Academic journal article Western Folklore

Local Concerns, Foreign Heroes: George Washington in Israel

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Local Concerns, Foreign Heroes: George Washington in Israel

Article excerpt

It is mid-winter at Valley Forge. Everyone is cold. Frostbite is widespread. Everyone has given up hope. George Washington is depressed. One night, looking for inspiration, George goes for a walk through the camp. He finds one Jewish member of the Continental Army lighting the haunkkiya. . . . the soldier experts Hanukkah, Judah Maccabee, and everything to George, who refinds his courage in the process-enough to stand up when the boat crosses the Delaware. Later, the first President sends our Jewish soldier a silver Menorah . . . as a gift of appreciation, along with a letter which says, "Judaism has a lot to offer the world. You should be proud to be a Jew. " Wolfson 1990:41

This Jewish-American legend has migrated to Israel - appearing in Hanukkah anthologies (Lewinski 1954; Shua and Ben-Gurion 1996), adapted into a pedagogical text for teaching Hebrew to adult learners, incorporated in children's books, and can be found in recent years in religious sites on the Internet. Acknowledging that folklore is always concerned with identity, it is inevitable to ask what functions American folklore fulfills for its Israeli audiences. Why would Washington be incorporated in Israeli texts? How does this story fit into the Israeli discourses of identity, both the secular-Zionist and the religious?

By following the origins of the story in the United States and in Israel, and by closely analyzing its performance in Israeli contexts, I intend to demonstrate not only the where, when, and how of the function of the story, but also why George Washington is imported to address Israeli concerns (Anttonen 2005:103). Using linguistic, historical, and rhetorical approaches in the analysis of a specific story, we will demonstrate how changes - in language, style, and content - allow the same story about a foreign hero to be part of two competing narratives of the Israeli Hanukkah.1 The focus on a particular borrowed story will illuminate the complex relationships between folklore and national discourse.


Lighting candles for the eight days of Hanukkah is performed in commemoration of political and religious events occurring in the land of Israel more than two thousand years ago. The Apocryphal books of Maccabees and the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius in his Antiquities of the Jews tell of the revolt of a small group of peasants from the Judean Mountains against the mighty Greek Empire in 166 BCE. The uprising was successful, the Temple in Jerusalem cleansed, and Judaism was once again allowed to be practiced. Mattathias Hashmonean and his sons, leaders of the revolt, established an independent Judean kingdom that lasted for approximately 160 years. Canonical Jewish sources emphasize the religious-miraculous aspects of the revolt and victory achieved with the help of God.2

However, this interpretation was rejected by the Jewish national movement of the late 19th century. Hanukkah acquired different meanings and became a major event in Zionist narrative. In the words of writer Joseph Klausner (1954) , it changed from "a humble ancient holiday" into "the festival of Hashmonean, a new holiday filled with glory and joy." It is no longer a commemoration of the dedication of the Temple (the literal meaning of the word "hanukkah" is "dedication"), but a festival emphasizing the victory of the human Hashmoneans. The historical figures, particularly Judah Maccabeus, entered the Zionist pantheon of heroes and were mobilized to national needs; the Jewish Sport Organization established in 1895, for example, adopted die name Maccabee,3 and the image of Judah decorated many artifacts representing the new physical heroic Hebrew (Grossman 2003). Hanukkah became a public event celebrated with processions of lights and songs, plays were composed and acted out at public balls, and it became a central part in kindergarten and school ceremonies (Ariyeh-Sapir 2002; Bashkin 1998; Mashiach 2004).

The importance given to Hanukkah is consistent with the Zionist historical narrative - Hanukkah can be interpreted as the victory of the people against occupation, restoring national independence in the Land of Israel itself. …

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