Were the Maccabees Jerks?

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This morning I got my Hanukkah Project CD, a new compilation record. My band Chibi Vision contributed a song to it, “The Maccababies” — which, I guess, was an extension of what I’ve been thinking about this year.

the hanukkah project song music compilationAmanda from The Bachelorettes, one of the other bands on the comp, was telling me about playing our song for her class. (She also happens to teach a Hebrew School class in Jackson, Mississippi.) It’s a pretty fun song — anyway, I like to think so — casting the Maccabees as underdogs fighting against an invading army. It begins, “The Maccabee guerrillas, hiding in the trees, just chillin’/Till injustice starts pervading/We could use a little savin’.” Ever since I was a kid, I loved that image — of someone hiding out in a tree, maybe a soldier about to attack, but foremostly of someone scared out of his mind, running for his life, and safe, if only for the moment. {I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that you can hear the song here, or just order the album!}

And that’s how I always thought of the Maccabees. As these little guys on the run, just tryin’ to believe what they believe without someone trying to stomp them out.

“One kid said something about defeating the Iraqis,” Amanda told me. “And I was like — wait a second. In the Hanukkah story, the Jews were the ones who were occupied!”

It’s true, and more than a little scary, that the Hanukkah story can be read as an allegory both for seizing the day from fascist, Nazi oppressors as well as seizing the day from democratic American oppressors. But when I was working on a totally different assignment, writing the script for this year’s Chanukah episode, I kept inadvertently using words like occupation and resistance, and then having to go back and replace them — words that have quite a specific connotation in contemporary America, and especially in the Jewish community.

Oh my G-d, I thought. I’m actually in denial. Or I’m a hypocrite. And then I started to analyze my own way of thinking. (As I write this, Dan Sieradski has just tweeted, “i think macy’s should have a chanukah window, like their xmas display, with maccabees forcibly removing helenized jews’ foreskins.”) When I was getting my anthropology degree, one of my professors was fond of saying that the difference between calling something a dialect and calling it a language was as simple as having an army. In other words, it’s the big guys who can call the little guys little. Or, in simpler terms, history is written by the winners.

For me personally, a lot of these battles of meaning comes down to autonomy: which culture is going to forbid the other from doing what they want? (Or will neither?) But I recognize that my point of view isn’t the only one. It’s the scariest thing about writing a children’s song (and, by the way, the scariest thing about being a parent) — but it’s also the most beautiful: That, no matter what you say, kids are going to find their own meanings, and their own methods of interpretation. There are huge differences between the Maccabees fighting for freedom of religion and any similarities between any other groups, whether positive or negative. But there’s also a lot of universal truth to it.

Amanda’s class, I think, are the only ones who really get what’s going on. In the end, she tells me, they decided: “It’s more complicated then they thought. A lot of times, there aren’t good guys and bad guys.”

Which, in my thoughts at least, hits the nail on the head.

Posted on December 7, 2009

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