J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Legend of Hanukkah at Easton

Yesterday I started to examine the historical basis for Stephen Krensky’s recent picture book, Hanukkah at Valley Forge. Of the two sources he cites, one merely states that at an uncertain time George Washington visited the family of Michael Hart in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Krensky’s main source for his Valley Forge tale is therefore I. Harold Sharfman’s Jews on the Frontier (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1977). That book tells the story in detail on pages 65-7. In this posting I’ll quote all its factual statements about the episode along with my commentary.

On December 21, 1778,...General Washington was en route from Valley Forge to an army base in Middlebrook, New Jersey, pausing that day at Easton by the forks of the Delaware, 30 miles north of the capital. His itinerary allowed for luncheon.
Sharfman cites the Fitzgerald edition of Washington’s writings for his itinerary. However, the George Washington Papers online at the Library of Congress report, “Washington reached Middlebrook on December 11.” He issued general orders from that camp on 21 December. “Washington left Middlebrook on December 22, and arrived at Philadelphia that same day.” Looking at a map shows that Easton is many miles off the route from Valley Forge to Middlebrook, or from Middlebrook to Philadelphia. Therefore, it’s impossible for this account’s date to be correct, and unlikely for Washington to have traveled through Easton at all that busy month.

The word “luncheon” would be an anachronism for the eighteenth century. (Neither it nor “lunch” appears in the online edition of Washington’s writings.) In the 1700s, Americans ate “dinner” in the middle of the day and “supper” in the evening. Like other authors before him, Sharfman picked up that word from Louisa B. Hart’s nineteenth-century recollection, and it reflects how she didn’t write from firsthand knowledge.
He [Washington] was welcomed at the home of Corporal Michael Hart, the peacetime Indian trader, now agent of David Franks, who was supplying British prisoners held nearby.

Hart’s house was a two-story stone building on the southeast corner of the public square, directly opposite the courthouse. His general store was on the first floor, his residence on the second. Michael Hart’s wife, Leah, prepared a kosher meal, probably complete with latkes (pancakes) in honor of the Hanukah festival, it being the sixth day of the holiday. Stepdaughter Louisa Hart would proudly record in her diary...
Sharfman then quotes the same two sentences from Louisa B. Hart that appear in Isaac Markens’s The Hebrews in America and other sources I cited yesterday. As I discussed then, it’s not clear to me that Louisa wrote about this event in a diary, she certainly couldn’t have recorded it at the time, and the passage doesn’t seem to mention Hanukkah.

Jews on the Frontier refers to Louisa Hart as Leah Hart’s “stepdaughter” because Leah died, Michael remarried, and Louisa was born to his next wife. Krensky picked up that word in Hanukkah at Valley Forge but erroneously refers to Louisa as Michael Hart’s stepdaughter. As shown by their shared surname, she was his daughter.

One of Sharfman’s sources is Consider the Years: The Story of the Jewish Community at Easton, 1752-1942, by Joshua Trachtenberg, which says that Michael Hart’s father came from Holland. John Adams went through Easton in January 1777 and told his wife Abigail, “Here are some Dutch Jews.” Like most Jews in America at that time, the Harts were culturally Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi, from Eastern Europe. This is significant because latkes are an Ashkenazi dish; even the word is of Slavic origin. A 2001 article in the Jewish Journal stated, “among Sephardic Jews, potato latkes are about as common as Easter eggs.”

Nonetheless, Sharfman slides from saying the meal was “probably complete with latkes” above to stating that the Michael Hart spoke of the dish:
Michael wished the general well in his future campaigns, expressing the hope that he, like the Maccabeans of old, would hammer and level the enemy as symbolized in the flattened pancakes enjoyed on the holiday. He also told of the custom of distributing coins to children to play games of chance. . . .

The commander-in-chief presented the three young Hart sons, the eldest but four years old, with silver coins. These became treasured mementos to the Harts, even as the chair occupied by George Washington became an honored piece of furniture.
The detail of Washington giving coins to the Hart boys appears in Consider the Years, but as far as I can tell the book doesn’t link them to Hanukkah or the tradition of gelt. (I’m working from Google Books’s “snippet views” there.) The chair is mentioned in Morais’s The Jews of Philadelphia, quoted yesterday. I haven’t found any source that says those artifacts still exist; it would be interesting to know if they can be dated to the 1770s.
General Washington told the Harts how the Hanukah festival had inspired him during the previous year, when encamped at Valley forge morale had sunk to its lowest ebb. . . . It was at that period of gloom and despair that a young Jewish private tendered the General a ray of hope.

The soldier had emigrated from Poland, where he and his people suffered misery and degradation, to the new strange America. . . .
Again, very few, if any, Jews from Eastern Europe are documented in America during the Revolution.
It was the night of December 25, 1777. Christmas Day had been observed glumly and after eating their rations the men were bedded down for the night—all except the Jew. In a corner of the drafty wooden shack that served as their barracks, as quietly as possible, he lit his menorah...

It was the night of the 25th day of Kislev on his Hebrew calendar, the first night of Hanukah.
Christmas and the first night of Hanukkah did indeed fall on the same date in 1777.
Suddenly a hand touched his shoulder and a voice asked, “Why do you cry, son?”

Looking up, the soldier saw General Washington himself making the rounds that evening—for it was also Christmas—an aide in the background.

“Actually, I am not crying,” the soldier replied. “I’m praying with tears for your victory.”

“And what is this strange lamp?” asked his commander.

“This is my Hanukah lamp,” and the young man related briefly the ancient story—how long ago a small bedraggled but patriotic army routed a huge and powerful foe.

“You are a Jew, a son of the Prophets and you say we will be victorious?” the general declared, his eyes fixed on the flickering flames of the menorah.

“Yes,” the soldier unhesitatingly replied. “The God of Israel who helped the Maccabeans will help to build here a land of freedom for the oppressed.”

To the Harts, General Washington recalled on his luncheon visit when Hanukah was again celebrated, that the warmth of the glowing candlelight and the words of optimism and courage on that darkest night at Valley Forge uplifted him and gave him the fortitude to fight against all odds for victory.
Sharfman’s account states the exact words of the soldier and Washington. What’s his source for such detail? The notes in Jews on the Frontier say:
This story appeared in a sermon by Rabbi David Hollander of Mount Eden Synagogue, Bronx, New York, in the Tercentenary Year 1955. [A 2003 photo of Rabbi Hollander appears above.] He gave as its source the Hebrew/Israel publication, Dvir, Tel Aviv, 1954, but I have not been able to locate either that episode or its source. It is ascribed to “tradition.”
In other words, Krensky’s main source acknowledged that there’s no contemporary source for its tale of Washington and Hanukkah, or anything close to it. We have a “tradition,” a publication that can’t be found, and a sermon preached over 150 years after the events it described. Sharfman’s historical statements don’t match the record of Washington’s activities, nor the likely details of the Harts’ culture.

TOMORROW: Competing Versions of the Same Legend
ADDENDUM: Considering Consider the Years


Challah Maven said...


I like the post but am wondering about the photo and its connection.

J. L. Bell said...

Clicking on the photo brings one to this 2003 article about Rabbi David Hollander, the man in the picture.

As the last quoted paragraph says, he was I. Harold Sharfman’s source for the Valley Forge story, and thus the oldest traceable source for Stephen Krensky’s picture book.

Sophia Huber said...

What evidence do you have for your claim, on which you base a long argument, that "the Harts were culturally Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi"? "Hart" is undoubtedly an Ashkenazic and not a Sephardic surname. Moreover, a quick search reveals that Michael Hart of Easton, PA was born in 1738 in Germany; this means he was almost certainly Ashkenazic.

J. L. Bell said...

One of the earliest sources on Hart is Morais’s Jews of Philadelphia. It says Hart was “a native of Germany, but, on the maternal side, was descended from an Abarbanel, of Gibraltar.” As stated above, “Consider the Years: The Story of the Jewish Community at Easton, 1752-1942, by Joshua Trachtenberg,…says that Michael Hart’s father came from Holland.” A father from Holland and a mother from a Spanish family suggests that Hart had cultural roots in western Europe, not eastern.

It was common in North America for British colonists to mix up Dutch and German immigrants, as in the “Pennsylvania Dutch.” That could mean Hart’s father was German but mistaken for being from Holland, or Dutch but mistaken for being from Germany. It was also common for names to be spelled in different ways, and to be Anglicized.

This article was posted in 2007, and there are undoubtedly more sources available online now. If someone has uncovered new information about Hart’s ancestry, that would be good to see.