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October 24, 2014 / 30 Tishri, 5775
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Culture Wars: From The Maccabees To Matisyahu’s Beard

Matis

The war is as fierce today as it ever was. It is a battle for culture and identity and it is the same war the Maccabees fought so long ago. While the original Chanukah victory had a military component, the battle was certainly first and foremost a fight against cultural assimilation – and that struggle continues today.

Exhibit A: Matisyahu. I am not about to rip on one of my all-time favorite musicians, but it was painful for me and many others to see our beloved chassidic reggae superstar looking no different from Sting. Matisyahu’s music was amazing, and hopefully will continue to be amazing, but he used to be so, well, outwardly Jewish, so proudly different. You just respected him so much for not caring what the world thought. In his full beard he appeared tribal, rebellious, revolutionary. But now it’s all gone and his formerly chassidic look is being portrayed as some ball and chain.

In Latin there is a saying: The name is an omen. Matisyahu’s very name comes from Chanukah and in his inner struggle to find his real self the battle of Chanukah was taking place – the battle to place oneself somewhere on the spectrum between Hellenist (totally assimilated) and Zealot (no outside influence). The signs of identity-strain already showed themselves when for last year’s holiday season Matisyahu released the brilliant and inspiring song “Miracle” – but in the video Matisyahu is seen dancing around in a bird cage dressed in a Santa outfit.

Having religious angst is one thing, but why did Matisyahu feel the need share his shave with the world? Why did it have to go out to millions via Twitter? Maybe he did not want to shock his fans next time he came out on stage. Or maybe by taking a new side in the cultural battle, Matisyahu chose to be a cultural combatant once again. Matis used to make Judaism seem awesome, but now he made it look like a prison. A bit sad, but I still love you Matis, and looking forward to your comeback!

Exhibit B: The scandal involving a column about a student’s premarital sexual episode, ending with her “walk of shame,” published on a website run by Yeshiva University students. YU wanted the website to get rid of the column. The website stood its ground, preferring to lose its funding (which it did) rather than its voice. This too happened right before Chanukah, and is part of the classic cultural war. Today’s Jewish students struggle between the passions of physicality and the values of timeless Judaism. Even the bastion of American Jewish education, Yeshiva University, is a battleground where the forces of Hellenism and traditionalism are locked in a competition for cultural supremacy.

Exhibit C: Absorption Ministry ads targeting Israelis living in America and calling them back to the Jewish state. In one of the ads, Israeli grandparents Skyping with their granddaughter who is living in America are shocked to learn she is more aware of Christmas than Chanukah. Here Israel struck back with an unequivocal Maccabean message: American culture is inferior to Jewish culture, so come back home before you lose your children to assimilation. Many American Jews were outraged, feeling personally affronted at having their host culture besmirched. While Matisyahu paraded his new clean face, and the YU girl lamented her walk of shame, the State of Israel pushed an alternative to Christmas and offered Chanukah as a remedy for the disease of assimilation.

Exhibit D: While in Exhibit C the State of Israel was the Maccabee, in Exhibit D the Jewish state took its own walk of shame: “The Ministry of Culture and Sport is sponsoring Chanukah happenings throughout the country under the banner ‘Nes Chanukah (Chanukah Miracle)’. In order to make more cultural options available to all, a new initiative is being undertaken to make 100 plays in more than 100 locations free for children. The plays will include Pippi Longstocking, Pinocchio, Aladdin, and more.”

Excuse me? What were those plays again? If we’re going to go to the trouble of making a whole series of Chanukah happenings, shouldn’t we use this opportunity to educate about our own cultural history, to teach Jewish identity?

Can’t we promote our own stories, our own heroes? Or are we too afraid of those cultural icons of the past because their story is too demanding for us? Those Maccabees were pretty serious folks, they sought purity and Temple offerings, and I guess not everyone in the Israeli elite is interested in inculcating Maccabee ideology.

And speaking of Masada, my friend Yehuda HaKohen pointed out that a McDonald’s is opening up at the famous desert palace/fortress. McDonald’s, not exactly a traditional Jewish food establishment, is rather the height of modern American soft-power cultural imperialism. Putting a McDonald’s at Masada offends the memory of the Zealot fighters who fled the Roman occupation army in search of cultural and religious independence. So why not put a nice Israeli restaurant there instead, something that feels authentically Jewish? But then again, what is authentic Jewish food – Shwarma? Gefilte fish? Jachnoon? Petcha? We’re still figuring that one out.

Finally, Exhibit E in the battle for Jewish identity: Who else but the Maccabeats! These young men make fun music, but as their name suggests, they are cultural warriors. They took Matisyahu’s song “Miracle,” sang it a cappella style, and added to it a video that warms the Jewish heart. No walk of shame, no Santa outfits, just great energy and a love of Judaism. And if Chanukah is about broadcasting the miracle, the Maccabeats’ usage of YouTube to spread the light of Chanukah and make Judaism look attractive is to be lauded.

For Jews, assimilating out is easy – but the real challenge is to assimilate in, to process 3,500 years of Jewish history, knowledge, and texts, and to somehow find a way to be modern, creative, and free, yet still in line with Jewish tradition.

Being proudly Jewish and cleaving to our authentic spirit is real beauty. Never surrender.

Yishai Fleisher is managing editor of Jewish Press Online (www.jewishpress.com).

About the Author: Yishai Fleisher is the Contributing Editor and PR manager at the JewishPress.com, and Israel's only English language broadcast radio show host (Galey Yisrael 106.5FM). Yishai is an Israeli Paratrooper, a graduate of Cardozo Law School, and the founder of Kumah ("Arise" in Hebrew), an NGO dedicated to promoting Zionism and strengthening Israel's national character. Yishai is married to Malkah, they have two children, and they live on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.


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4 Responses to “Culture Wars: From The Maccabees To Matisyahu’s Beard”

  1. Yishai – Excellent article! Thank you for writing what is on the minds and in the hearts of so many of us!

  2. Debbie says:

    Well said Yishai – I agree wholeheartedly with Tehilla’s comments. You put so well what so many of us are feeling. As an American Jew yearning to live in Israel I find this time of year both a joy celebrating Hanukkah with my children, but also sometimes difficult as worry the kids are overwhelmed with Christmas symbology. Keep on writing because we love what you’re saying!

  3. Debbie – having raised my oldest in the US and now my youngest in Israel, I can tell you there is a WORLD of difference in raising them here! If at all possible, for your children’s future, consider Aliyah while it’s so much easier now than decades ago. Celebrating Chanukah – such a minor holiday in the grand scheme of our year – in Israel is full of meaningfully rich and fun activities for kids.

    Celebrating Rosh HaShanah, Sukkot, Pesach, Shavuot… well, my words can’t do justice to the spiritual high of witnessing even Chilonim (secular) practicing the rituals. Oh, and then there’s Shabbat!!! The first time a bare-headed bus driver wished me “Shabbat Shalom” as I was exiting his bus on a Friday morning, it gave me chills.

    Values are another big difference… in the US our older children placed a high value on the material world. In Israel, where most people have accepted a slightly lower standard of living (i.e., our home is about 75% the size of what we had, I don’t feel pressured to wear $1500 sheitels & $500 Shabbos suits, and we don’t have 3 vehicles or pay $12k/year for Hebrew day school or feel peer pressure to spend Chol Hamoed Pesach at Disney!), our children trade “Rebbe” & Jewish soccer team cards instead of baseball & Yugio cards and actually get excited about visiting Rabbis, Kever Rachel & Macpelah. And during Chanukah, the story comes alive for the kids when visiting (and reenacting) the places where the Maccabees lived and fought.

    The bottom line; no matter how insulated and religious a community in the galut might be, it’s still not the “real thing”. We were practicing there for life here and it would have been so much easier to have begun here in the first place. There are many of us waiting here to help anyone who wants to make Aliyah. Visit nbn.org.il, voleh.org, almosteden.co.il, etc.

  4. Uzi says:

    Didn’t hear the details about the walk of shame, yet.

    I also really love the Ein Prat Fountainheads. They are quickly making joy Israel’s #1 Export.

    So the Golden Arches will spell M for Masada? Or should we Dial M for Murder?

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