By: Plony Almony
Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. The name conjures images of colorful, lit candles, chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, and cheerful family gatherings. But there’s another side to the story. At its heart, Hanukkah celebrates the miraculous victory of a band of Jewish insurgents against the tyrannical Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) government. It’s a complex, violent history that we tend to gloss over for the sake of our children. The Sages of old feared that the Jews would succumb to belligerent militarism and lose their moral bearings. Hence, when the holiday was instituted, its primary focus was on the Miracle of the Oil, when a one-day supply of consecrated olive oil kept the menorah lit for eight days, long enough to obtain more. Moreover, the haftarah, the reading from the Prophets designated for the Shabbat of Hanukkah contains the famous verse: “Not by power, nor by might, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”
The fact remains, however, that the story of Hanukkah is one steeped in the blood of Greeks and Jews—Hellenists and anti-assimilationists alike. In honor of the holiday, we felt that an interview with one of the Judean separatists would be of particular interest to our readers. Thanks to the power of historical research and a little “Hanukkah miracle” of our own, we were able to land an interview with the great Judah Maccabee (aka Judas Maccabaeus to the Greeks), a Jewish guerrilla fighter and chief strategist of the Hasmonean (Maccabean) Revolt of 167 BCE. Mr. Maccabee, it’s a pleasure to speak with you today.
Plony Almony: Please, tell us a little about yourself.
JM: Well, I come from a village called Modi’in, about maybe 20 miles from Yerushalayim. I have four brothers—I was the middle child. And we are kohanim, which means we served as priests in the Temple.
PA: And where did the name “Maccabee” come from?
JM: I got this name after the revolt began. It sounds a lot like the Aramaic word for “hammer,” but I tell you it is really a…how do you say “roshei teivot”?
PA: An acronym?
JM: Yes, acronym! Mem, Kaf, Bet, Yud. It stands for Mi Kamocha Ba’elim Hashem – “Who is like You among the mighty, O Lord?”
PA: Interesting. Now, what about the revolt, did that start with you?
JM: Actually, no. It was my father, Mattathias—or Matityahu, not to be confused with the reggae singer—who, how do you say, fired the first shot.
PA: What happened?
JM: Well, there was this new emperor, Antiochus (spits). He called himself “Antiochus Epiphanes,” which means God in human form. But we all called him “Epimanes,” which mean he is a meshugah. Anyway, his people come ask my father’s support, as they were having trouble keeping their Jewish subjects in line after making things like Shabbat and brit milah [Sabbath observance and ritual circumcision] illegal. My father was a believer, a servant of God in a time when there were very few left, so he refused. One day, the Greeks set up this big stage in the middle of town, and they bring a Jew to come and sacrifice a pig. Can you believe it?! A pig! On an altar! To an idol! It was more than my father could take. He grabbed a sword, ran right up and (makes stabbing motion) right through him! Like kebab! This was how the war began.
PA: So the first victim of the war was actually a Jew?
JM: Technically. Lots of Jews fought on the side of the Greeks.
PA: Doesn’t that bother you?
JM: Of course. My goal was to end the foreign occupation of Eretz Yisrael, not to fight my own brothers! But then, these were not my brothers.
PA: How do you mean?
JM: Let us say you were a Jew living in France during World War II. You join the underground, and in fighting the Nazis, you take out a local collaborator whose name happens to be Katz or Goldberg. Do you shed tears for this man?
PA: Are you saying the Seleucids were like Nazis?
JM: Not at first. Actually, for an imperial overlord, Alexander the Great was pretty okay. To this day, you find a lot of Jews named Alexander. It was a couple of generations after he died. His generals split up the empire among themselves, and pass their piece of the kingdom onto their kids, and so forth, until eventually you have mamzerim like this Antiochus (spits again). He declared that anyone caught learning Torah would be put to death—and he meant it!
PA: It must have been terrifying. What did you do?
JM: What could we do? We kept the old ways in secret. Actually, the tradition of reading haftarah came from this time, because the public reading of Torah was prohibited, but technically these aren’t part of the Torah. Clever, eh?
PA: Tell us more about the rebellion.
JM: Yes, yes, always with the rebellion! So we were much fewer than the Greeks and their supporters. They were better armed, and better trained…we weren’t soldiers. But we had to fight. If not fight, we lose our freedom. And not just our freedom, but our neshama [soul] even!
So we have to use a new strategy. Today, you call it guerrilla warfare. We ambushed, we attacked at night, anything to minimize their advantage.
PA: Even so, it still stunned the world when you liberated Judea from Greek control.
JM: Believe me, no one was more surprised than we were! All we can do is make our effort—the rest is in Hashem’s hands. This was our belief when we decided to stand up and fight, and Baruch Hashem, it was decided on high that our enemies, His enemies, should fall before us.
PA: Fascinating. How do you respond to allegations that you and your followers were simply fanatical zealots, religious terrorists?
JM: Oh, this is that type of interview?
PA: It’s a fair question. You went to war over religious beliefs, and then forced those beliefs on others.
JM: I went to war because my brothers and sisters were being murdered in the streets. It is written: lo ta’amod! You shall not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood!
PA: But that could have been avoided had you simply acquiesced to the Seleucid’s demands, could it not?
JM: Yes, if we had abandoned the Covenant, if we had turned our backs on Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, they might have let us live. But nu? What kind of life is that? You are American, yes?
PA: Yes, but I hardly see what that has to do with—
JM: And your Founding Fathers, you know what they did?
PA: They fought for America’s freedom.
JM: They shed blood over taxes! The peoples over in the Angland [sic], they want to charge a tax on what? On tea! But America say, “no taxation without representation.” And because the King imposed this tax without giving the Colonists a how you say, a vote, for this they go to war! How much more so we should fight for our right to keep Torah!
PA: Well, that’s a pretty gross oversimplification of the causes of the American Revolution.
PA: So you’re saying that describing the Maccabees like this is…
JM: It is as you say. A gross oversimplification.
PA: Fair enough. Let’s talk about something else. You and your brothers instituted the festival of Hanukkah that we all know and love. What do you think about Hanukkah as it is celebrated today?
JM: Honestly? I think it misses the point.
PA: How so?
JM: Look, my brothers and I—and when I say “brother” I mean not just mishpacha, but all who resisted the Greeks—we sacrificed everything to keep our people from being swallowed up by the Empire. Hanukkah is a celebration of what makes our people special. It’s a time to remember that there are some things in this life worth fighting for. But now we try to make it like every other holiday. (shrugs) It is, how you say, ironic.
PA: I see. The celebration has definitely changed since your time. Is there anything about contemporary Hanukkah celebrations that you do enjoy?
JM: Well, who doesn’t enjoy a good latke? Very tasty.
PA: Sour cream or apple sauce?
JM: Ach! I can’t decide. I love them both.
PA: Let me ask you one last thing. From time to time, you and your brothers’ exploits have been the subject of books, television programs, and the like. What would you say is the most authentic, or at least entertaining, portrayal of the Maccabean Revolt?
JM: It’s funny you should ask. Recently, I was contacted by this fellow, his name was Daniel Perez. He says he was writing something, I think he called it a “screening play.” Is that a thing?
PA: A screenplay? Like a movie script?
JM: Right, a screen-play about the Maccabim. It was actually quite good. And I understand now he wants to make it into a book…how do you call it? It is book with pictures.
PA: A graphic novel?
JM: That’s it! He work very hard, and he says he has some sort of Start-Kicker campaign? To make the book.
PA: You mean Kickstarter?
JM: Yes, exactly! He asked me to give you this. (passes a small slip of paper)
PA: It’s a URL. https://goo.gl/EaVAap
JM: This book Mr. Perez is working on, I think you would like it. It tells the whole story—the good, the not-so-good. I think many Jews, and even non-Jews, could learn a lot from it. He says it is like “300 with yarmulkes.” I do not know what that means.
PA: Well, hopefully our readers will. Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us, Judah. Happy Hanukkah!
JM: Chag Chanukah sameach!