Hanukkah in Israel: Inspired by the Maccabees

An online gallery depicts Hanukkah holiday motifs as celebrated by the Zionist pre-State yishuv in the early 20th century.

We are now right in the middle of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. In previous years, this column has covered the paraphernalia associated with Hanukkah: nostalgic looks back at eight-branched menorahs and candles, the history of the dreidle (sevivon) top, the highly caloric, oil-soaked holiday foods and on through to the Israeli tradition of children’s song festivals that have come to be part and parcel of the Hanukkah holiday vacation.

Underlying all the fun is a more serious aspect to Hanukkah in Israel: the strong connection between the Zionist movement and a holiday that is, in Jewish calendar terms, a relatively minor one. It is, however, a public celebration with great symbolic importance. The question of which symbols were important shifted over the centuries from a focus on the Divine and the miracle of the Hannukah oil, to the modern Zionist emphasis on Jewish heroism and military might.

The Hasmoneans became a symbol of the strong “new Jew” whose actions were inspired by the Maccabees of old, as in this Jewish National Fund stamp.

So, for example, a young Gold Meir (then Mabovitch), could be photographed holding a menorah in the Poalei Zion tableau of “Jewish Rebirth” in Milwaukee, in 1919.

A young girl runner would carry a torch from Modi’in, the ancestral home of the Maccabees, to Jerusalem for the official lighting of the national menorah in 1948.

And schoolchildren of all ages would reenact the story of Hannukah.

The Central Zionist Archive in Jerusalem has posted a slide show of posters and photos related to the Hannukah holiday. This gallery depicts the motifs of the holiday — light and heroism — as celebrated by the Jewish pre-State yishuv in the beginning of the 20th century.

For further reading on the subject of Zionism and Hannukah from two differing points of view: Reinventing Hanukkah: The Israeli Politics of the Maccabean Holiday (Hartman Institute) and A Zionist View on Chanukah (United with Israel).

Chag Sameach – Happy Hannukah to all!

Image of Golda Meir: State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Girl runner: Central Zionist Archives. Hannukah schoolchildren: Nostal.co.il. Poster images: Palestine Poster Project.

About Rachel Neiman

A veteran media professional who has lived in Israel since 1984, Rachel has been part of the ISRAEL21c organization since 2008. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Globes Online, the English-language edition of Israel’s leading business daily, and before that, at The Jerusalem Post, as a business reporter, feature writer, and consumer columnist. Rachel began writing about Israeli technology companies at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine and is a professional Hebrew to English translator. In her spare time, she is an active member of the Havurat Tel Aviv congregation, and the Holyland Hash House Harriers, part of an international running and drinking disorganization.