1950s.

For some, though, being surrounded by machines didn’t sound like a good way to go, so the notion of natural death began to take hold in the mid-1960s.

And yet, we just can’t get over our squeamishness: death has been, alternately through the past four decades, a taboo subject, a class subject, reason for “deeply philosophical examination,” and “a principal theme in American pop culture.” Today, we’re able to cautiously discuss death, though many “continue to resist their mortality.”

In his introduction, author Lawrence R. Samuel indicates that his intention with this book was not to look at the death industry, but rather at the attitude Americans have towards death itself.

He accomplishes that in “Death, American Style”just not all that well.

Perhaps it’s the length of this book: the “cultural history of dying” is a vast subject; much bigger than the small page count allows here, which leads to an irritating lack of depth. It doesn’t help that Samuel’s first chapter sometimes reads like an overgeneralized synopsis of a dime-store novel, or that some subjects seemed to be brushed aside or are totally missing in the narrative.

To the good, there are nuggets of fascination in this book but they’re pretty scattered and might not be enough to satisfy a truly curious mind. If, in fact, you had plans to go find “Death, American Style,” I’m not so sure it’s worth the trip.

Your neighbor’s house is all alight.

The whole block, in fact, beams with red and green sparklies, flashing icicles, wire reindeer, and inflatable Santas. In comparison, from your window peeks a Hanukkah bush, blinking blue and silver.

Yes, a Hanukkah bush isn’t something your ancestors would have approved of, but the kids love it. And in the new book “Hanukkah in America” by Dianne Ashton, you’ll see why decorations like yours are becoming more common.

Ask your grade-schooler about Hanukkah, and you’ll probably hear a story about Maccabees, a war, the Temple of Jerusalem, and a miracle of lights. It seems like a tale that would lead to enduring celebration but, until relatively recently, Hanukkah was considered a minor holiday

Definitely a minority, the Jewish population in the U.S. at the time of the American Revolution numbered about 2,500 individuals, “less than one-tenth of one percent” of the overall population then. They were, of course, strongly encouraged to marry within their communities but it was an edict that couldn’t be enforced. By the mid-1800s, unions with Christians accounted for nearly thirty percent of Jewish marriages.

As America itself expanded, it became harder and harder for Jewish explorers to follow religious teachings and practices. In the unsettled New World, kosher food was often difficult to find and Jewish communities were widely scattered. Increasingly, traditional Jewish obligations “fell by the wayside.”

That was a big concern to Jewish leaders. Noticing that Christmas was encroaching on the imaginations of Jewish children through an abundance of holly-jolly accoutrements, rabbis seized upon Hanukkah as a way retain little hearts and minds. Parties were organized, plays were performed, and songs were composed specifically for the new holiday with the focus on teaching children about their heritage, enforcing “a strong Jewish identity,” and distracting them from Christmas.

That worked to a point. American Jewish families “tinkered with Hanukkah to make it serve their own needs” It didn’t take long for manufacturers to make greeting cards for holiday sending; or for families to create their own traditions, such as gift-giving beneath a brightly-lit Hanukkah bush.

Thus, “Hanukkah,” says Ashton, “became what people made of it.” And I thought this book was made of a mixture. On one hand, author Dianne Ashton reaches way back into ancient Jewish history to show the roots of the original Hanukkah story, its mythology and its truths. That’s interesting, but it also frequently heads off-topic. It’s also, perhaps, unnecessarily detailed for the average reader.

“Hanukkah in America” really starts to shine, though, when Ashton moves her research closer to its title. Once this story gets to America, we get a ringside seat to the morphing of a culture and the creation of a holiday both of which are irresistible. Get that far, and this is a book that’s hard to put down.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was three years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

© 2013 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 1

MIOCENE (Inactive) writes:

"the roots of the original Hanukkah story, its mythology and its truths"

The myth part is the so-called miracle of the oil. It never happened.

No ghost kept the lamp lit, no ghost spoke to the dictator Moses, no angel Gabriel spoke to an Arab, no religious dissident rose from the dead, and no savior is going to be born of an Hasidic Jew.

Let me put it this way: To all readers of all faiths: Which religion is the TRUE religion? The answer: YOURS! See what I mean?

So you see; the messianic and divine contradictions all add up to a net value of zero.

As of this writing; there is nothing.

All the religious history, the temples, the grand cathedrals, the holy books, the holy wall and the holy cities, the works of all the great theologians and authors past and present;
all of it; all built upon a foundation of hallucination, exaggeration, self-delusion, -and lies.

Yet it does provide the faithful with good psychology and peace-of-mind; so long as you don't wind up on the wrong end of the next persecution.

MIOCENE

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