This Hanukkah, as so many Jews seem so confused about who we are and how to inspire our young to appreciate our traditions, let’s learn from one of my favourite modern Maccabees: Max Nordau.
Nordau didn’t look like a Maccabee, with his puffy white beard and huge white walrus moustache that screamed late-19th-century dandy. And writing and doctoring in Hungary and France, from 1849 to 1923, weren’t very Maccabean activities. Moreover, his greatest essay sent Jews straight to a Greek institution that the Maccabees hated: the gym. But therein lies Nordau’s true Maccabean greatness.
One doesn’t become a modern Maccabee by dressing like they did 2,200 years ago, or waving around spears and swords. Nordau demonstrated his Maccabean spirit in two critical ways. First, with his friend Theodor Herzl, he co-founded the World Zionist Organization and championed Jewish nationalism – meaning Zionism.
Understanding, as too many forget today, that nationalism is a neutral tool, potentially constructive or destructive, Nordau wrote in 1902 that, “The principle of nationality has awakened a sense of their own identity in all the peoples; it has taught them to regard their unique qualities as values and has given them a passionate desire for independence.”
Swept up in those romantic nationalist movements by which we organize our modern world politically, he wrote that anyone who believes the Jews are “a people must necessarily become Zionist, as only the return to their own country can save the Jewish nation, which is everywhere hated, persecuted and oppressed, from physical and intellectual destruction.” Having that vision – which ultimately launched the Jewish state – was impressively bold back then.
In his best essay – Muskeljudentum (Jewry of Muscle), which was published in 1903 – Nordau tried healing one of the greatest ailments that Jewish statelessness caused: the ghetto Jew’s weakness and cowardice. “For too long, all too long, we have been engaged in the mortification of our own flesh,” he wrote.
Appreciate the writing, and the vision: “In the narrow Jewish street our poor limbs soon forgot their gay movements; in the dimness of sunless houses our eyes began to blink shyly; the fear of constant persecution turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers, which rose in a crescendo only when our martyrs on the stakes cried out their dying prayers in the face of their executioners.” This passage parallels Chaim Nahman Bialik’s poem from the time, The City of Slaughter, which mocks the snivelling Jews who cowered instead of confronting the evil pogromists in Kishinev, Russia.
Energized by liberal Jewish nationalism, Nordau said that, “Now, all coercion has become a memory of the past, and at least we are allowed space enough for our bodies to live again.” Repudiating the Maccabean disgust with certain Hellenistic practices, Nordau captured the Maccabees’ martial spirit, national pride and fight for light, writing: “For no other people will gymnastics fulfill a more educational purpose than for us Jews. It shall straighten us in body and in character.”
These were the keys to the Zionist revolution. By toughening the Jewish body, by being able to defend ourselves when necessary, we would resurrect the Jewish soul. Similarly, in establishing a Jewish state, we would reclaim the Jewish national spirit. That’s why, this Hanukkah, and those to come, we must echo Nordau’s closing plea: “May the gymnastic club flourish and thrive and become an example to be imitated in all the centres of Jewish life!”
Our challenge today is guaranteeing that gyms straighten our character, without becoming another stage for self-indulgence and self-worship. Let’s learn from Nordau to not just buff our muscles, but stretch our spirits, in the true Zionist and updated Maccabean tradition.