A Zionist Hanukkah

Modern Hebrew culture made of Hanukkah a celebration of the new, self-reliant Jew.

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If you have ever been amused to find that a popular Israeli beer is named "Maccabi" or wondered why the "Jewish Olympics" are called "Maccabiah," then you have been exposed to the use in modern Hebrew culture of the image of the historical Maccabees, the heroes of the Hanukkah story. 

The modern secular nationalist movement among the Jews of the late 19th and early 20th centuries looked to the past in search of heroes whose prowess was expressed through their bodies, not (or not only) through their minds--heroes whose stirring accomplishments may be recorded in books but were not limited to the writing of books.

The Maccabee Model

For modern Zionists, then, no group in Jewish history was better suited for the role of heroes than that band of irregulars whose guerilla war against the imperial rulers (in this case, Greek-speaking Hellenists based in Syria) ended in victory and national liberation--the Maccabees.

Israeli flag and hanukkahShaul Tchernichowski, a prominent Hebrew poet of the early 20th century, captured this sense that the Maccabees are the model for the "New Jew" in a short poem (later made into a popular song) that pictures a contemporary Jew arriving in the Land of Israel, encountering the famous second-century sage Akiba, and inquiring, "Where are they, the holy ones? Where are the Maccabees?" Akiba's reply: "All Israel is holy. You are the Maccabee!"

When Jewish sports clubs were established in central Europe, one of the first and largest networks of those clubs was called "Maccabi" (accented on the second syllable: "mah-KAH-bee"). Its successor organization, the Maccabi World Union, is the sponsor of the sports competitions for Jewish athletes from around the world. Maccabi sport clubs have been transformed into professional teams in some Israeli cities. Maccabi beer--no relation to the sports organization--is so named in order to promote a manly image for its primarily male market.

From Divine Deliverance to Self-Defense

The historical Maccabees were motivated by indignation at what they viewed as religious coercion imposed upon the Jews in their own land by the pagan rulers and their Jewish supporters and collaborators. To judge by the literary sources closest to the events, the books known as First and Second Maccabees, the Maccabees' quest was a religious one at least as much as it was a movement for national self-determination.

Modern Zionism, on the other hand, originated with Jews who had largely strayed from the strictures of traditional religion but wanted to maintain their Jewishness in a new, secular form.

Hanukkah, which had always been a minor holiday, attained new significance and new importance in modern Hebrew culture as the celebration of the victory of the brave Judah Maccabee and his brothers. The traditional eight-branched candelabra are lit in the windows of most Jewish homes and shops in Israel each night, and large electric-bulb versions are found on public buildings and town squares. The lighting, in homes or at public events, is usually accompanied by a recitation of the traditional liturgy that speaks of divine intervention in history on behalf of the Maccabees.

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Rabbi Peretz Rodman

Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based rabbi, teacher, writer, editor, and translator. He was a founding editor of MyJewishLearning.com.