About Corazon

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Festival of Lights, Part V: The Washington/Hanukkah Story

As I have mentioned in previous postings, colonial society had a very different take on the celebration of Christmas. For various reasons, Christmas was not held in the same regard as it currently is in American society. In fact, the first 68 years of American government saw Congress gathered and busy at work on the 25th of December. Many early American religions even refused to celebrate the holiday, considering it more of a pagan celebration than a Christian one.

And while Christianity was certainly the predominant religion of Early colonial America, it was not the exclusive faith of the New World. We know that literally thousands of immigrants from Europe carried a vast assortment of religious practices with them to the American colonies, creating a veritable cornucopia of religious beliefs. One of the many groups that is often forgotten are the colonial Jews. Though far from a majority, the Jewish population was spread throughout colonial New England. What is most remarkable about the Jewish population was their devotion to the ideals of the American Revolution. Many of them embraced John Winthrop's preaching that America was to be "a city on a hill." For them, America's quest for independence was reminiscent of David's quest to establish Jerusalem.

A small number of Jewish soldiers fought in the revolution with the Continental Army. In fact, rumor has it (though the rumor is based on zero evidence and is mostly a fable) that General George Washington first learned of Hanukkah while at Valley Forge. The rumor states that General Washington was intrigued by a private's odd looking candlestick. Upon questioning the private, Washington learned of the Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah. Allegedly the solder recounted to the General the history of Hanukkah, and how the holiday commemorated the victory of the Jews over a superior tyrannical force. As the legend goes, Washington then thanks the private by responding, "Perhaps we are not as lost as our enemies would have us believe. I rejoice in the Macabees' success, though it is long past...It pleases me to think that miracles still happen."

Washington is said to have been so impressed that he later paid this same private a visit after the war. The name of the solder, though virtually impossible to prove, has also become a topic of debate among historians. In fact, the whole Hanukkah tale itself has attracted both supporters and skeptics, each hoping to prove -- or disprove -- the validity of Washington's first encounter with Hanukkah. As for the evidence, the only actual mentioning of this tale comes from the diary of one Michael Hart -- no relation to me -- and his daughter, Louisa. Allegedly, both Hart and his daughter recorded in their diaries the story of their meeting with General Washington in 1778. It was at this meeting that General Washington supposedly told the Hart's of his recent learning of the Hanukkah story. Hart, who was a prominent Jewish merchant, recorded that the General visited his home in Easton, Pennsylvania during the middle part of the Hanukkah celebration. The book, Jews on the Frontier: An Account of Jewish Pioneers and Settlers in Early America, attempts to provide some evidence (though later proved to be falsified evidence) of the alleged visit:
"It was at his [Michael Hart’s] house that Washington accepted an invitation to lunch while tarrying for a few hours in the town. The late Miss Louisa B. Hart, his daughter, thus proudly records the event in her diary: “Let it be remembered that Michael Hart was a Jew, practically, pious, a Jew reverencing and strictly observant of the Sabbath and Festivals; dietary laws were also adhered to, although he was compelled to be his own Shochet. Mark well that he, Washington, the then honored as first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, even during a short sojourn became for the hour the guest of the worthy Jew."
And while this account was later proved to be a complete fraud (the alleged Hart diaries don't even exist and Lovisa Hart wasn't even born) the Valley Forge Hanukkah story does at least fit with the character of America's first Commander-in-Chief as being a man of sincere religious tolerance. In a letter to a Tench Tilghman, Washington states that he has no problem with the religion -- or lack of religion -- of a group of tradesmen that he hoped to employ. Washington writes:
Dear Sir: I am informed that a Ship with Palatines is gone up to Baltimore, among whom are a number of Trademen. I am a good deal in want of a House Joiner and Bricklayer, (who really understand their profession) and you would do me a favor by purchasing one of each, for me. I would not confine you to Palatines. If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews or Christian of any Sect, or they may be Athiests [my emphasis].
And in a letter to the Swedenborgians, Washington again reveals his tolerance for a diverse form of religious beliefs:
We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened Age & in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man's religious tenets, will not forfeit his protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining & holding the highest offices that are known in the United States [my emphasis].
Yes, America's first Commander-in-Chief cared very little about the orthodoxy/"heresy" of his fellow citizens...including the Jews during Hanukkah!

No comments: