…FROM A LATTER-DAY “HELLENISTIC” JEW
As seasonal happenstance would have it, while thinking of a subject for this post I came upon slides of two Hanukkah-related pictures I made many years ago in my mid-teens. My original intention had been to create an epic account of the Hannukah story in the form of a heavily illustrated book-cum-comic, however, I soon found the task to be overwhelming and abandoned it after just a few weeks.
The unfinished project coincided with my growing interest in biblical and ancient history and this had a strong influence on the way I considered the story of the Maccabees and their war of liberation against the forces of the Seleucid Empire. This meant that I was passionate about executing not only an accurate visual portrayal of the Hebrews, their Macedonian foes, and the Judean backdrop, but also an historically objective account of the story itself.
As a little Jewish boy I had received the traditional, pious version of the story based on the first and second books of Maccabees, in which Judah Maccabee and his family are presented as flawless heroes, struggling against an evil foreign enemy and even wickeder “Hellenised” Jewish collaborators. Until I was about twelve, the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) were totally good and all those who opposed them, totally bad.
But as I grew older, and read more deeply into the history of the period I came to understand that the truth was – as it usually is in these sort of encounters – far more nuanced, and that if I’d been around at the time I might very well have seen the Hellenised Jews as enlightened and civilised, and the Maccabees as reactionary, intolerant and often cruel. Evidence for this probability lies in the fact that once the Maccabees were victorious and came to power, they too surrendered to many of the intellectual temptations of Greek culture and thought. Moreover, once the Hasmonean’s established their royal dynasty, the more powerful they became, the more they emulated their Seleucid and Ptolemaic imperial neighbours, including the hiring of large Greco-Macedonian mercenary armies – the very troops they had once fought against – to protect and expand their kingdom.
Thus, what I planned to do was to offer the first objective version of the epic struggle, which neither glossed over some the undoubted barbarities of the Macedonian occupiers, nor the fanatical fundamentalism of the Maccabee resistance fighters – and crucially, all wearing the correct gear, and inhabiting the genuine landscape. Looking at the two plates presented here, if I had completed the project, I might have created an early form of graphic novel. On the other hand, perhaps, my teen-self wasn’t yet ready to reveal myself as the “de-constructor” of a cherished myth and so risk the ire of many of my more traditional fellow Jews, something I did eventually manage to do thirty years later with my history of King Saul…