A Zionist Hanukkah

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

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Otherwise, though, we find in the songs and practices of Hanukkah in Israel a reworking--even a total reversal--of many elements of the holiday's traditions.

Some of those changes are subtle, such as a popular song from the 1970s by the doyenne of Israeli popular music in those years, Naomi Shemer. The song begins with the first line of the medieval Hanukkah anthem Ma'oz, tzur yeshu'ati: "Stronghold, rock of my salvation, it is fitting to praise You." The meaning of those terms shifts as the song then makes clear that the speaker is referring not to God but to a fortified military outpost on one of Israel's borders, where he is posted to keep watch for the enemy who may approach. What was metaphor for the medieval author is used in its simple, literal sense by the modern writer, for whom the fortresses of the Jews are physical, not theological.

Soldiers as Saviors

Other such transvaluations are far from subtle. The lyrics of the popular Hanukkah song Mi y'mallel ("Who can recount…?") were written by one of the creators of Hebrew folk music in the early 20th century, Menashe Ravina (1899-1968). He begins by reworking the verse "Who can recount the mighty acts of the Lord, recite all His praises?" (Psalms 106:2) into this: "Who can recount the mighty acts of [the people] Israel? Who can count them? / In every generation a hero arises, redeemer of the people." Praise of God has yielded to praise of military victors, and the title of "redeemer" (go'el) is now applied to a human rescuer, not a divine one.

Similarly, traditional liturgical texts refer to God when they use the terms moshia' (savior)and podeh (redeemer), but the song Mi Y'mallel next speaks not of God but of the Maccabees in those terms: "Hark! In those days at this season [a phrase borrowed from Hanukkah liturgy] / the Maccabee was savior and redeemer, / and in our days the entire people of Israel / will join together, rise up, and be rescued."

It will not be by a miraculous divine intervention that the Jews are delivered from repeated persecution and exile, claims the songwriter. Using the Maccabees as his model, he advocates that the Jewish people take their fate into their own hands and, rather than responding with flight, adaptation, or martyrdom, instead take up arms against their oppressors.

Another well-known Hebrew Hanukkah song also recasts part of the Hanukkah liturgy in secular terms. The traditional liturgy speaks of giving thanks "for the miracles and the wonders… which You performed for us in those days at this season." The lyrics of Y'mei ha-Hanukkah, written by Hebrew linguist and educator Avraham Avrunin (1869-1957), speak of appreciation "for the miracles and the wonders which the Maccabees brought about." Significantly, among religious traditionalists in Israel it is common to hear the end of that refrain revised to: "…which God brought about for 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.