My Machine Gun Menorah — by Avraham Burg

(my translation from Avraham Burg’s memoir, IN DAYS TO COME, p. 19-23)

On Wednesday it was all over. After much shelling and bombing, endless rumors and newsflashes, patriotic music playing on the radio and families huddling together protectively, Father returned home from the “government” and said to Mother, “Get ready, we’re going to the Kotel.” I didn’t know what exactly this Kotel was. My parents had never taught me to yearn for it. We didn’t have a photograph of it on the wall, not even a bronze engraving, as was common in so many homes at that time. The walls of Father’s large library were decorated with iconic photos of mother’s family from the old Jewish community in Hebron that had been destroyed, and next to them was a lithograph of synagogues from around the world that were no more, from the Jewish diaspora that had been wiped out – but there was nothing to commemorate the Temple. I think I’ll remember Mother’s excitement until the day I die. She dressed in her blue pleated skirt. “Does this look all right?” she asked Father, as always. “Very much so, Rivka,” he responded, as usual, and together they went down to the road to board the military transport that had come to pick them up. A dusty, unshaven soldier helped them climb into the command car. “I want to go too,” I wailed at the top of my lungs, with heavy, salty tears I can still taste to this day. It was the first great outburst of my childhood. Cries of longing and sadness, of fear and disappointment, of a parting much greater than myself. Perhaps I was curious to see the fresh battlefield, and perhaps I was just giving voice to all the fears that had built up inside me during those days and that time. The cries of a young boy who was not ready to be left without the security and protection of his parents. But nothing helped – they left without me. After a few hours they returned, and my mother pulled out a small bag from her pocketbook and gave me a few greasy cartridges from an Uzi submachine gun. “I collected them at the Kotel especially for you,” she said. She wanted to compensate me for leaving me behind, but she was also entrusting me with a little treasure.
            In those last innocent days of the State of Israel, we all had to take a home economics class at school. Once a week we left the gray, desolate schoolyard and walked a few blocks to Mr. Tarshish’s workshop. In the faded apron of a craftsman from a bygone era, in a booming voice and with a ruler he rapped against the table any time he grew angry, Mr. Tarshish taught us all the survival skills we’d ever need. How to fix a short circuit with a special iron wire, how to sand down a rough board, how to polish metal, how to change a light bulb. To this day, I don’t particularly like fix-it work, mainly because I’m not that good at it. I am not just left wing politically, I also have two left hands, far more left than my most firmly-held views. I was also never good at conforming to the mold, or copying a template exactly and without variation. Even back then my spirit sought something else, something creative and original. The complete opposite of the strict, precise work ethic of the mythic Mr. Tarshish. A few months after that war we prepared a surprise for our parents in honor of Chanukah: We made metal menorahs, the proud work of our own hands. We toiled for days, cutting the brass, bending and joining, shaping the frame and the branches. The high point for me was attaching the Uzi cartridges that Ma had brought me from the Kotel, which I used as candleholders that remain laden with significance. My souvenir from the remnants of the Temple is inextricably bound up in weaponry, violence  and bloodshed. I was not yet familiar with a Judaism of pacifism, it had not yet exerted its hold on me, and in school we had not yet reached that Biblical verse renouncing all violent associations with the Temple and its altars: “And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones, for by wielding your sword upon them you have profaned them.” And thus the Jewish Kotel and the Israeli Uzi became melded together into something new, inseparable.
            To this day we light this menorah every Chanukah, and I both love it and hate it. Each time my heart is pierced anew – by a longing for the childhood I once had but that is no longer, and by a lament for the tremendous transformation that has come over all of us, a transformation not entirely good. I need that menorah not just as a nostalgic link to those innocent bygone days, but also as a tangible reminder of all those things that I still want, and still need, to change in this world.
            I always loved Chanukah, more than any other holiday. In the beginning, in my youth, it was because of the mystery of the darkness and the small lights that banish it, and because of the modest little gifts we always received from our parents. I loved those magic moments in which Father, Mother, my sisters and I sat on the rug and played with the dreidels, the spinning tops – among the rare instances when Father came down to our childhood heights. Perhaps that’s why dreidels became my favorite collector’s item, with thousands of them now decorating the walls of our home. With time I came to love Chanukah even more, as a unique and special holiday in which Mother had a role as well. Not just as the passive woman who responds Amen to all the blessings, rituals, and customs that Father performed with flair, but also as the one who lit the candles on the nights that Father was not at home. I loved observing her in this role – she inspired me the first time I took on a public position. That was during the Chanukah that I was in first grade, when I was selected to play the part of the shamash, the candle used to light all the others. Mother ironed my white shirt, made me a cardboard crown with a paper candle on top, and rehearsed with me again and again the line I was supposed to recite in a loud voice in the class play. “To be a shamash is to bear a great responsibility,” she said to me, “and my son needs to be the best shamash there is.” So I tried, for her sake. I wanted to be the best shamash there is.
            Since Chanukah is celebrated in the winter, it is the Festival of Lights, like many other festivals of light in other cultures. We Jews, who do not worship nature in and of itself, have added more and more layers of religious meaning, as with many of our other holidays. The miracle of the jar of oil, the redemption of the Temple, the victory of the few over the many – the whole deal. Thus we transformed a festival celebrating the shortest days of the year and the approaching lengthening of the hours of daylight into a religious holiday. The sigh of relief of Adam, whose fears were alleviated when the winter nights stopped growing longer, was transformed into a great, spontaneous joy. The joy of the faithful over the redemption of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Greeks had violated it with their pagan rites and their military conquest. Our benevolent God, the master of history, stood by our ancestors in their distress and secured them a “great victory.” As a sign of gratitude, and as a means of commemoration, the ancient Jews established these eight days to give thanks to the God who delivered them and to praise His name. It was never a holiday about wars and warriors – on the contrary. The mighty ones in the Chanukah story are the Greeks, not us – we are the weak ones. But that is something that no one told me before I ascended the tall chair of the shamash on Chanukah during first grade. In my black polyester Shabbat pants, which were secured high above my belly button, I sang my lines as loudly as I could: “In our time as in those days, God’s Maccabee redeems always.” I didn’t know that in my cousin’s Moshe’s secular school down the block, they sang the same song with a slight variation: “In our time as in those days, the Maccabee redeems always.” For us it was still a religious holiday with God at the center; for them the holiday had already been appropriated by the trampling revolution of the Zionist consciousness. God was cast aside, and the Maccabee assumed center stage.
            The Zionist revolution wanted to return us to an active role in political history, and thus it grasped hold of every symbolic straw it could find. It is natural, therefore, that the heroism of the war and the struggle of the Maccabees became the most important port of call in the Zionist movement’s voyage home. The return to the land and to our memories, to language and history, to the places that once were and to the glory of the past. And we, as small children, were each the best shamash there is, the shield-bearers of this fantastic revolution. A decade later, in the army, we were already singing completely different versions of those Chanukah songs. God had disappeared entirely from the holiday, and we marched in unison—left, right, left—accompanied by the hoarse loudspeakers, keeping pace:
We carry lights
Through darkest nights
The paths aglow beneath our feet.
We found no jar of oil
No miracle but our toil
We hewed the stone with all our might–
Let there be light!
With rifles on our shoulders and heavy militaristic steps we trampled on any religious vestige of the holiday. From a Jew in my parents’ home I became a new Israeli Maccabee. We, my Israeli friends and I, don’t rely on miracles. Not like all the weak, meek, lily-livered members of our parents’ generation. We take responsibility into our own hands, we are the masters of our own fates. We are heroes – but we’re not Greek. I was transformed from an anonymous little Jewish boy from Jerusalem into the common Israeli hero, whom none of my parents’ generation or their parents before them ever dreamed of before.
            This popular modern Chanukah song has become associated, in recent years, with the opening ceremonies for Israel’s Independence Day on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. The Hasmoneans of yore became retroactive mighty heroes of the past, and the inspiration and the model for the military heroes of the present—for us—who hew the stones. By means of this marching song, which was written about the Zionist Chanukah and is played on Independence Day, the consciousness of Chanukah and Independence Day become inextricably intertwined. From marking the original moment of religious exaltation to, now, a holiday celebrating physical vigor and the victories of our time. The modern holiday of Chanukah became a day of heroism, rather than a day commemorating the rededication of the Temple. With each Uzi cartridge I fastened—any of which may have felled someone near the Kotel in ’67—I unknowingly fastened this new myth to our Israeli narrative.

 

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