An Intimation of Hanukkah in S.Y. Agnon’s T’mol Shilshom

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December 7, 2009
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Aryeh Cohen

The following excerpt is from the 1945 novel T’mol Shilshom (Only Yesterday) written by Israeli Nobel Laureate S. Y. Agnon. The novel, like Agnon himself, is torn between the secular Zionist culture of the newly born Jewish settlement in Palestine (represented by Tel Aviv) and the traditional Jewish culture of Europe and the “Old Settlement” (represented by Jerusalem). The (anti-?) hero of the novel is Yitzhak Kumer, a peripatetic oleh who embodies the restless, unsettled movement between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The excerpted paragraph comes from a scene that brings together many of these competing claims and values. The speaker is Malkhov — an ultra-Orthodox Jew in whose inn the characters gather. Malkhov does not exhibit much love for the Zionist movement, and yet his inn is in Tel Aviv, the Zionist city, and not Jerusalem. Among the guests is Yosef Haim Brenner (1881–1921) who was, in reality and in the novel, an author and secular Zionist ideologue who, it turns out, Malkhov knows from his younger days in yeshivah. In his soliloquy, Malkhov introduces the tensions between the new secular Zionist understanding and the embrace of Hanukkah as a nationalist symbol of freedom from tyranny, and the traditional understanding of Hanukkah as celebrating a miraculous religious event. He cites Eliezer Ben Yehudah (1858–1922), the so-called father of the Hebrew language, and Boris Shatz (1867–1932), the founder of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Both Shatz and Ben Yehudah represent secular Zionism in Jerusalem (as do the Bezalel school and the resurrected Hebrew language).

It is in this context that Malkhov, using Ben-Yehudah’s words with obvious glee, points out the internal contradictions in the Zionist embrace of Hanukkah.

When Professor Boris Shatz made his Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design], he ran into Hanukkah, this holy festival that they have started to call ‘Festival of the Maccabees.’ They went and made it into a celebration of lust. They erected a statue [idol] of Mattathias the High Priest [depicting him] as he is holding a sword in his hand to stab the traitor/ transgressor who sacrificed a pig on the altar which they had made for the Evil Antiochus. They passed the whole night in revelry and orgiastic eating. On the morrow, Ben Yehudah wrote approvingly of the celebration in his newspaper. He was, however, uneasy with the statue that they had erected in the hall, for this Mattathias was a zealous defender of his religion — his religion and not his land. For during the whole time that the Greeks had invaded our land and stole and plundered and murdered and slaughtered and destroyed cities and villages — Mattathias and his sons sat in Modi’in and did not lift a finger. When, however, the Greeks began to harm the religion, as it says in the prayer: ‘to make them forget your Torah and force them to transgress the Laws of Your will,’ he and his heroic sons jumped like a lion, etc., and they established in honor of the event a festival for eight days. And now, says Ben Yehudah in his article, and now I have no doubt that at the time that we were gathered last night in his honor, if the breath of life were breathed into the statue, or if he himself were alive, that he would stab us all as one with the sword in his hand, that he would sacrifice us all on the altar.

From S.Y. Agnon’s T’mol Shilshom (Only Yesterday), trans. Aryeh Cohen

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Aryeh Cohen, a Sh’ma Advisory Board member, lives in Los Angeles with his partner, Andrea, and their children, Shachar and Oryah. He teaches Talmud at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies; davens at the Shtibl Minyan; and writes about Talmud, justice, Shabbat, and gender, among other topics. He is currently writing a book, Justice in the City: Thinking the Just City out of the Sources of Rabbinic Literature.

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