Maccabee: An Epic in Free Verse by Howard
Rubenstein, Granite Hills Press, El Cajon: 2004, 416 pages.
Reviewed by Donald
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,
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:
they used to do
for the festival of Sukkot,
they had set up colossal lampstands
in the Court of the Women.
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
walked up to the body,
lifted the helmet, and set it aside.
The face of the dead man
the distinct and noble features.
The captain thought,
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!"