My glorious Maccabees? – Part 2 of 3

It was a little like going to a high school reunion: I was curious how the years had treated an old friend whom I hadn’t glimpsed since I was a teenager. 

I’m talking about My Glorious Brothers, Howard Fast’s historical novel about the Maccabees, which I just re-read as part of my lead-up to Chanukah. 

If you’re not familiar with Fast, he was a prolific 20th century novelist whose other books include Citizen Tom Paine and Spartacus, the basis for the famous movie with Kirk Douglas. 

He also happened to be a committed socialist and a member of the Communist Party who spent three months in jail for refusing to name names, and who was blacklisted throughout the 1950s. (He self-published Spartacus when he could no longer write for established publishers.) 

Fast is no Joyce or Woolf, but he  is good at creating vivid characters and settings. He’s an easy and engaging read — which, I have learned  in my own writing efforts, is no small achievement. 

My Glorious Brothers came out in 1948, in the wake of the Holocaust and the same year as the creation of the state of Israel. There are echoes of both in Fast’s version of the Maccabeean rebellion — paeans to the beauty of the land, musings by a diplomat from the Roman Empire about how the Jews inspire universal loathing with their stubborn refusal to compromise their beliefs.

The narrator is Simon, an old man and the last of the five Maccabee brothers, reminiscing with love and sorrow about the early days of their uprising. The bare bones of the story come from the two Biblical books of the Maccabees, but like any good drash (commentary), Fast fills out those bones with the flesh of his imagination. 

Judah Maccabee and his four brothers, in Fast’s retelling, are honest farmers, sons of a wise and respected village leader. They are reluctantly thrust into guerrilla war by a series of brutal and horrendous acts by the Greek-influenced Syrian empire that was controlling Judea at the time. 

Fast does not even mention the rabbinic story of oil miraculously burning for eight days. 

In short, he takes a combination of the national-liberation and freedom-of-religion views of Chanukah. (See my last blog post.) Here’s an excerpt about the early days of the rebellion: 

Never had there been a thing like this in Israel before – or in any land, for these men were not mercenaries nor were they wild barbarians, in whom war and life are so intermixed that the one cannot be entangled from the other. No, these were simple farmers, gentle scholars whose devotion had been to the Law, the covenant, and the scrolls of our past. Some, indeed, knew well enough the use of our small, laminated bows and had shot partridges and rabbits with them, but even those had no experience with spears or swords…. 

Among the volunteers were six engineers, two of whom had lived among the Romans and taught us to make their catapults. Well do I remember how they marched into Ephraim, these strangers from far off Egypt, laden with gifts and dressed in beautiful garments that made our peasant homespun seem simple indeed. They brought a gift for the Maccabee: a banner of blue silk, and upon it a star of David, and sewn beneath the star: Judas Maccabeus. Who resists tyrants obeys God. And I remember too how they crowded forward to look at Judas – who had already become a legend, and the wonder and surprise of the volunteers when they discovered that Judas was as young as most of them and younger than some. 

Play based on My Glorious Brothers performed on Kibbutz Sarid, 1951

So what was the outcome of this high school reunion? Did the star quarterback maintain his physique, the homecoming queen her charisma?

I was surprised to find how much I still enjoyed My Glorious Brothers.  Fast sure can tell a story. Granted, there are parts that are a bit hokey such as a fictional love triangle between Simon, Judah and the “girl next door.” But he really gives you a feeling for what life was like in a hillside Judean village in the second century BCE, what might have been at stake for the Maccabees and their supporters, the odds they faced and the miraculous fight they waged. 

(His description of the Jewish bow fighters seeing elephants for the first time ever – elephants imported from India! carrying mercenaries and ready to trample them! – reminded me of the battle scene outside Gondor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Judah Maccabee as Legolas, anyone?) 

In short: five stars. Read it. Buy it/borrow it. Give it to any Jewish teenagers in your life.  

BUT….

How accurate is Fast’s depiction of those humble Maccabeean freedom fighters?

Next up:  Maccabees as Taliban?

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One Response to “My glorious Maccabees? – Part 2 of 3”

  1. Judy Pace Says:

    Thanks Ilana — gosh I read Howard Fast’s April Morning about the Civil War SO long ago and loved it. This book sounds cool!

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