Idaho History

Jewish holidays

The Jewish holiday most familiar to Christians is Hanukkah, which falls this year on the day after Christmas. Compared to other holy days in the Jewish calendar Hanukkah has historic, but relatively little religious significance. The Idaho Statesman over the first century of its publication rarely even mentioned Hanukkah, while regularly noting other Jewish holidays and explaining them in detail.

Hanukkah celebrates a historic event: the revolt of the Jews against Greek efforts to stamp out their religion and to force them to observe practices abhorrent to them, such as sacrificing pigs on the altar of their own temple.

Under Alexander the Great, the Jews and other peoples he had conquered were allowed a certain degree of autonomy and the right to continue their traditional religious practices, but under Antiochus IV persecution became intolerable. It was then that Judah Maccabee led forces that recaptured Jerusalem and rededicated the temple. The celebration of Hanukkah is not about the military conquest, however, but about "the miracle of the oil." There was only enough oil to light a ceremonial lamp for one night, but it burned for eight days. That is why lighting candles on eight successive nights is a custom observed at Hanukkah, and why it is often called the festival of lights or the festival of rededication. Traditionally, potato pancakes, called latkes, are eaten during the eight-day festival, holiday songs are sung, and games are played.

Jewish holidays observed in Boise and other towns from the beginning of settlement in Idaho included the annual Day of Atonement called Yom Kippur. It was described in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman on Oct. 3, 1865, as follows: "This sacred fast was observed last Saturday by all of the Israelitish persuasion in the city. All of their places of business were closed, and appropriate services were held at which nearly all of the residents of Hebrew descent attended, as well as several strangers who happened to be in town. We understand that Mr. Baer officiated with credit to himself and pleasure to the faithful assembled."

Boise's Jewish community celebrated Yom Kippur in various locations over the years. In 1869 the services were held in the Masonic Hall. The Statesman mentioned the holy day every year, and Jewish businessmen often ran ads announcing the hours they would be closed for its observance. On Sept. 26, 1889, the paper printed this piece for the enlightenment of its readers: "Boise has reason to be proud of her citizens of this old Hebrew stock, as they have ever been among the foremost in every enterprise and good work having for its object the building up of the city and the welfare of its people. The tenth day after this Jewish New Year's Day will be the day of atonement which will also be duly observed here." That year the occasion was celebrated in the Odd Fellows Hall.

In February 1895, Congregation Beth Israel filed for incorporation with Idaho's Secretary of State, and began planning to build a synagogue. In August 1895, architects Chesney & Schroeder submitted designs for a building 30 x 60 in a style they called "modernized Moorish." The cornerstone was laid on Oct. 4, 1895, and the finished building was dedicated on Aug. 30, 1896. Rabbi Isaac Kaiser of Salt Lake City officiated. A hymn written for the occasion by local music teacher E. J. Pasmore was sung by a choir assembled for the purpose. It was titled "Guide Us Oh Thou Great Jehovah." Rabbi Kaiser's sermon was printed in full in the next day's Statesman. This jewel of a building has been relocated to a site south of Morris Hill cemetery on Latah Street.

Hanukkah clearly does not rank as a major Jewish holiday, but because it falls close to Christmas, its celebration has become linked with that holiday, especially in America.

Customs such as exchanging gifts and decorating a tree (called by some a "Hanukkah bush") have been incorporated into what are increasingly secular occasions, exploited for commercial purposes as well as religious ones.