12/22/2008

I: The Israeli Chanukah – A Celebration of Jewish Might

Last year, I wrote a short post about how the Chanukah narrative is shaped by the group celebrating, and that different Jewish groups celebrate, essentially, different Chanukahs.

Three years ago, I wrote a different Dvar Torah on each night of Chanukah (all of them can be viewed under this label, or in the archives for December 2005). This year, I will combine the two elements, and write about a different form of celebration each night.

Early mainstream Zionism adopted Chanukah as a celebration of the victories of a Jewish army. In its vigor to create the “New Jew”, the Zionist movement enlisted every example of a Jewish military hero and celebrated him as a Zionist or proto-Zionist figure. It gave the nascent state and pre-state a sense of continuity and tradition with a distant but glorious and heroic past. This ardor to generate a new Jewish narrative of “strength” is best expressed (and caricatured) in Hazaz’s famous short story, The Sermon (1942):

Jewish history is so dull, so uninteresting. It has no glory or action, no heroes and conquerors, no rulers and masters of their fate, just a collection of wounded, hunted, groaning and wailing wretches always begging for mercy. I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about their ancestors' shame? I would just say to them: `Boys, from the day we were driven out from our land, we've been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football!’

This ethos was projected onto the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, and is even reflected in several very popular Israeli folk songs for Chanukah. This first one is the Hebrew rendition of the Yiddish Oy, Chanekeh or English Oh, Chanukah:

,ימי החנוכה חנוכת מקדשנו
בגיל ובשמחה ממלאים את ליבנו
לילה ויום סביבונינו יסוב
.סופגניות נאכל בם לרוב
!האירו ! הדליקו
נרות חנוכה רבים
על הניסים ועל הנפלאות
.אשר חוללו המכבים
,ניצחון המכבים נספר, נזמרה
על האויבים אז ידם כי גברה
ירושלים שבה לתחיה
.עם ישראל עשה תושיה
!האירו ! הדליקו

The key point lies in lines 7-11, which describe the miracles, wonders, and victories wrought by the Macabees. The other example, perhaps even more classic, is entitled Mi Yimalel (Who Can Retell?)

?מי ימלל גבורות ישראל אותם מי ימנה
העם הן בכל דור יקום הגבור גואל

!שמע
בימים ההם בזמן הזה
מכבי מושיע ופודה
ובימינו כל עם ישראל
.יתאחד יקום ויגאל

Here, the Zionist ethos comes to the fore right off the bat: “Who can retell the strengths of Israel, who can count them? Yea, in each generation the hero, the nation’s redeemer, shall arise”. It is significant that both of these popular songs transpose epithets that the Jewish tradition reserves for God onto human Jewish heroes: The “miracles… and wonders that You have done for our ancestors” (ha-nissim... ve-al ha-nifla’ot she-asita la-avoteinu) becomes “the miracles and wonders that the Maccabees wrought”. In the saying “Who can retell the strengths of God” (Mi yimalel gevurot Hashem) “Israel” replaces “God”.

This general transposition is reflected in many other ubiquitous (and therefore barely noticed anymore) elements of Israeli culture. Israel’s Olympics are called the Maccabiah Games, and many of its sports clubs are named Maccabi.

There is no doubt that this celebration of the Jewish military victory drew from traditional sources. One cannot but help get the feeling, however, that the conclusion of Yudke’s speech in Hazaz’s story underlies this Zionist Chanukah narrative:

Zionism and Judaism are not the same. They are two very different things entirely, maybe even opposed to one another. When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist.

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