Time to be a Maccabee


I am perplexed as to how I found a plastic menorah at a garage sale in Eastpoint. How had it found its way there?

It was likely not from a Jewish home. This I based not on any official U.S. Census calculation, but entirely on supposition. Trust me here, Jews have a way of knowing who are members of the tribe, and in the Panhandle it’s often no more than you and I have fingers and toes.

As a plastic menorah with little lightbulbs in it, this was a decoration, and not a religious artifact. Those menorahs lit on Hanukkah, which started Sunday night and runs through Monday, are made of brass or silver, sometimes out of stone, and in them are set colorful candles that must be kindled with actual flame and wax, for eight straight nights. This commemorates how long a teeny-tiny crucible of oil lasted, many centuries ago, when it should have burned out much earlier.

The miraculous combustion of oil that remained aflame for so long took place about 160 years before Jesus was born, in the temple in Jerusalem after it was ransacked by the Greeks who ran Syria. To be frank, this behavior was par for the course, as far as how Jewish holiness was treated. It’s called paganism, at least in Jewish eyes, and happened too many times way back when.

These polytheistic pagans didn’t just storm the temple and break up stuff, like snapping the seven-branched menorah into pieces that littered the Galilean ground like seashells. These pagans went further, and wreaked desecrations that sent bystanders convulsing in mortified disbelief.

There is, however, a hero of the story, Judah Maccabee, and his band of soldiers the Maccabees, because the word means “hammer” in Aramaic. Maccabee, however sweetly the syllables pop off from the mouth, is not the important part of the name here, as it was likely added later to attest to his tough guy status as a soldier who fought off the enemy.

The name Judah is the important part, because there is no more Jewish name than Judah, the earliest namesake many generations earlier being the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, whose name is synonymous with the Kingdom of Judah, the land of Judea and the word Jew.

Judah Maccabee was the son of a high priest and what bothered him so much, what I learned in Hebrew School, was not so much the ransack. That was not that unusual; for some crazy reason, pagans were keen on desecration. What pissed off Judah so much was that there were Hebrews who went along with it, this assimilation into pagan culture. They saw this as a weakening of their identity as Jews, full of compromises that would obliterate what they understood to be their mandate to keep God’s commandments, and to remain holy.

And so after the Maccabees won a military victory, and the small amount of spilled oil lasted eight full days, the rabbis decided to add a holiday to the Jewish calendar based on a comparatively obscure book in the Bible. They named it Hanukkah, which means dedication, since after the military victory, the Jews rededicated the temple.

The fact the holiday comes around the time of Christmas is coincidental, since the fighting ended on a day in the Jewish calendar that usually falls in December. Because oil is a big part of the holiday, and because potatoes were an available staple in Eastern Europe, potato pancakes, called latkes, are eaten as a festive meal. In Israel they prefer doughnuts for their celebration. This is probably because as a general rule, Israelis are respectful of their European forebears’ traditions, but keen on breaking them. Such as not being passive in the face of violent aggression, and of being physically mighty as a Maccabee.

The gist of the holiday, though, is not about military warfare, but about spiritual warfare. About being so dedicated to a set of teachings and commandments that you do what it takes to defend them against destruction. And knowing that even more than arms, it takes heads and hearts, each committed to preserving holiness against the dilutions and corruptions and twistings that so often are the residue of popular culture.

While this dedication to the Jewish way of life is particular to my people, it is easy to see how this theme can be translated to others as well. It says that sometimes, it is not enough to just hope for the best when beliefs and understandings are assailed. That there are times actions must be taken to fight for that holiness, through a hammer-hard dedication to that mission.

All around us, along the Panhandle, there are people of all religions who are doing just that. Which is why I have a better idea now why that plastic menorah was found at an Eastpoint yard sale.

David Adlerstein had his bar mitzvah at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio. 


1 comment on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • CWilkinson

    Thank you, David, another thoughtfully written and deeply informative essay on a subject many of us know too little about. Happy Hanukkah!

    Thursday, December 2, 2021 Report this