Giving thanks to the 20th century Maccabees on Chanukah

Thanksgiving is the great American holiday, a secular fete originally celebrating the crops we harvested, now celebrating not just the harvest, but also our freedom, our democracy and our way of life. Because of the oddities of the Hebrew calendar, Jews will be celebrating a second holiday on Thanksgiving, as Chanukah and Thanksgiving fall on the same day this year. We call Chanukah the Festival of Light, because of the candle that stayed lit for a week with only one day’s supply of oil. The real story of Chanukah, however, is a celebration of a military victory when the Maccabees defeated the enemies who wanted to Hellenize Judaism. Thousands of years later, Jews in America now celebrate in the wake of another military defeat, one that changed the face of Judaism for the modern world.

In an age in which Jews can be both proud and free Americans, openly celebrating a Jewish holiday as we also celebrate Thanksgiving, we should be thankful for our 20th century Maccabees who won a stunning victory in the 1967 war. The perception of Jews in America, and, indeed, our own self-perception, was permanently changed after that war. Instead of the meek, browbeaten Jews who went to their deaths without much of a fight, Jews were now mighty warriors who defeated all their neighbors in just six days. As the public’s perception of American Jews changed, discrimination dwindled. According to Pew’s latest study, the majority of Jewish Americans say there is no discrimination against Jews in America today. My estimate is that it was the 1967 war that was the turning point, after which anti-Semitism in America began to fade to the point where it is no longer a significant force in American life. At the time, it seemed that overnight nearly all Americans, not just American Jews, were pro-Israel and pro-Semitic. Had the Maccabees not won, then or now, Judaism — as we know it — would have been imperiled.

Jews hold such a secure place at the American table that no one makes anything of it. Jews are now successful in nearly every field. American Jews, when we sit down at our Thanksgiving repasts, have much to give thanks for, and should give great thanks to Israel. It is Israel that fought against tremendous odds to win its War of Independence in 1948, just as American troops did centuries ago, and brought forth a democracy, the greatest form of government in the world, then and now. Israel has a vibrant democracy, arguably less dysfunctional than ours seems right now. No longer the military underdog, the country deserves praise for the safety it has offered Jews around the world. At great a personal sacrifice of its citizens, Israel has built a formidable department of defense, and the American people and government have always backed Israel in this endeavor. This strength has enabled Israel to protect Jews who live around the world, some in small communities, where sometimes despotic leaders are aware of Israel’s vow to protect Jews the world over, and have behaved accordingly.

I am old enough to have lived through both these periods. Prior to 1967, many Jews in America worried about being accused of double loyalty and increasing anti-Semitism. After the Six-Day War, American Jews became proud of Israel, and, in turn, proud of themselves. In my long life as both a Canadian and an American, I have had very few anti-Semitic embarrassments, but there was a marked difference between how my non-Jewish colleagues treated me before and after the Six-Day War. It is thanks in large part to Yitzhak Rabin and the Israel Defense Forces that I can stand tall as a Jew.

As we Jews celebrate Chanukah and Thanksgiving in tandem this year, let us thank our both our forefathers who came to this country and made it possible for us to thrive and the Israelis who have protected that. 

Edgar M. Bronfman is the former CEO of the Seagram Company, president of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the author of “The Bronfman Haggadah” (Rizzoli).

Megillat Esther — The book of the exile

Purim is an extraordinary festival in the Jewish calendar.  It can be distinguished from all the other festivals by the character that it was granted in later generations, but mainly by its most primary source –  Megillat Esther itself.

The different nature of the Purim customs and of Megillat Esther, can be seen in comparison with Hanuka, the Jewish festival that is closest to it both in time and meaning.  Although the Books of the Maccabees did not become part of the canonized Bible, they nevertheless belong to the philosophical and stylistic “milieu” of the Biblical books, in the events that they relate, in the characters of the main figures, and in the religious-national issues looming in their background.  Compared with them, Megillat Esther seems to be almost on the other side of the gap between the sublime and the ridiculous: the pompous, fickle Ahasuerus;  the wicked, petty Haman; Esther whose ascent to greatness is reminiscent of the Cinderella tale; and the righteous Mordechai, who gets entangled in the court intrigues of an Oriental tyrant.  Commentators have also remarked that G-d’s name does not appear in the entire Megilla even once, not even as an appellation. It is therefore no wonder that in Mishanic times, our Sages differed as to whether or not to include this book in the Holy Scriptures.

The clue to all these peculiarities may be found in one single issue – Purim is the Festival of the Exile, and Megillat Esther is the Book of the Exile.  In a sense, Megillat Esther is the basic model of the life of the Jewish people in exile.  Its  entire story, which looks like a simplistic melodrama and a mythic tale, detached from reality, takes on a true, serious, even tragic meaning when looked at as the mirror of Jewish history not only at the time of Mordechai and Esther, but also throughout Jewish history in the years of exile.

Ahasuerus, the great king who rules over “a hundred and twenty seven provinces,” who spends most of his days in drunken parties and in harems, who almost inadvertently issues a decree to  destroy, and kill all Jews” without considering all its possible implications – is he a mere creature of the imagination?  Almost no generation passes without us encountering him, in one form or another.  He may indeed be an insignificant, ridiculous figure; but even  foolish and weak  tyrants can bring about terrible destruction upon the Jewish people in exile.

As for Haman – about whom there are various Aggadic tales, who somehow becames the de facto ruler of the land, and decided that personal hatred, superstition, or any other kind of nonsense, is sufficient justification for killing all the Jews – one does not have to search very far to find him, again and again, very real and very threatening.

In Megillat Esther Haman is clearly a comic figure.  However, throughout our history this character has been accompanied by so many tears and so much blood.  Haman’s inciteful speech to the King about a certain people scattered among the peoples of his  kingdom, whose laws are different  from those of every people, who do not  keep the king’s laws; and therefore the king should not suffer them” (Esther 3:8) – has not been greatly perfected during  the 2,500 years that have elapsed since then.  With minor variations, it is repeated to this day by modern-day  Hamans throughout the world.  We no longer laugh at this pathetic figure.  Today, we are afraid of him.

One can elaborate and illustrate how this strange, puzzling and ridiculous story of Megillat Esther – that could have been funny, had it not been so tragic – has been repeating itself generation after generation, in different parts of the world.  The Midrash says that the protagonists of the Megillah are not just figures,  Ahasuerus and Haman ”  represent not only themselves, but are also prototypes for hundreds and thousands of others like them who  grow out of the fundamental evil of the Jewish existence in the exile: a people who has no real support, whose rights are always forgotten, whose shortcomings will always be conspicuous, and against whom any ruler’s whim will be turned – the eternal scapegoat.

Megillat Esther, then, is the scroll of “the hiding of thhe Divine Face,” of the Jewish people in its exile, in which the greatest threats against its very existence begin with what looks like a comedy, and even the miracles that occur during its rescue, stem from the nature and “soil” of exile.

Only a very profound outlook, that sees the Jewish future, and is based on a strong, unshakeable faith, could have caused Megillat Esther to be included among the canonized books of the Bible.  For this book is the essence of Jewish life in exile, and of the faith that, behind all external causes, hides the “guardian of Israel.”  The Megilla teaches us that the Jewish people must learn to live this sort of life, expecting miracles hidden within the tortuous, winding ways of history.  Within all this, one must believe that “relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews…”, and that in moments of distress, assimilation and masks will not help even those who sit in the king’s own palace.  And that, despite everything, there is hope.

The story of Megillat Esther will continue as long as the exile continues to exist, and as long as the world persists in functioning  with the “hiding of the Divine Face” and “the hiding of the Divine Name.”  May the days soon come when we will no longer comprehend the seriousness of the Megilla, when we will be able to read it truly frivolously, knowing that it is just a tale from bygone times that will never return.

Chanukah models of courage

My 4-year-old son is obsessed with superheroes, dressing up at every opportunity as the superhero du jour to do battle with the bad guys lurking around the corner. (My 2-year-old daughter is just as enthusiastic, but at her age all she can really muster is a “meanie” face.)

From a developmental perspective, I know this fantasy play is his way of exercising control over a world he is learning is increasingly out of his control. But I also see other qualities — his desire to be strong, to stand up for the good guys — in short, to be courageous.

Becoming courageous doesn’t happen overnight. It develops when children have opportunities to stand up for what’s right and to take responsible risks. Through experiences my husband and I provide, and the stories we tell them, we can lay some groundwork.

As I think about a central message of the Chanukah story and the way I want to portray it to my kids, models of courage abound. From Judah Maccabee to Judith and Hannah and her seven sons, heroes and heroines fought for the right to be different, to be Jews who refused to assimilate into the prevailing Hellenistic culture.

When Antiochus Epiphanes came to power, and observance of the most basic mitzvot (circumcision, Shabbat celebration and kashrut) were turned into capital offenses, their acts of courage formed the basis of a central narrative of the Chanukah story that has been passed down through the generations.

Consider Judah Maccabee, whose army used guerrilla tactics and religious zeal to defeat the stronger Assyrian-Greek army. He forced the Assyrian Greeks to rescind the policies that forbade Jewish practice, and in 164 B.C.E. liberated the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it as a place of Jewish worship.

Consider Judith, who did her part to prevent the siege of Jerusalem in her hometown of Bethulia by seducing Holfenes, the Assyrian-Greek army general, and then decapitating him. Her bravery is so highly esteemed by the rabbis that it is because of her act of courage that Jewish women are obligated to light Chanukah candles.

And consider Hannah and her seven sons, who refused to bow down to Zeus and Antiochus and eat nonkosher meat. The Book of Maccabees relates that each of her sons and then her mother were tortured to death.

These acts of courage seem extreme and even unpalatable to our modern era — what woman would sacrifice her son, not to mention all seven? And aren’t we a peace-loving people who should not extol brute force?

But they also lead us to a deeper question about the nature of courage. Are there values and beliefs for which we are willing to make great sacrifices, and if any of these values or beliefs were to be violated, would we be stirred to action?

While these figures present us with one narrative of the Chanukah story — of heroism in battle and martyrdom — a second narrative is favored by the ancient rabbis. The story begins with the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the faith that the Jews had that the small cruse of oil, which should have lasted for one day only, could last for eight (in time for others to travel and get more oil).

The second narrative downplays the military victory won by human hands and elevates the story to one in which our faith in God and God’s miracles are kindled. It reminds us that courage is born when we continue to have faith and hope even in our darkest time. Having faith in itself is an important kind of courage.

While the call to be courageous is central to the Chanukah story — spiritually or physically — it is also daunting. But the rabbis offered another way for us to understand how to live a courageous life and be our own heroes.

“Who is a hero?” the rabbis ask. “One who overcomes his urges?” (Mishna, Pirke Avot 4:1).

Overcoming our most natural desires and exercising personal restraint is another kind of heroism. This is a kind of everyday courage.

When we are present in a difficult conversation with someone we care about even though our impulse is to leave, we are a hero. When we resist the urge to say something that we know will offend another person, even if we think it is warranted, we are courageous. When we have vowed not to feed a habit that is destructive to us, and when tempted and resist (a smoke, an extra piece of chocolate cake), we are being our own heroes.

This Chanukah, celebrate all of the dimensions of courage by dedicating each night to one of them:

Candle 1 to the classic Chanukah heroes of Judah Maccabee, Judith and Hannah.

Candle 2 to the courageous acts of our children who welcome a new kid to the school, speak out against bullying or have faith that the next day at school might be a little better than today.

Candle 3 to someone in your community who took up a cause you believe in and fought for it.

Candle 4 to someone in your family — perhaps a parent or grandparent — and a courageous act they performed during their lives.

Candle 5 to American and Israeli soldiers who are fighting to protect values and ideals that are sacred to us.

Candle 6 to the courage that you have exercised by restraint — with a co-worker, spouse, child, friend or parent.

Candle 7 to a person in your life who exemplifies courage the most.

Candle 8 to that quality of courage in ourselves that enables us to bring light into dark places and for the energy to continue to stoke the embers of our own sense of courage.

Let it shine with these unique menorahs

Artists and designers in the United States and Israel are broadening and updating the ways in which we pay tribute to Judah Maccabee through the emblematic menorah, commemorating the miraculous endurance of the fabled lighting oil and the resilience that keeps Judaism’s fire lit, so to speak.

“People who buy menorahs for themselves or for others buy them for longevity over generations, [not to] replace them from one year to the next,” said renowned designer Brad Ascalon, whose menorahs and home accessories can be purchased through Southern California branches of Design Within Reach.

“My goal was simple. When the menorah is in use, it should be about the candles and the flames. The object in and of itself should recede to the background, allowing the candles to take over in significance. As for the other 357 days of the year, the menorah can remain on display and be appreciated as an elegant, modern sculptural object removed from its intended function but abundant in symbolism and story.”

Other Southern California-based artists have a similar mind-set — balancing fashion and function with their renderings of the traditional candelabra. Some designs are delicate, fused from colorful glass or curving strands of metal that seem to defy gravity. Others are sturdy and industrial by nature, melding the pragmatic with the profound. 

“Over the past several years, design has become increasingly more accessible,” said Pam Balton, vice president of special projects at Skirball Cultural Center, referring to the eclectic collection of menorahs available at Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball. “Architects are creating Judaica, and mainstream designers are including Chanukah lamps in their lines. A Chanukah lamp, a symbol of a miracle and light, is oftentimes a decorative sculptural element in a home to be enjoyed year round.”

Santa Barbara-based Laurie Gross uses references from the past as a starting point for her pieces, rendered in a variety of mediums, including textiles and glass. In 1980, Gross came across a turn–of-the-century Russian chanukiyah depicting a mother eagle feeding her young. She was intrigued by this artifact’s striking symbolic elements, including the bird’s wing supporting the baby birds and their open mouths serving as candle holders.

“I first began to explore the imagery of the wing, which seems to represent God’s all-encompassing and shielding presence, and [this motif] would find a place in some of my textile works,” Gross recalled. “However, the opportunity to reinvent the turn-of-the-century artifact in a contemporary context surfaced when I was invited to participate in the Chanukah menorah show at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco in 1995. My goal with this piece rendered in art glass, titled ‘Of Lights, Knots and Nourishment,’ was to bring together concept, imagery and function.”

Gross’ sweeping menorah is fashioned from two pieces of starfire glass that are etched, gold-leafed and contoured. The design on the back piece that holds the shamash candle reflects the expansive and enveloping wings. The front piece holding the eight candles evokes the gesture of receiving and the openness of the young. “Knots” of the tzitzit have a lyrical sense of movement that can be interpreted as the passage of time or the omnipresence of God. 

Josh Korwin and Alyssa Zukas, in contrast, take a literal nuts-and-bolts approach to menorah design with a guy-friendly, recycle-minded design aptly called “The Man-Orah,” manufactured by a company called Not Schlock and available at Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball ( and The Los Angeles-based husband-and-wife team describe the unexpected ritual object, forged from galvanized steel pipes and other plumbing parts,  as “a proactive response to the overall lack of tasteful, hip, un-schlocky Judaica available to the general public.”

Drunk with excitement over Mel Gibson’s Maccabee movie

Chanukah has come and gone, and Jewish parents everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s comforting to know that 5772/2011 will likely be the last year that we have to tell our kids the story of the Maccabees without the help of Mel Gibson. Last September, in an announcement that honored its four founding siblings — Hirsch, Aaron, Jacob and Szmul Wonskolaser — Warner Bros. proclaimed that it would finance Gibson’s next project: “The Judah Maccabee Story”! Gibson, who famously quipped (during a 2006 DUI incident), “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” apparently less-famously followed that with, “and I want to make movies out of all of them.”

My initial reaction was that a rabid anti-Semite was an odd choice to tell a quintessentially Jewish story. But then Robert Downey Jr. weighed in. At the presentation of the American Cinematheque Award in October, the Oscar-nominated actor made an impassioned plea. “Unless you are without sin … let him work,” exhorted Downey, cleverly paraphrasing a famous Jew in his pal’s defense. I have always turned to Reb Downey for spiritual advice, so his words gave me pause. Perhaps I was being rash. I am very sensitive to perceived anti-Semitism; this I concede. Maybe Gibson just likes to say nutty things when he joyrides with a bottle of his favorite tequila. Or maybe he has undergone a change of heart. I decided I would reserve judgment.

Imagine my shock when a friend who works at Warner Bros. secretly e-mailed me the first page of Mel’s screenplay for his film. I had misjudged! If the movie’s opening is any indication, Gibson’s approach is balanced, historically accurate and celebratory of Jewish bravery during trying times. I hope you will agree, and that we as a community can get behind this project. Go get ’em, Mel. Tell our story!

Gibson says he hopes to get “DIRTY JEW-DAH” into movie theaters “by Kristallnacht 2012.” See you there!

Joshua Malina is an actor who co-starred on “Sports Night” and “The West Wing.” He can be seen on ABC’s “Scandal” starting April 5.

ADL raps Mel Gibson on Maccabee movie

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) criticized Mel Gibson following news that he is planning to make a film based on the life of Judah Maccabee. Gibson’s Icon Productions concluded a production deal with Warner Bros. for the movie project.

“We would have hoped that Warner Bros. could have found someone better than Mel Gibson to direct or perhaps star in a film on the life of the Jewish historical icon Judah Maccabee,” the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said in a statement on Sept. 9.

Gibson’s 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ” angered many in the Jewish community who felt that it played into notions of Jewish culpability for the killing of Jesus.

“Not only has Mel Gibson shown outward antagonism toward Jews and Judaism in his public statements and actions, but his previous attempt to bring biblical history to life on the screen was marred by anti-Semitism,” Foxman said in his statement.

Soboroff heads effort for ‘Chai’ Maccabiah

While global sports fans are gradually shifting their attention to the Aug. 8 start of the Olympic Games in Beijing, Eyal Tiberger and Steve Soboroff are focused on the July 13, 2009 opening ceremony in Israel of the 18th Maccabiah.

Tiberger is the executive director of next year’s Maccabiah and of the Maccabi World Union, so his preoccupation is understandable.

Soboroff is an influential and politically well-connected Los Angeles real estate developer, who envisions the next Maccabiah as not only a celebration of Jewish sportsmanship and solidarity, but also as a profit-making enterprise.

He was actively involved with the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee in 1984 and watched closely as top organizer Peter Ueberroth transformed the games’ accounting ledger from a predicted sea of red ink into an unbelievable surplus of $225 million.

The Maccabiah is sometimes dubbed the “Jewish Olympics,” and the comparison is not completely out of line. It ranks as the world’s third- or fourth-largest sport event, following the Olympics and Asian Games, and tied with the World University Games.

Tiberger expects some 10,000 athletes, divided into junior, open, master and paralympic categories, at the opening ceremonies at the Ramat Gan stadium, hailing from 60 countries and competing in 35 different sports at some 75 venues.

The quadrennial Maccabiah represents a major boost for the tourist industry, Israel-Diaspora relations and Jewish unity, but it costs a lot of money — $27 million for the host country alone.

Finance is a subject with which Soboroff is thoroughly familiar as chairman and CEO of the extensive Playa Vista multiuse real estate project, a one-time Los Angeles mayoral candidate and former president of the L.A. City Recreation and Parks Commission.

He was also the driving force behind the creation of the Staples Center sports and entertainment stadium in downtown Los Angeles, for which the office supplies chain store paid $120 million to have its name on the venue’s portals.

So when Soboroff learned that the 2005 Maccabiah made only $2.5 million from combined naming, television, sponsorship and merchandise rights, his entrepreneurial instincts were aroused.

“There is no reason why we can’t get greatly expanded TV and radio coverage, get primary sponsors for each separate sport, and others for uniforms and running shoes, just for starters,” he said.

To put concept into action, Soboroff recently formed The Committee of 18 (for the 18th — “Chai” — Maccabiah), with members selected from the vast pool of entertainment, media, marketing, advertising, business and philanthropy talent in Los Angeles.

The know-how and contacts of these experts is priceless, but in addition the 18 members will pay for the privilege of dispensing their free advice and efforts.

The plan calls for each committee member to give or raise $50,000, which would bring in $900,000. The money will provide scholarships for 200 teenage junior athletes from poorer communities in the former Soviet Union, India and Latin America, who otherwise could not afford the trip.

Earlier this month, Tiberger joined Soboroff in Los Angeles for a 10-day visit to pitch the idea to 20 carefully selected prospects.

“No one turned us down, and we have nine definitely signed up,” Soboroff said. “We won’t give out the names until we have all 18 aboard.”

His project is not the first attempt to broaden the public outreach and financial underpinning of the Maccabiah, said Joseph Siegman, the Los Angeles-based founder of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and author of four books on Jewish athletes, from biblical times to the present.

“Back in 1985, ESPN had agreed to do two one-hour shows on the Maccabiah, with Budweiser beer as the underwriter, but we couldn’t quite put it together,” Siegman recalled.

The 1984 Olympic Games, for all their financial success, met with some criticism that excessive commercialization and corporate sponsorships had detracted from the higher ideals of the international sports competition.

Might the Maccabiah be similarly put down if the Committee of 18’s ambitious plans succeed, a reporter asked.

On the contrary, Siegman responded, since most of the foreign athletes must now pay their own way to compete in the Maccabiah, a steady source of outside money would give athletes of limited means a better chance to attend.

Soboroff agreed that, in a perfect world, athletes from wealthy and poor families would have an equal chance to participate. Until that time, though, some commercialization is necessary and would pose no threat if handled “with respect and taste.”

For his part, Tiberger gave assurances that the organizers will strike a balance so that commercial promotions will not overshadow the sport events.

Organizers of the 18th Maccabiah, headed by Israel Carmi and Jeanne Futeran, chairman and president, respectively, of both the Maccabi World Union and the International Maccabiah Committee, expect a series of tangible and intangible benefits from their efforts.

Israel counts on some 25,000 foreign spectators, who, together with the 10,000 athletes, will pump around $80 million into the national economy.

The athletes range from 15-year-old juniors to master tennis players 75 and older who are expected to consume 450,000 kosher meals, 200,000 meals-to-go, and 1.5 million quarts of mineral water. Some 400 buses will shuttle competitors from and to events and an additional 400 buses will be available for guided tours to all parts of Israel.

About 3,000 police, soldiers and private guards will provide security around the clock.

As is customary, Israel will field the largest team of 2,500 athletes and officials, strengthened by Russian and Ethiopian immigrants. The United States will be second largest with 982 members, followed by Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Brazil and Mexico. Germany will send a 200-member team.

Some 35 percent to 40 percent of participants will be women, and soccer, as always, will have the most participants, with 70 competing teams — men, women, junior, open and master.

Besides the customary Olympic events, there will be Maccabiah competitions in lawn bowling, cricket, 10-pin bowling and futsal (indoor soccer), as well as bridge and chess.