What about those Maccabees?

Dear Friends,

I finally found it! The Hanukkah article I have been searching for forever! Before I share, let me tell you the problem I have had. I teach Judaism to 18 classes each week in the Goldberg Early Childhood Center — they call it “Torah with Laura.” Hanukkah is the hardest for me because the story we tell children does not go into the messy details. Children (and unfortunately many adults) only know that Judah Maccabee was a hero and the little bit of oil lasted for eight days — a miracle! We do talk about how important it is to be free to believe as you want and that we must stand up for what is right! That is Hanukkah in a nutshell but there is so much more and that is where my struggle comes — who is ready for the whole story and what about those Maccabees?

Just as I was getting ready to write about something other than Hanukkah, this came from jewishboston.com — https://www.jewishboston.com/read/how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-almost-love-the-maccabees/. Rabbi Mike Rothbaum writes:

“You know the type. The teacher who tells the class, ‘The miracle of the oil probably never happened.’ The Debbie Downer at the front of the room who pollutes the students’ dreams of eight nights of presents with discussions of ‘the real story of Chanukah.’ The killjoy who sullies the reputation of the Maccabees by informing the class that the celebrated band of ragtag rebels were also vigilantes, killing Hellenized Jews who sought safety by making offerings to Greek gods. And, by now, I suppose it’s obvious that not only was I that kind of Hebrew school teacher, but I’m also now that kind of rabbi.”

I will not go into his article, which tells of what really happened in Jerusalem and how not only did the Jews have to deal with Antiochus but the Maccabees terrorized the Jews as well. This is the story we don’t dwell on, especially because no one reads the Book of Maccabees I & II since it is part of the Apocrypha, which is not part of Jewish books (and that’s another story). There is so much to dislike about the story that the rabbis were right in making the changes to the story to the miracle of the rededication of the Temple. We all should know the real story and take the lessons from the negative as well as the positive.

Rabbi Rosenblum ends with: “In my mind, the Maccabees’ reprehensible acts still permanently exclude them from the catalogue of Jewish heroes. But they nevertheless inspire us to insist on publicizing our Jewish identity, even in a world that has a habit of telling Jews it might be happier without us. I deeply admire the ingenuity of Jewish spirit, a spirit that’s transformed a story of Jewish vigilantism into a season celebrating the possibility of miracles. I’m inspired by generations of Jews who stared into the darkness and saw light, no matter how tenuous or vulnerable. More than ever, I’m moved to do the same. I’m still no fan of the Maccabees. But, this year, I’m grateful for the light they lit in the Temple. I pray it inspires us to light a path to safety, to justice, to love.”

Today, more than ever, we need to have our eyes open to our past, present and future. Hanukkah — in spite of the “real” story, or maybe because of it — should be a time of joy and togetherness. It is a time for us to stand proudly together in our Jewish identity. I will keep singing “I’d Like to Be a Maccabee” with our children — we want them to be brave and strong. We should share that sometimes you have to fight for what is right and we continue to share the Jewish values that we pass on generation to generation. Remember, each year as we celebrate each holiday, there is time for retelling.

Laura Seymour is Jewish Experiential Learning director and Camp director emeritus at the Aaron Family JCC.

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