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2005 blog


Book Review: Maccabees is a remarkable 
excursion through a bloody time in Jewish history,  Jan. 7, 2005

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Maccabee: An Epic in Free Verse by Howard Rubenstein, Granite Hills Press, El Cajon: 2004, 416 pages.

Reviewed by Donald H. Harrison

Twenty-one ballads in large measure translated from the ancient Greek of the Apochrypha, the so-called 'hidden books of the Bible" —it sounds like heavy reading, does it not?  To be truthful, before I began Dr. Rubenstein's book, I had prepared mentally for a long siege. I had assumed that  reading Maccabee would be slow laborious study for which I would be rewarded with knowledge not readily accessible to anyone else.

Was I surprised!  Maccabee was one of the easiest, most enjoyable books I have ever read about ancient times—the result, I'm certain, of Rubenstein's remarkable feel for the rhythm of language, his ability to fictionalize, and his abundantly clear love for his subject matter. I had anticipated that 416 pages would take me many days, perhaps weeks, to slog through. Not these 416 pages.  I devoured them in just a few sittings.

Rubenstein, a San Diego County resident, is a Harvard-trained physician, now retired, whose hobby since boyhood has been the study of the classical languages—Latin and ancient Greek.

Using The Books of the Maccabees as his source, Rubenstein tells us not only of the revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes by Mattathias and his sons, including Judah Maccabee—the events that we celebrate annually at Chanukah—but also relates the events and wars during the reigns of Judah, Jonathan and Simon.

Here in Ballad 4 is Mattathias giving deathbed advice to his sons on how to recognize an evil man:

The evil man says,
There is only one way,
and I have it!
There is only one truth,
and I know it!'
Know him, too, by the bitter hatred
in his heart—
by the contempt he shows
for those who disagree,
by his intolerance.
He does not treat people
with respect or dignity.
He insults them,
degrades them,
humiliates them,
and calls them names.

In Ballad 7, Rubenstein tells the story of  the rededication of the Temple after Judah Maccabee leads the Jews to a victory over the Romans. In relating the story of Hanukah (as he prefers to spell it), he purposely omitted the story that we tell today about how there was only enough oil for one day to fuel the Temple menorah, but that, by miracle, the oil lasted for eight days.  That story is a latter day invention, according to Rubenstein.  Based on the Books of Maccabees, Rubenstein provides this account:

As they used to do
for the festival of Sukkot,
they had set up colossal lampstands
in the Court of the Women.
Each lampstand
had a great columnar stem
bearing four gigantic golden bowls.
Each lamp bowl was filled to capacity
with fifteen gallons of oil
and held a giant wick
made from the breeches of priests.

In Ballad 10, Rubenstein continues the story—telling about the death of the Syrian Greek king who had brought all the trouble upon the Jewish people.

He sent for his friends and said,
"I can no longer sleep at night.
My heart is broken and failing, too

"How terrible are my afflictions!
How flooded I am with misery!
Only yesterday I had unlimited power
and unlimited riches,
and everyone in my kingdom
loved me—didn't they?"

I could happily quote this book to you for verse after verse, but I will limit myself to just one more, a passage from Ballad 14, after Judah Maccabee died on the field of battle:

The enemy captain of the left flank
walked up to the body,
lifted the helmet, and set it aside.
The face of the dead man
was unmistakable—
the distinct and noble features.

The captain thought,
"How curious
that the fiercest of warriors 
has such a beautiful face."
He did not even notice that the face
was weather-beaten and scarred.

Then he clasped Judah's right arm
in his own and noticed the hand.
He inspected the other and thought,
"Never have I seen
more magnificent hands."

He removed his own helmet,
cradled it in his arm,
and said to his troops,
"Men, today we have won a great victory.
For the man lying before you
is Judah Maccabee,
the greatest leader of our age
and one of the greatest commanders
of all time."
Then he added,
"Too bad he was a Jew!"