Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz

(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, December 2006)

Just this once, instead of a Christmas song, how about a Hannukah song?

I must admit to not knowing a thing about this except what is in the liner notes to the record I learned it from (Songs of the Holidays, by Gene Bluestein and children of the Mount Zion Hebrew Congregation, recorded right here in the Twin Cities in 1959; Folkways 7554). It comes from Ruth Rubin's A Treasury of Jewish Folksong. Obviously the song must be at least half a century old.

Hannukah isn't really a major Jewish holiday; it came about much too late. In the period after Alexander the Great, his empire broke into pieces -- the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, the Antigonid Kingdom of Macedonia, and (most important for the Jews) the Seleucid Empire in Babylon and, later, Antioch.

Judea was originally part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. But at the Battle of Panion in 198 B.C.E., Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire captured Syria, including Judea. Then Antiochus III fell into a war with the Roman Republic, and got his provinces handed to him on a platter. They deprived him of some territory, and made him pay a huge indemnity. It was a disaster for the Seleucids, who suddenly had a huge budget deficit. Antiochus III himself was killed trying to get money out of a temple, his first son Seleucus IV was assassinated by one of his officials who had tried and failed to get money from the Jews, and Antiochus's second son Antiochus IV took charge. For a while, he got the deficit under control -- but by then a bunch of his eastern provinces, which Antiochus III had recaptured, were falling away again. Antiochus tried to raise more money to build an army -- and he also tried to unite the country by imposing one religion.

The Jews were open to having one religion in the nation, but if it came down to one religion, it had better be theirs. They didn't go along with Antiochus IV at all. He reacted with a persecution, desecrating the Temple and dedicating it to Zeus. From there, things get a bit hazy. We have five sources: Jewish tradition, the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, Josephus (who largely follows 1 Maccabees), and the book of Daniel, which although it is set in the Persian period gets the names of the Persian kings wrong while giving precise details about the Maccabean era. Our sources don't agree on much; 1 Maccabees is sort of the National Public Radio version, very secular, well- documented, expressing few opinions -- though it's very pro-Maccabee; it continues through the life not only of Judah/Judas Maccabeus but also his brothers Jonathan, who became High Priest, and Simon, who became prince of the Jews, to the beginning of the reign of Simon's son John Hyrcanus, whose sons would later be kings. 2 Maccabees is what is called Pathetic History (pathetic in that it arouses the passions); nowadays, we might call it the DocuDrama of the Week -- it's full of bloody martyrdoms and confessions of faith under torture. Al Qaida would probably love it. Though it omits the most important death of all: It stops shortly before Judas Maccabeus is killed in battle. (Historians are sure the author knows what came next, but didn't agree with the politics of the later Maccabees, so didn't talk about them.) Daniel is peculiar -- it gets to the point where Judas cleanses the Temple (calling his efforts "a little help" for the Jews), but then goes into an apocalyse that, so far, hasn't happened. Jewish tradition is more mixed; this was the period of the great rabbis, and different rabbis had different views. They do give us the story of the eight days of oil, though.

The one thing all these sources agree on is that Antiochus defiled the Temple (Daniel calls it the "Abomination of Desolation"), and they agree that some
Jews rebelled. Their leader was Judas Maccabeus, and he cleansed the Temple; Hannukah is the celebration of its rededication.

The sequel was rather sad. Judas died in battle, and the Jews only survived because the Seleucid Empire fell into civil war, with new kings every few years; from ruling most of the Middle East in 167 B.C.E., it was no bigger than Judea half a century later. Jonathan and Simon and John Hyrcanus made Judea free -- but they also turned it into an imperialist power. A later Maccabee, Alexander Janneus, started killing even his own people. His sons started a civil war, and eventually the Romans decided enough was enough. They took over Judea; the Jews would have to wait two thousand years before again having a nation.


Complete Lyrics:
Once there was a wicked, wicked king,
His sword was sharp, his dart did sting.
What was his name? Antiochus.
What was his name? Antiochus.
From the Temple he took the Torah,
Put out the menorah, menorah.
What was his name? Antiochus.
What was his name? Antiochus.

Up rose Judah, the hero, the brave,
His ancient land to save, to save.
What was his name? Judah Maccabee.
What was his name? Judah Maccabee.
In the Temple he lit the menorah.
Then the Jews had light and Torah.
When was all this? On Hannukah.
When was all this? On Hannukah.

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