Authors: Howard Fast
Copyright Â© 1948, 1975 by Howard Fast. Copyright Â© 2003 by The Estate of Howard Fast. Copyright renewed. Reprinted by arrangement with the Howard Fast Literary Trust.
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Originally published in 1948 by Little, Brown and Company, Boston
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To all men, Jew and Gentile,
who have laid down their lives
in that ancient and unfinished struggle
for human freedom and dignity
A little more than a century and a half before the birth of Christ, a handful of Jewish farmers in Palestine rose against the Syrian-Greek conquerors who had occupied their land.
For three decades, they carried on a struggle which, in terms of resistance and liberation, has almost no parallel in human history. In a sense, it was the first modern struggle for freedom, and it laid a pattern for many movements that followed.
This tale, which is still celebrated by Jews all over the world as
, or the Feast of the Lights, I have tried to retell here, considering that in these troubled and bitter times there is both a need for and a value in recalling the ancient consistency of mankind.
Whatever is good in the telling, I owe to the people who march through these pages, those wonderful people of old who, out of their religion, their way of life, and their love for their land, forged that splendid maximâthat resistance to tyranny is the truest obedience to God.
On an afternoon in the month of Nisan, which is the sweetest time of the year, the bells were sounded; and I, Simon, the least, the most unworthy of all my glorious brothers, sat down for judgment. I shall tell you of that, even as I write it here, for judgment is compounded out of justiceâor so they sayâand I can still hear the voice of my father, the Adon, saying:
“On three things life rests: on right, which is set forth in the Law; on truth, which is set forth in the world; and on the love of one man for another, which is set forth in your heart.”
But that is a long time ago, as men think, and my father, the old man, the Adon, is dead, and all my glorious brothers are dead too, and what was plain then is far from plain now. So if I write down here all that took placeâor almost all, since a man's thoughts are loosely woven and not like the hide of a beastâit is for myself to know and to understand, if there is any such thing as knowing and understanding. Judas knew, but Judas never sat, as I sit, over the whole land with the land in peace, the roads open north and south and east and west, the land tilled for the harvest, the children playing in the fields and laughing as they play. Judas never saw the vines so heavy they could not support their load, the barley breaking out like pearls, the grain cribs cracking under their fullness; and Judas never heard the song of women in joy and not terror.
Nor did there ever come to Judas a legate from Rome, as he came to me this day, making the whole long journey, as he put itâand you can decide for yourself when a Roman speaks the truth or when he liesâfor one reason: to speak with a man and to grasp his hand.
“And are there no men in Rome?” I said to him, after I had given him bread and wine and fruit, and seen that he was provided with a bath and a room to rest in.
“There are men in Rome,” he smiled, the movement of his thin, shaven upper lip as deliberate as all his other movements, “but there are no Maccabees. So the Senate gave me a writ and ordered me to go to the land where the Maccabee rules and seek him outâ¦” He hesitated here for long enough to count to five; the smile went away and his dark face became almost sullen. “â¦And give him my hand, which is Rome's hand, if he offers his.”
“I don't rule,” I said. “A Jew has no ruler, no king.”
“Yet you are the Maccabee?”
“And you lead these people?”
“I judge themânow. When they have to be led, it may be that I will lead them and it may be that someone else will. That makes no difference. They'll find themselves a leader, as they found them before.”
kings, as I recall,” the Roman said meditatively.
“We had them, and they were like a poison to us. We destroyed them or they destroyed us. Whether the King is Jew or Greek orâ”
“Or Roman,” the legate said, that slow, deliberate smile returning.
The silence lasted after that, the Roman and I looking at each other, and I could guess something of what went on in his head. Finally, he said, with a great and deceptive calm:
“There was a man in Carthage who talked like that. You might say had all the characteristics of aâJew. And Carthage is sown over with salt, so that even a blade of grass will not grow there again. There was a GreekâWell, Athens is a slave market, where we sell the slaves. And about thirty years ago, as you may recall, Antiochus invaded Egypt with his Macedonians. That was not a war that pleased the Senate, so they sent Popilius Laenas with a writ; not with troops, but with a simple expression of the Senate's displeasure. Antiochus asked for twenty-four hours to consider the matter, and Popilius answered that he could spare twenty-four minutes. I believe that in eighteen minutes Antiochus made up his mind.”
“We are not Greeks and we are not Egyptians,” I said to the Roman. “We are Jews. If you come in peace, you can have my hand in peace. Save your threats for a time when you come in war.”
“You are the Maccabee,” the Roman nodded, and smiled and took my hand, and in the afternoon of the same day he sat and listened and watched while I judged for the people.
It was, as I said, in the month of Nisanâin the first part of that month, when the whole land is covered over with flowers and when the scent of the blossoms can be felt on the Mediterranean ten and twenty miles from land. And on the hills and the mountain sides, the evergreens shake loose from the frost and snow, washing themselves with their own fragrant oil; the cedars are tipped with bright green, and the delicate birch trees dance like girls at a wedding. The bees come to make their honey, and the people sing a song of gladness, for in the whole worldâand how many travelers have not said it?âthere is no land like ours, no land so sweet, no land so fragrant, no land so good for giving.
I, Simon, sat in my chamber; and it was told that “The Maccabee sits and judges.” And among those who came was a tanner with a Bedouin slave, a boy of fourteen or fifteen years. At the side of the room, the Roman sat, dark and short and heavily built, his bare legs covered with black hair, his broad face jutting to a great beaked nose, a strange, foreign figure among our own people, who are long of limb and red or chestnut-brown in their beards. Like the Gentiles around us, the Roman wore no beard; clean-shaven, he sat with his knees crossed, his chin on his fist, watching and listening, always on his lips a cynical twist of a smile, the long arm of
touching for an instant the hard fist of
and finding it crude and uncivilized, and wondering, perhaps, when the legions would taste it and soften itâ¦ But I wander. I said there was a Bedouin boy, and his master was a tanner of goatskin. A hard man, his master, as tanners are, with the hemlock stain beat into him and the cool look of a partisan in his eye.
He said to me, “Peace, Simon, and what will you do with a desert rat who runs away?”
Glancing at the Roman, I became conscious suddenly that I was a Jew and that this tanner was a Jew, and I was Simon who was Maccabee and Ethnarch of all the people; and the tanner was a citizen and no more, and that in all the world only a Jew could understand why he spoke to me as he did.
“Why does he run away?” I asked, looking at the brown boy, who was slim and lovely as a gazelle, dark and clean-limbed, the way the Bedouins are, with a great shock of black hair and a smooth skin, unmarred by beard or razor.
“Five times,” the tanner said. “Twice I brought him back myself. Twice he was picked up by caravans, and I paid hard cash for him, and now my son found him in the desert, half dead. He had two years to serve, and now with what he cost me, he has nine years to serve.”
“And that's justice in full,” I said. “What do you want of me?”
“I want to brand him, Simon.” The Roman was smiling now and the boy was trembling with fear. I called him forward and he knelt. “Stand up!” the tanner said harshly. “Is that what I've taught youâto kneel to a man because he's the Maccabee? Kneel to God, if you must kneel!”
“Why do you run away?” I asked the boy.
“To go home,” the boy whimpered.
“And where is his home?” the tanner demanded. “He was ten years old when I bought him from an Egyptian. Has a Bedouin a home? They blow like tumbling weed, here today, there tomorrow. I teach him a trade and make him ready for freedom; and he'd give it away for a lousy goatskin tent!”
“Why do you want to go home?” I asked the boy, old now, the years scraping through me like a comb, wondering, as I had wondered so often of late, why it should be I alone of all my glorious brothers.
“To be free,” he whimpered. “To be freeâ¦”
I sat silent then, looking at the press of people across the back of the chamber, all of them waiting to be judged, and who was I to judge and with what and for what?
“He'll go free in two years,” I said, “even as the Law says; and don't brand him.”
“And the money I paid the caravan?”
“Charge it to your own freedom, tanner.”
“Simon ben Mattathiasâ” he began, his face blackening with rage.
But I broke in on him, roaring, “I've judged you, tanner! How long ago was it that
slept in a lousy goatskin tent? How short is your memory? Is freedom something you can put on or take off, like a coat?”
“The Law saysâ”
“I know what the Law says, tanner! The Law says that if you beat him, he can claim his freedom! Well, he can claim it from me hereâdo you understand me, boy?”
So it was that I judged and lost my temper, an old man, roaring at ghosts, I, Simon; and that evening, when the rites at the Temple were finished, I wrapped myself in my shawl and said the prayer for the dead and felt the tears in my eyes, the senile, lonely tears of an old and tired Jew. And then I went to my dinner table, where the Roman legate satâhe, the dealer in nations, the master of twenty tongues, the same cynical smile on his thin and knowing lips.
“You found it amusing?” I asked him.
“Life is amusing, Simon the Maccabee.”
“For a Roman.”
“For a Romanâand it may be that someday we will teach that to the Jews.”
“The Greeks tried to teach us how amusing life can be, and before them the Persians; and before them the Chaldeans, and before them the Assyrians; and there was a time, as our legends have it, that the Egyptians taught us their own peculiar type of amusement.”
“And you remain a somber man! It's hard to like a Jewâbut a Roman can admire certain qualities.”
“We don't ask for liking, only respect.”
“Even as Rome does. Let me ask you, Simon, do all your slaves go free?”
“After seven years.”
“With no payment to the owner?”
“With no payment.”
“So you impoverish yourselves. And is it true that on the seventh day you do no work and on the seventh year your fields lie fallow?”
“That is our law.”
“And is it true,” the Roman went on, “that in your Temple, here on the hill, there is no God that a man can see?”
“And what do you worship?”
The Roman was not smiling now; he was asking a question which I could not answer, not so he would understandâany more than he could comprehend why we rest on the seventh day or why the fields lie fallow or whyâof all the people in all the worldâwe must free all men, Jew or Gentile, in seven years. Yet, even the thought of that, inside of me, was hollow, and all I could see were the staring eyes of the Bedouin boy who wanted to go home to a lousy goatskin tent on the hot, drifting desert sandâ¦
“What do you worship, Simon Maccabeus, what do you respect?” the Roman prodded. “In all the world, are there no other men of worth than the Jews?”
“All men are of worth,” I murmured. “Of equal worth.”
“Yet you are the chosen people, as you put it so frequently. What are you chosen for, Simon? And if men are of equal worth, how can you be chosen? Or did no Jew ever ask that before, Simon?”
I shook my head somberly.
“Do I trouble you, Simon Maccabeus?” the Roman said. “You are too proud, I think. We are a proud people, too, but we do not scorn what others make. We do not scorn what others are or do. You hate slavery, Simon, yet your people hold slaves. How then? Why so ready to say good or bad, as if this tiny land were the center of the whole universe?”
I had no answers. He was the dealer in nations, and I was Ethnarch of a tiny land and a small people; and like a heavy sickness inside of me came the realization that I moved on currents beyond me, beyond my knowing.
So I sit tonight, writing down this account of my glorious brothers, writing it for all men to read, Jew or Roman or Greek or Persianâwriting it in the hope that out of my own memory will come some understanding of whence we came and where we go, we who are Jews and like no other people, we who meet all the adversity and hurt of life with that strange and holy phrase:
“Once we were slaves in the land of Egypt.”