In 2013, I found myself transported back to the Borscht Belt, except that, instead of the Catskills, I was at a trade show at the Javits Center in Manhattan. Under the bright fluorescent lights, I watched a reunion of sorts transpire among Jewish business owners who make Chanukah gifts, everything from electric menorahs to those Chanukah-themed oven mitts that were used year-round in my childhood home.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but many of my fellow trade show attendees represented an essential slice of American entrepreneurial history that helped commercialize Chanukah as a significant holiday in the U.S.
The history of Chanukah merch in the U.S. dates back to the turn of the twentieth century, when two million Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came to America, the “Goldene Medine” (Golden Country). At the time, the U.S. had a teeming Christmas market — but no Chanukah Judaica market to speak of. The 1920s saw growth in generic Chanukah gifts, something that was mostly propelled by advertisers in Yiddish newspapers. A 1920 Colgate ad from the Forverts, for example, demonstrates how advertisers tried to brand any products as suitable to be gifted for Chanukah, including dental cream for kids and perfume for grownups. This Hanukkah ad interestingly contained the image of a Christmas tree, which was considered at the time a secular symbol of the American holiday season.
These new traditions of Chanukah gift-giving and baking helped Chanukah become more mainstream in the 1920s and 1930s. Dianne Ashton explains how, in the 1940s, rabbis and Jewish women’s organizations encouraged mothers to make decorations for Chanukah and have special Chanukah meals. They wanted to make Chanukah just as appealing to children as Christmas was to their Christian counterparts. It was around this time that the first Chanukah-branded products began to appear on the market, from chocolates to Hallmark greeting cards.
Following the devastation of the Holocaust, the Chanukah marketplace experienced even more growth. According to Ashton, “American Jews sensed that the future of world Jewry depended on them.” This new Jewish American ethos led to the founding of several Judaica wholesalers, many of whom were represented by their second-generation owners at the trade show I attended in Manhattan, decades later.
These early entrepreneurs sought to capitalize on this heightened sense of Jewish identity by bringing more Judaica into American homes. They produced the first modern Chanukah products in bulk, beginning with traditional brass menorahs of the 1940s to musical menorahs of the 1950s to the electric menorahs of the 1960s. Alex Rosenthal, a second-generation business owner of the Judaica wholesaler Rite Lite, explained to me that when his father, Jacob, started the business, he figured that once he’d sold one thousand traditional brass menorahs, he’d saturated the market — but the orders never stopped coming. It turns out, the market for menorahs was larger than he ever imagined.
The Chanukah marketplace continued to grow. By the 1980s, the birth of the millennial generation fueled a market for child-centered items, like stickers and oversized, gelt-filled dreidels. In the 1990s, Judaica wholesalers, through trade shows, successfully earned Chanukah products a spot on the shelves of national department stores. Chanukah tablecloths, electric menorahs, and dreidel cookie cutters have adorned the shelves of national chains for over three decades. This move took Chanukah products nationwide and further elevated the holiday’s prominence in America.
Online shopping contributed to yet another shift in the Hanukkah market. Retail giants such also began to recognize the sales potential of Chanukah-themed apparel.
Which brings us to 2021. This year, Chanukah will continue to look different. But it’s not all bad — given the exponential growth of the Chanukah market, people across the country now have access to Chanukah gifts and apparel for themselves, their children, and even their pets (oy vey!).
Over a century ago, Yiddish ads helped to situate Chanukah as a holiday of American consumption – both literally and figuratively. Yet it was thanks to the creativity of first-generation Jewish wholesalers of the late 1940s who positioned Chanukah to become a menorah-buying — and now, menorah-wearing — holiday in America. Those second-generation Judaica wholesalers may have had their last in-person hurrah at the Javits Center, given that in-person trade shows are likely a relic of the past. And yet, these Chanukah entrepreneurs and their online successors have helped saturate the Chanukah marketplace with both ritual items and humorous apparel — perfect for the video calls and social media holiday moments of the future.