The Original Hebrew Hammer

Israeli-brewed Maccabee beer

Before there was the Jewsploitation superhero, The Hebrew Hammer (as played by Adam Goldberg), before there was Maccabee beer, and before there were Maccabi sports teams and Maccabiah Games, there was the real McCoy…I mean, Maccabee. His first name was Judah and his nom de guerre did, indeed, mean “hammer,” as he led the Hasmonean fighters against the Assyrian-Greek army and their Jewish supporters in Israel around 160 BCE. He and his men struck hard, and won the battle of the few against the many with God’s help, as history and tradition respectively tell us. Not so coincidentally, Maccabee is also an acronym for the first letters of Mi Chamocha Ba’elim Adonai, Who is like you, Adonai, among other gods?, a song of praise in the liturgy from the Exodus (For you Disney fans, that’s the song the Hebrew slaves sing as they depart from Egypt at the end of The Prince of Egypt).

Two thousand odd years later, I actually know someone named Maccabee, a most unusual given name, even among observant or Hebrew speaking Jews. He is a distant cousin on my husband’s side of my family, born and raised in Manhattan by parents who simply thought that Maccabee was a unique and meaningful name. If their goal was to bestow a moniker that would not necessitate their child being called by their first name plus their last initial (in order to distinguish him from other children with the same name), then they were right on the gelt with their choice.

They make Judah Maccabee dolls now for kids, but the original Hebrew Hammer was not playing around.

The war fought by Judah and his militias was as much a Jewish cultural and religious civil war as it was an uprising against the occupying superpower of the day. If you took the opening line from The Hebrew Hammer: “This film is dedicated to all of the Jewish brothers and sisters who had enough of the gentile,” and just replaced “film” with “campaign,” then you would have what was, in essence, the Maccabee’s rallying cry. They had had enough of the Greeks and their Hellenistic influence on the Jews, and especially of the Hellenizers among the latter.

Divisions along cultural and religious lines among Jews have persisted for millennia, and were brought into stark contrast with the arrival of modernity. The choices that Jews make in naming their children reflect the differences between secular or cultural Jews and those who adhere to what is called Torah Judaism. Let’s put it this way:  It is highly unlikely that Tiffany and Dylan are brother and sister to  Chana-Leah and Yisroel.

To be sure, in non-Orthodox circles, naming trends come and go with appellations going in and out of style. Until not too long ago, Max, Harry, Lily, Sadie and Frieda were your grandparents, not your toddlers. In the last generation, more secularly leaning Jews chose to give their children biblical names as a means of honoring their ethnic roots without going out on too much of a limb. Many Jewish parents continue to give their children completely non-Jewish names, while at the same time, the more affiliated and Jewishly educated among us have gone for either modern Hebrew names or lesser known biblical ones.

Naming traditions within one Jewish community are not always well known among others. While in the Ashkenazi community babies are named only after deceased relatives, among Sephardic Jews there is no such taboo against naming children in honor of living family members. This explains how it was possible for me to know three girls in my high school who were cousins and all named Mercedes. All three were named for the same living grandmother, but thankfully they made it less confusing for the rest of us by each going by a different name. Only one went by Mercedes. The other two preferred to be called Mercy and Marci.

I recall that after meeting these girls, I decided that I liked the name Mercedes, and that I was going to give it to my future daughter. Only, I was going to use its original Spanish pronunciation. It didn’t quite work out this way, since I never had any girls. Besides, I ended up being one of those back-to-their roots Jews who gives their kids obscure biblical names.

A portrait of my great-grandmother Rachel later in life

The practice of giving a child an English name that starts with the same letter sound as her Hebrew name has been in full force for decades. This is what happened to me when my parents bestowed upon me the moniker of Renee Susan in memory of my great-grandmothers Rachel and Sophie (Shifra). Of course, a generation later, Rachel and Sophie once again became very popular names, but in the 1960’s they were not in vogue. I guess I should just be grateful that I ended up with a relatively uncommon name, rather than my having become one of the innumerable Lisas, Wendys, Amys, Jennifers and Michelles (which was the fate, instead, of my younger sister).

I used to dislike my name, and rued the fact that it did not reflect the course of study and profession I had chosen for myself. I know some people who have simply started calling themselves by their Hebrew names, but this did not seem like a comfortable option for me, and I continued to wish that my parents had opted for something like Shira or Shoshana.

But then I realized not all that long ago that my name is actually very meaningful and representative of who I am and the path that I have chosen for myself. Renee, which is French, means re-born. It comes from the same root as Renaissance, and that is precisely my story within the context of my genealogy. The great-grandmother for whom I am named, Rachel, was neither Hasmonean nor Hellenist. She was hungry and haggard. Uneducated and widowed as a young mother of three, she probably knew very little, if anything about Jewish history. Her focus was on keeping her family alive on potato peels while trying to get them and herself out of Russia, which she eventually did when a relative was able to bring them to Canada. It was because of this immigration that my father’s family was able to save itself from probable obliteration, to in a sense be re-born, and ultimately for me to be able to grow up free and secure as a Jew.

As we approach Hanukkah, I think how fortunate I am, a few generations later to be a highly educated Jew and part of a Jewish cultural renaissance, one that is taking from the traditional and religious and mixing it with the secular to create something new – and occasionally irreverent – that will bring our people into the future. Judaism is rooted in Torah, but it changes with the times, as does its superheroes and what they fight for or represent. Each era has its Hebrew Hammer, be his name Judah Maccabee or Mordechai Jefferson Carver:

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to “The Original Hebrew Hammer”

  1. alan bennett Says:

    Question of the Day:
    Why is it Macábi Tel Aviv, but Yehudah Hamácabi?

  2. Bernie Says:

    Who then knew that the peel of the potatoe is the most nourishing part of it?

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