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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Monday, February 05, 2007

The Legend of Hanukkah at Valley Forge

Last year Dutton published a picture book titled Hanukkah at Valley Forge, by Lexington author Stephen Krensky and illustrator Greg Harlin. It tells the story of the Maccabees’ rebellion against the Roman Empire alongside a story of George Washington hearing that tale in the winter of 1777-78, as his own rebellion was at a difficult point. The book has won the 2007 Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Younger Readers category from the Association of Jewish Libraries.

I heard Krensky speak about this book at the Foundation for Children's Books before its publication. He acknowledged that the historical documentation for the tale is iffy, but thought it was too good to ignore.

In the back of the book itself, Krensky summarized the historical basis for his Valley Forge tale with this note:

This story of George Washington and Hanukkah is based on facts, but the tale itself must be taken on faith. It is known that in December 1778, Washington had lunch at the home of Michael Hart, a Jewish merchant in Easton, Pennsylvania (cited in Jacob Rader Marcus’s United States Jewry 1776-1985). It was in the middle of Hanukkah, and when Hart began to explain the holiday to the general, Washington replied that he knew it already. He then told the merchant and his family of meeting the Polish soldier at Valley Forge the year before. It was Hart's stepdaughter Louisa who reportedly committed the story to her diary (which was later recounted in Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman’s Jews on the Frontier).
I’ve looked up both of those sources, and think the evidence for this story is even weaker than Krensky’s note acknowledges.

J. R. Marcus’s United States Jewry is a four-volume history published by Wayne State University Press in 1989. The first volume mentions the Hart family on page 562:
Van Buren had a number of Jewish admirers, among them Samuel Hart, of Philadelphia, brother of the well-known communal worker Louisa B. Hart; their father, Michael Hart, the Easton pioneer, had once entertained Washington as he passed through town.
Marcus doesn’t state that “in December 1778, Washington had lunch at the home of Michael Hart,” as Krensky implies. United States Jewry attaches no date to the general’s encounter with the Hart family. In that regard Marcus follows his source for the remark about Washington: “A Memoir of Louisa B. Hart with Extracts from the Diary and Letters,” published in the weekly newspaper The Jewish Record, 11 Oct 1878–3 Jan 1879.

And is that source reliable? A little research reveals that Louisa Hart never saw George Washington at her father’s house. She was born in 1803 to Michael Hart’s second wife, and Washington died in 1799. Louisa Hart therefore relied on secondhand information for whatever she wrote about Washington.

I haven’t seen the original publication of Hart’s writings, which came four years after her death, but I’ve gotten as close as Isaac Markens’s The Hebrews in America, published in 1888. It says:
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.”
Six years later, Henry S. Morais wrote in The Jews of Philadelphia:
Of Michael Hart, the father, it is said that on a certain occasion Washington lunched with him. The fact is thus recorded in Miss Louisa B. Hart’s “Diary”: [Morais quotes the same passage with slight differences in punctuation and a definition of Shochet as “(he who slaughters animals for Jews’ food).”] . . . Miss Hart afterwards preserved, with care, the chair then occupied by Washington at her father’s house, and the Rev. Dr. Morais [presumably Sabato Morais (1823-1897), and most likely a relative of the author] remembers distinctly having seen this at the lady’s residence.
The same two sentences by Louisa B. Hart were also quoted in Simon Wolf’s American Jew as a Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen, published in 1895. (All these texts are available through Google Book.)

None of these four historians—Marcus, Markens, Morais, and Wolf—quoted Hart on any other detail about the Washington visit, such as the year of the event and whether it coincided with Hanukkah. That strongly implies that Hart didn’t record any information of that sort. Washington traveled through Pennsylvania many times in his life, not just in 1778, so we mustn’t assume.

Citing Hart’s “diary” carries the implication that she recorded her family’s encounter with Washington shortly after it happened, and for a private audience rather than the public. But Hart wrote decades later. And it seems odd to see “Let it be remembered” and “Mark well” in a private diary; those are phrases addressed to an audience. Hart’s writings were titled “Extracts from the Diary and Letters,” and Morais put quotes around the word “Diary” to signal it was an abbreviation for that long title. I suspect that the quoted passage comes from one of Hart’s letters or prepared talks, and would have to be evaluated in that context. In any event, it has nothing to say about Valley Forge or Hanukkah, so for the main source we must look elsewhere.

TOMORROW: Examining Krensky’s other cited source, Jews on the Frontier.

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