Shield of the Mac­cabees: A Hanukkah Graph­ic Novel

Eric A. Kim­mel, Dov Smi­ley (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – November 22, 2021

Children’s books about the his­tor­i­cal and reli­gious ori­gins of Hanukkah often empha­size the hero­ism of the Mac­cabees. In 167 B.C.E., these Judean free­dom fight­ers were com­mit­ted to oppos­ing the repres­sive Greek regime. The joy­ous win­ter hol­i­day of Hanukkah cel­e­brates both the mil­i­tary vic­to­ry and the mirac­u­lous small jar of oil found in the des­e­crat­ed Tem­ple, which allowed the meno­rah lights to last for eight days.

Eric Kim­mel and Dov Smi­ley have cho­sen a more nuanced approach in their new graph­ic nov­el, empha­siz­ing the valid­i­ty of both Jew­ish and Greek cul­ture and the tragedy of war for both peo­ples. The Jew­ish rebels are still brave defend­ers of their right to reli­gious free­dom and nation­al self-deter­mi­na­tion, but the nov­el also depicts the ter­ri­ble price of intol­er­ance. The close friend­ship of Jason, a Greek boy, and Jonathan, a Jew­ish boy, is the lens through which Kim­mel and Smi­ley view this truth.

An ancient set­ting and a con­tem­po­rary tone tell Jason and Jonathan’s sto­ry. Jews and Greeks appear eth­ni­cal­ly dif­fer­ent; Jonathan is olive-skinned, while Jason is improb­a­bly pale and blond. (The author takes some his­tor­i­cal lib­er­ties, some of which are clar­i­fied in the book’s back mat­ter.) While in real­i­ty, a young Jew would not have attend­ed school with his Greek friend, thanks to a con­ve­nient­ly tol­er­ant teacher, Jason is allowed to invite his friend to class­es about the Socrat­ic method and Homer’s Odyssey. Jonathan’s fam­i­ly warm­ly wel­comes Jason to their Shab­bat din­ner and Purim cel­e­bra­tion. The friends have many con­ver­sa­tions about their com­pet­ing belief sys­tems, which are mutu­al­ly respect­ful and preter­nat­u­ral­ly mature. (Jonathan: But why do you need so many Gods?” Jason: I think it’s because peo­ple have dif­fer­ent needs at dif­fer­ent times”). Not every moment of their time togeth­er involves phi­los­o­phy; there is also plen­ty of dis­cus throw­ing and fishing.

Then, a change of lead­er­ship threat­ens the rel­a­tive coex­is­tence in their Hel­lenis­tic king­dom. Anti­ochus IV is pre­sent­ed as a wound­ed bul­ly with an ugly and infan­tile per­son­al­i­ty. Angered by his recent mil­i­tary defeats, he blames the Jews and revers­es pre­vi­ous poli­cies that had allowed them a degree of auton­o­my. The gen­tle tone of the nar­ra­tive becomes full of ten­sion and fear, as sol­diers serv­ing their tyran­ni­cal leader con­front Jew­ish guer­ril­la fight­ers with uncom­pro­mis­ing tac­tics. Kim­mel is care­ful to pre­serve the ide­al­ism of the Mac­cabees while also show­ing the chaos of war, as Jason and Jonathan become caught up in ter­ri­fy­ing cir­cum­stances beyond their con­trol. Smiley’s famil­iar com­ic book images of boy­hood friend­ship con­vert­to dark­er scenes pf hatred and combat.

In his author’s note, Kim­mel explains both the his­tor­i­cal back­ground of mul­ti­cul­tur­al Judea and his own ide­al­ism in giv­ing young read­ers a hope­ful sto­ry of two coura­geous indi­vid­u­als who embody the best of their own tra­di­tions. Jason and Jonathan’s quest can be as much a part of Hanukkah tra­di­tion as Jew­ish vic­to­ry over Greek despots and their collaborators.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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