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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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Washington’s Hanukkah: An Oral Tradition

In his recent picture book Hanukkah at Valley Forge, Stephen Krensky gives a main source for his story of Gen. George Washington learning about that Jewish festival, and that book in turn cites as its main source a rabbi’s sermon from 1955. Then, as I discussed yesterday, the trail goes cold.

But Rabbi David Hollander isn’t the only person who’s talked or written about Washington meeting a Jewish soldier at Valley Forge. The web has captured several other examples—so many, in fact, that it’s possible to triangulate among those versions to find the details they share, which hint at a common source. I think that internal evidence points to an oral tradition that started sometime in the mid-2oth century and then spread among rabbis and Jewish writers, details changing along the way.

I suspect I. Harold Sharfman, author of Jews on the Frontier (1977) picked up this tradition and researched hard to squeeze the tale into documented facts about Washington. In Joshua Trachtenberg’s history of Jews in Easton, Pennsylvania, he found a family that claimed a visit from the general. By writing his account around the Hart family, Sharfman melded documented facts about their home, their unconfirmable family tradition, and the too-good-to-pass-by tale of a soldier at Valley Forge. In his notes he even suggested a candidate for that Jewish soldier, presumably a name off Continental Army rolls: “That soldier may have been Private Asher Pollock of the Second Rhode Island Battalion.”

Some versions on the web are Sharfman’s account in simplified form, such as this story by Rabbi Dan Grossman from 1998. Ronald Gerson’s newspaper column even states that the soldier was definitely Pvt. Pollock. They almost certainly derive in some fashion from Jews on the Frontier.

However, other versions describe a similar conversation between Gen. Washington and a Jewish private from Poland, even including similar phrases, but differ with Sharfman’s in significant ways. It seems implausible that these other writers would have read Jews on the Frontier and then neglected the specific details that make its account seem credible. Therefore, I think Sharfman’s tale and those others derive from a common ancestor.

All the tales start with Gen. Washington startling a Jewish soldier from Poland by asking why he is crying. The soldier predicts success for the Continental Army. That impresses the general because, he says, the Jewish man descends from the Biblical prophets. Washington asks about the private’s odd candlestick and learns about Hanukkah. Some versions (but not Sharfman’s) end with a motif common in Washington legends: the general makes a surprise return visit after the war.

Versions differ markedly on the name of the private and the date of his meetings with Washington. And none matches Sharfman’s in making sure the story is in accord with easily confirmed historical facts.

For example, at some point Rabbi Yehuda Mandelcorn left an account written in the voice of the private, whom he named as Jeremiah Greenman. That account (which ends, “This is a true story”) says Washington met Greenman at Valley Forge in 1775 and then revisited him as President in 1776. Washington and his army first camped in Valley Forge in 1777-78. Washington became President in 1789.

In 2000 Rabbi Shmuel Choueka told the story without naming the private. He said Washington’s visited the man again “on Broome Street in New York” during Hanukkah in 1778. New York was occupied by the British military from late 1776 to 1783.

Another version also mentions Broome Street, leaving out dates and names, and adds a medal for the soldier because of his actions at “the Battle of Valley Forge” in 1776. There was never fighting at Valley Forge; it was a winter encampment.

Linda Spitzer’s retelling of a version from Time for My Soul, by Annette and Eugene Labovitz (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1987), offers another first-person account, this time in the voice of a soldier named “Jacob Lipinsky.” He receives a “Medal of Honor” from Gen. Washington, and celebrates by dancing the hora. The Medal of Honor was created during the U.S. Civil War, and the hora is a Romanian folk dance popularized in Israeli kibbutzim in the mid-1900s.

In 2005, “chava” told USHistory.org:

I am looking for information regarding catain isaac israel.he was at valley forge and legend has it that his lighting of a chanukah menorah there led to a conversation that encouraged washington not to surrender. i have found that he did exsist and was there but i can fond no official recor of his menorah or the medalion washington suposedly gave him after the war.
So clearly there’s another version circulating linked to the name “Capt. Isaac Israel.”

Someone at the Harbor Unitarian Universalist Church reported finding the story in a book titled Jewish Holidays and Festivals. (It doesn’t appear in the book of that name by Ben M. Edidin, but might be in the one by Isidor Margolis, Sidney L. Markowitz, and John Teppich, or yet another by Deborah Ross.) The Jewish Legends website reports that similar stories appear in Rabbi Dov Brezak’s Chinuch in Turbulent Times (2002) and Zev Roth’s Monsey-Kiryat Sefer Express (2000).

Not all these writers claim that the story, or every detail they describe, is historically accurate. Regardless, the story clearly has meaning for all the people who have heard it and passed it on. That meaning resides in the details that change little from one telling to the next:
  • a Polish Jew fleeing oppression and finding it in the U.S. of A.
  • the inspirational power of the Hanukkah story
  • Washington’s respect for and debt to Jewish support
  • perhaps an emphasis on the Jewish prophetic tradition
Forging a link to Washington has been a common way for Americans—whether individuals, families, or ethnic groups; whether excluded or politically ambitious—to set themselves squarely within our national heritage. Louisa B. Hart was far from the only nineteenth-century figure to report that Washington had honored her ancestors with a visit (see the descendants of Betsy Ross, Sybil Ludington, John Honyman, &c.). The Christian parson Mason Weems made unsubstantiated claims about Washington praying at Valley Forge (as shown in the popular print above) well over a hundred years before this Hanukkah tradition appeared. Telling myths about George Washington is as American as Washington himself.

I think the Valley Forge Hanukkah tales started to circulate in the 1900s because they reflect the experiences of recent American Jews, not those of the eighteenth century or even Louisa Hart’s time. Polish Jews didn’t seek refuge in America in large numbers until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hanukkah wasn’t that big a deal in Judaism until twentieth-century American Jews developed a gift-giving holiday to match Christmas. The tale of Hanukkah at Valley Forge takes familiar aspects of recent American Judaism—Polish refugee, menorah—and plants them at the nation’s founding. No wonder the story has spread so widely.

TOMORROW: Does a factual gloss make fiction more appealing?

2 comments:

J. L. Bell said...

Al Young reminds me that Jeremiah Greenman was a real Continental Army soldier who camped at Valley Forge. His diary has been published. It does not, however, contain any remarks about Hanukkah, however that is spelled. And his known life doesn't match any of the details of the Hanukkah tales told about him: Jewish refugee from Poland, settled in New York, &c. I suspect someone chose him to hang this story on because his name sounded plausibly Jewish—by twentieth-century standards.

Anonymous said...

Whatever the authenticity of the story many be, Jeremiah Greenman was definitely not Jewish. Asher Pollock was probably Issachar Pollock of Newport (Jr. or Sr.?). Enlistment records show that he was 52, 5' 5" tall, a tallow chandler; born in London, resident in Newport with black hair and a dark complexion. He enlisted 16 April 1777 for the War. This is interesting as many Jews in Newport, including Myer Pollock, were Loyalists.