Chanukah: Always a Celebration in Atlanta

Chanukah: Always a Celebration in Atlanta

Rabbi David Geffen reflects on Chanukah in 1930s Atlanta.

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

Rabbi David Geffen is a former Atlantan and longtime Israeli.
Rabbi David Geffen is a former Atlantan and longtime Israeli.

As Atlanta Jewry approached Thanksgiving in the 1930s, a holiday which they enjoyed very much, the rabbis and educators in the city began thinking about Chanukah. True, there had been a depression in the early 30s, but now people had a little more money. They wanted their children to enjoy Chanukah just a little bit more.

In this era, Chanukah has become the holiday of might. We remember the warrior, Bar Kokhba. We remember the Maccabees fighting to free themselves from the Hellenists. We recall the Jews in Warsaw ghetto, who fought bravely. We honor the memory of the 550,000 Jews who fought in the U.S. Army and a similar number who fought in the Red Army. We sometimes forget that a million Jews fought in World War II. Those people did their best to defeat and destroy Hitler and the Nazi hordes.

In 1933, the students of the Shearith Israel Sunday Hebrew School were heard all over the south when they sang Chanukah songs in Hebrew and English on WSB radio. That was a first for broadcasting in Atlanta and in the South.

A regular column in the Southern Israelite was “Mr. World Talks to the Children.” The author was Florence Rothschild who syndicated these regular features from New York. In 1934, two weeks before Chanukah, she wrote, “No doubt all of you are very busy these days preparing the last of your Chanukah presents, helping mother polish up the Chanukah lamp and hunting for the dreidels you played with last year at this time.”

Mr. World wanted the Jewish children in Atlanta to be reminded about the history of the holiday. In the Sunday schools, Hebrew schools, Arbeiterin shule (Yiddish) and at the Jewish Educational Alliance, there were rabbis and educators teaching all about the holiday. However, not all the city’s 750 Jewish children were enrolled in these Jewish institutions.

The late Professor David Macarov reminded the community constantly that “the Zionists and pioneers in Palestine were the Maccabees of today.”

Mr. World’s lesson followed along traditional lines. “There are the heroic Maccabees, the five sons of Mattathias. Under the leadership of the eldest brother, Judas, they rebelled against the Syrian tyrant, and after many hard-fought battles, succeeded in driving out the Syrians and purifying the Temple.” Our ancestors were fighters. Most Atlanta children may have seen prize-fighters like Max Baer, but the veterans of World War I were basically forgotten.

A feminist even back then, Mr. World said, “Wouldn’t want the girls among you to feel that the boys can crow over you because the hero of this holiday is a man. For Chanukah has a heroine too, the martyr Hannah, who preferred to see her seven children killed before her very eyes rather than renounce Judaism.” Mr. World also provided contests in which to participate with students all over the USA. I read that Ozna Tontack was a winner one year and another year my aunt, Annette Geffen Raskas, won. Lighting the candles, spinning the dreidels, singing Maoz Tzur and even Handel’s oratorio, “Judas Maccabaeus,” were discussed.

The description of Chanukah in Atlanta in 1937 provides us with a feeling of joy deeply experienced in those years before the fighting of War World II began. “Because of Chanukah’s early bow this year, visitors who came to the city for Thanksgiving holidays are remaining over the weekend and many are the attending parties and private affairs which will fête the guests of Atlanta.” The American holiday and the Jewish holiday joined together back then. You may recall how that happened a few years ago.

After adult parties came the events for the younger set. “A number of children’s parties are scheduled for the Chanukah holidays giving the very young set an opportunity for social versatility. The Jewish Educational Alliance Chanukah party will be an outstanding event.” As the author of this piece noted “these Chanukah events will crown a week that promises an abundance of gaiety.”

In 1937, the most exciting event, which was in its fifth year, was the Chanukah Ball of Congregation Or VeShalom, organized and directed by the Nessah Israel Sisterhood. The Ball was held at the Ansley Hotel, which stamped it as a most significant event. Members of the other synagogues and the Arbeiterin Yiddish organization made it a point to attend.

The year of 1940 had a number of elements to it. David Ben Gurion was at a Zionist conference in New York working toward a Jewish state.

When he spoke, he said “100,000 American Jewish youth should come to Palestine.” They would not only feel the impact of the country, but would help the pioneers till the land and also learn Hebrew. As you can imagine, it did not happen. His speech came just before Chanukah, so it did make some impact. Rabbi Harry Epstein was the only person in Atlanta who had lived in Palestine, but there is no evidence of an AA (Ahavath Achim Synagogue) member making aliyah then.

Two of the oldest Atlantans I know both celebrated Chanukah at home and at Shearith Israel in the 1930s. I am not sure as to whether they sang on the radio. They are Esther Sloan Lewyn and Malcolm Minsk. Sure, there are others alive who celebrated at the AA, Or VeShalom, and the Temple. Please notify me since I am developing a list.

For Chanukah in 1940, Mrs. Nathan Maziar (z”l), Harry’s mother, was the president of the Shearith Israel Sisterhood. A Chanukah Fair was planned by the women to be held at the synagogue building on Washington Street on Dec. 29, 1940. “There was a small admission charged (think it was a dime).” From 4 to 8 the synagogue was filled with fun and many, many booths. One of the most interesting was a simulated trip to Palestine by ship and that was followed by what could be done there. The Tushia Bible Class lit the candles. Here are a few lines from a poem that was read:

“We are G-d’s candles

May our light shine brightly and true

And light the way

To liberty for Gentile and Jew.”

The Chanukah issue of the Southern Israelite magazine published each month was filled with the most important stories and the most fascinating ads. Most of them carried a line such as “Chanukah Greetings.” In December 1940, one ad by a Jewish concern, “Muse’s,” truly left its impact.

“Chanukah 1940 and the touch of fashion.” The major text read:

“The fashion pendulum swings to Muse’s where the major touch of fashion meets the eye. Picturesque and refreshing is the selection ‘for him or her,’ refreshing labels that hang by more than a thread.”

A large Chanukah menorah welcomed everyone as they entered the Jewish Educational Alliance on Capitol Avenue. There since 1911, the Alliance had been the center of the Jewish community. The Marcus Jewish Community Center continues that tradition in this modern era.

May each of you have a “Joyous Chanukah – Chanukah Sameach.”

Rabbi David Geffen is a former Atlantan and Conservative rabbi living in Jerusalem.

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