Nina Kossman (aka NL Herzenberg)
The Hasmonean Chronicle
Judah, son of Mattathias, entered Jerusalem limping. He didn’t think a severed toe was a big sacrifice, considering the might of the Seleucid army and all those finely sharpened swords that outnumbered both swords and men in his own army. There was the further disadvantage of his men refusing to fight on the Sabbath, while it was precisely on the Sabbath that Antiochus IV had ordered his army to attack the Jews. He was smart, that Antiochus. He knew the piety of the Jews was an impregnable fortress that would bury them. A thousand of them were slaughtered that day: men, women, children, all letting themselves be pierced by Greek swords. Better death with God than life without Him, they reasoned, and burned like candles in the night.
It was known well beyond the boundaries of their land that the Sabbath of the Jews was untouchable and that made them all the more touchable themselves. On another Sabbath, when the Greeks expected another easy victory, they thought a band of disheveled, poorly armed men was a vision sent to them by Dionysus, the god who gifted them with much drink and merriment the night before. It’s a vision, Antiochus’s men cried as they fled, while Judah, son of Mattathias, son of Hasmon, was more of a vision than others, walking in front of his men, a sword in one hand, a stick in another, and a toe cut in half, leaving a bloody trail. He stopped only when they reached a village where his family temporarily stayed. He signed to the one who walked directly in his bloody footsteps and with words, “Nehora will do it!” dispatched the man to bring his wife.
When Nehora appeared, her black hair cascading down her shoulders and her white robe delineating her charming form, he offered her his foot as a greeting. He knew her so well that he was certain of her response. She took his foot with its hanging toe and surveyed the haggard troops with their swords and sticks and stones.
“Whoever has the biggest stone, step forward!”
Twelve shaggy men, one for each month of the Jewish year, stepped forward, and she selected the one with the biggest stone. She pointed to the ground, silently ordering him to put the stone in front of her. He obeyed and retreated into the rows of men, whereupon she lowered her husband’s foot onto the stone, took a knife that was rumored to have been King Solomon’s out of an ornamented cloth bag, raised her hand and let the knife fall on Judah’s toe, severing it completely from the foot.
She said, “Whatever is half-severed must be severed completely, for a half-severed part is the enemy of health.” We know this because her many disciples wrote down her teachings in a book called Wisdom of Nehora—but as an apocryphal book, it was banned by later rulers.
“We are back to basics here,” said Nehora, perhaps envisioning medical instruments of a more advanced time. She wrapped her husband’s foot in a leaf of a tree famous for stopping bleeding. This tree was not to be found in Judea or anywhere else after the healing of Judah’s foot, which is a great pity indeed, both for people as well as for the tree.
Judah considered the matter of the toe finished, finis, done with. It was noted that not a single cry of pain had escaped his lips during the procedure known in future centuries as the Severing of the Great Toe. Indeed, he had set new standards, or rather new heights, for tolerance of pain in manly silence, not a single facial muscle betraying him by a sudden shaking or jerking or twitching. It was said that he had triumphed over pain just as he had triumphed over the Greeks with their effeminate habits and that he had fulfilled an ancient prophecy about a man with a missing toe who was to win the desecrated Temple back from the enemy. His deformed foot became something of a sacred object itself, and wherever in the Temple he stepped, sacredness reestablished itself as if it had always dwelled there, as indeed it had but with some unpleasant interruptions, the most recent of which had been engineered by Antiochus IV and his minions, who had installed a painted Zeus at the altar.
As soon as Judah stepped inside, he saw pigs’ heads lying everywhere and pigs’ tails sticking out from cracks in stone slabs. He couldn’t breathe. He felt as though his breaths were trying to escape through cracks in his ribs but instead were getting stuck like pigs’ tails on the floor. He turned his head toward the entrance and saw his men waiting for a signal from him. “But it is defiled!” he cried. He shook his fist at the painted Zeus statue, and they understood at once. They jumped at Zeus, pulling him, pushing him, breaking his head with mallets, treating him the way no Olympian god had been treated in his homeland. But this was not Zeus’s homeland. This wasn’t Greece, nor was this the Seleucid Empire, with its pagan worship of the very same Olympians in Antioch, nor was this Rome, with the very same painted gods renamed to sound as though they were born and bred there: Jupiter instead of Zeus; Juno instead of Hera; Venus instead of Aphrodite; Bacchus instead of Dionysus. “How could they even think that people would believe in them?” said Zephirious, one of Judah’s commanders. His Hebrew name, Yemin, was an exact reflection of his position in life: Judah’s right hand. That’s what he was, and Judah trusted his Yemin like his own self.
He also trusted Nehora, but no matter how great a medic she was, a man could trust a woman only so much.
Three years before, when he was still married to Miriam, he went on foot from village to village, looking at the young men lined up just in time for his arrival. His orderlies went ahead of him to prepare the locals, so he wouldn’t have to linger and wait for them. In every village he’d say a short speech in front of a crowd of well-formed men who listened with their ears and eyes wide open, catching every word—and the words were to everyone’s liking, for who among them didn’t want to teach a lesson to the Greeks?
“Who?” asked Judah rhetorically.
“We all do!” roared the men. Whereupon he watched them wrestle, paired off on a dusty village road, and he invariably chose the winners, while the losers rolled away, covered with the same dirt and dust as the winners.
In one village he saw a young woman ministering to the losers, and as she poured water from an earthen jug onto bruised bodies, he saw that her face was the moon and the sun, her eyes the stars, and her mouth a river of honey, and he wanted nothing so much as to go on watching her care for those poor wretches who would never win the honor of pushing the Seleucid army into a hell of their own making where they belonged as surely as their Zeus belonged on the Olympus, which, Judah had never failed to add, was a mountain in Greece…a mountain, you understand, in Greece, you understand, not in our Judea, where hills we have, yes, but mountains—no! He approached her with his arms outstretched—wash mine, too, woman! But she silently showed him the empty jug: not a drop left, and as she put it down on the ground, he continued to stand like a beggar in front of her, his hands outstretched, as something better than water was pouring onto them.
“The force!” he exclaimed inside his own head, for although he had power over men, he had none over women. Or at least he thought so, which is why he made that exclamation about the force inside his own head, instead of letting it out of his mouth and into her ears, which surely were as well-formed as the rest of her. But beauty was not the point; the force was the point. What he said out loud surprised Yemin, his right-hand man: “I’d rather you were a hag.” Judah dwelled on this for a second, and then added, as an afterthought, “‘Tis true, be a hag.”
A few more moments passed while she stared at the ground, not daring to meet his eyes. After standing there for as long as he could bear, he finally turned to Yemin with the words, “Let us proceed,” and without so much as a look or any kind of farewell, he left her standing next to her empty jug.
He collected the winners, and with an all-inclusive gesture ordered them to walk beside the winners from previously visited villages. And so they walked on to the next village, where they watched another wrestling match, and again winners were added to the growing army, and losers were left with women who poured water onto them and ministered to their pitiable scratches. But none of the women had a face like the moon, and certainly none like the moon and the sun combined, and anyway it was not the face that mattered, he said to himself in the darkness of his own mind. He could no longer remember the face, only her force that still encircled him like a shimmering cloud. He could not escape from that cloud even at home when he made love to his wife of many years, his faithful Miriam, daughter of Miriam the Senior, herself once a woman of beauty, now only a rag of bones and skin and disjointed mumbling.
His wife, Miriam Junior, could sense something unusual, as though the shimmering cloud in which the other woman enwrapped him was her own doing, and he too wanted to believe that this amorous shimmering was for the love of her, his wife and the mother of his sons, but he felt the shimmering go out of his body precisely when he touched her. He didn’t like this new feeling, and he repeated to himself that he loved his wife, he loved his wife.
He went to the village a few weeks later, alone, and demanded to see the woman of the jug. When she was fetched by an old hunchback, half-male, half-female, and stood before him with her face like the moon and the sun, he said loudly, as though to convince himself: “I cannot love you, for I love my wife.”
She said nothing at all; she only sent forth more shimmerings. The cloud that had enwrapped him in her absence became so dense that he found it impossible to breathe. It was beginning to get into his nostrils and his lungs, the shimmering that emanated from this woman of the jug. She had no jug. She had nothing at all. She stood defenseless in front of him, except for the shimmerings that must surely be the work of Satan himself. Or else of God. “Yes, why not God?” he asked her, and as she made no answer, he commanded her: “Speak!” She remained silent.
“I shall tolerate your silence no more,” he roared. “For I am certain of one thing, if ever I was certain of anything, it is that I have been bewitched. But I must know on whose orders I have been bewitched. God’s? Or Satan’s? And speak you shall, because you are the tool he used, and doubtless you are familiar with the perpetrator.”
She continued her silence, so he tempered his impatience and changed his roar into a sweet voice no woman could resist and again asked her to name the perpetrator, as he called the force that had outdone him. The sweetness of his voice was more powerful than his roar, and she said simply, “It was neither God, nor Satan. His name is Eros. He is the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.”
Ah, how he cursed upon hearing that it was the Greeks again! The Greeks had bewitched him, even as he was walking on his own two feet from village to dusty village, gathering the strongest Jews to defeat them, there they were, the Greeks, preemptive as ever, defeating him in the guise of their child-god, Eros, and this woman who had been sent by Eros to unman him.…If she had said it was God who had made them pass through her into him, he would have succumbed, because obeying God’s will, no matter how incomprehensible, was a man’s duty, a badge of honor. But he would not succumb to a Greek child-god with a quiver of toy arrows that he shoots at random.
“Are you sure it was him?” he asked. “Describe him.”
“I’m certain it was him,” she replied. “And I’m certain he meant no harm. But what is done is done. The shimmerings we both feel are nothing but the result of his shooting us with his arrows. You don’t have to turn your life upside down because of them.”
“I shall go home,” he said, “I shall go home to my wife, and I shall love her as she deserves to be loved. No Greek boy-gods with their arrows are going to stop a pious Jew from loving his lawful wife.”
And away he went, leaving her with half of the shimmerings, which she wrapped around her body like a shawl, for the sky was growing darker and the air colder….
The Olympians were having a bit of fun with him; he had to give it to them. Yet wasn’t the very fact of their paying him so much attention itself a sign that they were unsure of their victory? The Greeks must be very weak indeed, if their gods resorted to low tricks like this one,…just so he could bring home another woman. Now he could see it all. It was all so clear to him. The pagan gods had tried their hands at military strategy, and all they could come up with was this new woman and the disturbance she would create in his family as well as in his inner self—for if there ever was a one-woman man, it was Judah, son of Mattathias, nicknamed Maccabeus, the progenitor of the Hasmonean dynasty that would extend the Jewish rule over the Galilee and Iturea and Perea and Idumea and Samaria and that could boast of great advances in every field….
He did not go to Nehora’s village again. He sent Yemin, for they would remember him no less than they remembered Judah himself, with a written order to bring the woman who had ministered to the losers. The woman with the jug. He omitted the comparisons of her face to the heavenly bodies, as he knew that such things were subjective, and that no matter how objectively beautiful the woman was, no one else might see her resemblance to the moon and the sun and the stars, and the fact that he had the little Greek god Eros to thank for it—he couldn’t name it, whatever it was, still concealed in the shimmering cloud; it was more than lust, and even more than love. Whether it was Hermes or Eros who had brought it about, he didn’t care. He had his God. And even if she of the shimmering cloud had been sent forth by the enemy gods with the single purpose of creating a commotion in his life and weakening him before the next battle, they had failed, because when the cloud finally receded, he saw that he had a new wife and that she was faithful of heart and mind. She adored his children. After the initial period of pain in which they couldn’t help but miss their mother, the children grew to love Nehora too. And she feared his God, the one and only, and him, Judah, she loved fiercely and fully, the way she loved winners and ministered to wrecks.
A few days after the feast with the peace seekers—who proved to the Maccabees the high quality of the grain and other provisions they had gifted them following God’s edicts—the Maccabees defeated the small Assyrian force at Nahal el-Haramiah. It was as though the prophesied victory couldn’t wait, as though it was hiding right around the corner. It came almost as soon as the battle began and with hardly any loss of Maccabean blood.
By then the Maccabean meant not only the five brothers—Judah, Jonathan, Eleazar, Simon, and John Gaddi—but the whole army of traditionalist Jews who defied Antiochus’s edict to worship the Olympian idols and who couldn’t forget the loss of a thousand women, children, infants, and old men; hundreds had been massacred in the space of three days and hundreds more sold into slavery on the orders of the same Antiochus who had sacked Jerusalem and whose protégé Apollonius was among the first to fall in this most propitious battle.
Judah removed the sword from the hand of the corpse that had ruled Samaria, and later, at night, when everyone slept exhausted by the day’s battle, he cleaned and shined the blade until it gave off a light of its own. In the morning he announced to the citizens of Samaria their freedom from the pagan yoke. As he spoke to the crowd of Samaritans, he held the sword in his raised hand. The crowd did not need to be told who it had belonged to—they all knew that the man who ruled them so ruthlessly lay dead. In Judah’s hands, the sword became more than a mere weapon, because by fulfilling one prophecy—Mattathias’s last words to Judah were now common knowledge—it became a promise of more prophecies similarly fulfilled, although not as easily as the victory at Nahal el-Haramiah.
The people remembered Judah’s first entrance into the Temple, when he had laid his eyes on the defilement inflicted by Antiochus’s lackeys. Now, at his return to it, they gathered to celebrate. Pigs’ heads and tails had been removed from the Temple and carried far out of Jerusalem in order not to contaminate anyone inside the city walls.
The guests poured in, looking for empty seats on the long benches that lined the walls of the reception hall. This was a very special occasion indeed: the return to Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple.
“How many millennia does one have to live to witness a miracle?” Judah asked the guests.
He spoke to the guests, the Sadducees and the Pharisees and the Essenes, and to those simple souls who did not belong to any faction but had helped him win battle after battle. He said it was the fervor of these simple souls that he valued most in battle, because it was not just the fighting of Greeks or Jews that mattered, as it was not simply mortal men fighting each other but the gods of the Greeks with the God of the Jews—and this is where faith mattered, he said. In his speech, as at a start of battle, Judah was carried along by a force. The force knew what he had to say, so he didn’t have to make any decisions because the words came naturally to him and at the right time, like fruit falls from a tree: all he had to do was adjust his energy to the flow of the force, and the force took over. Now the force was saying, “Behold the visitors!”
Later, when he had time to think, he began to doubt it was really the force that had said those words or any of the words that followed. He noticed that Yemin, his right-hand man, was no longer by his side, and strange as it was not to have Yemin near, it was even stranger to see a man of Yemin’s stature standing in the back of the hall, behind the benches, in the dark corner near a back wall. Judah heard the clamor of the guests change abruptly from a roar into a stunned silence, as if indeed there was a miracle being performed. He felt it with his whole being, down to the small hairs on the back of his neck, which were rising as though magnetized. He turned around slowly, so as not to appear undignified in case whatever it was behind him had the power not only to surprise him but to awe him as well. When he turned and saw the three visitors, he no longer cared about appearing dignified.
“You spoiled the vision,” he rebuked Yemin later, when the hall was being cleaned by Idumean servant girls who had been instructed not to utter a word of what they had heard, under the penalty of death.
“You, Yemin, with your face to that back wall, either imagined or dreamed it in your half-sleep, and with the grain of doubt growing and overshadowing the vision, you transmitted it to me….
Yemin said, as softly as before: “I heard voices in the silence, and I knew it was the three visitors speaking to each other loudly enough to be overheard, yet quietly enough for anyone listening to realize that this was a very private conversation, the kind that happens in a dream with the soul of a dear departed, and the fact that I was allowed to eavesdrop on it had to do with a wish of these visitors to make the private public, a custom that has much to recommend itself, certainly more than keeping the private private, a practice that would have deprived the people of His Word.
“I saw a house being built. Some of the builders, who had already finished the foundation and most of the first floor, were now working on divisions between rooms on the second floor. That was when one of the visitors, who until that moment was standing with the other two to the left of the construction site, went up to the master builder and asked if the floor they were working on was intended for him, and when the master builder said no, his was actually the foundation, the patriarch exclaimed, ‘What? You’re putting me in the pit?’, whereupon the master builder explained that the pit was not quite the right word for the lovely quarters they had built for him, and as the foundation had been completed, he offered to give Abraham a tour, to which Abraham grudgingly acquiesced.
“‘This would be your own room,’ said the master builder, after they went down a few newly built steps, ‘And this,’ he said with a circular gesture, inviting Abraham to make himself comfortable, ‘is the room of your miracle. Since it was the first major one, it has become the foundation of our faith, which explains why we placed you in the foundation of the house.’
“‘Which miracle was that?’ Abraham grumbled like an old man that he was, and the master builder hurriedly reminded him, ‘The one where your own beloved son, lying tied on top of a mountain like a sacrificial lamb, was spared death by his father, the one in which your own hand with a knife raised over his shivering form had let go of the weapon. The one in which your faith had been tested, don’t you see it reenacted again and again?’
“The master builder pointed at the center of the room, which was round and elevated to look like the top of the famous mountain, but Abraham shrugged and said that it was a pity he had misunderstood His command and had been ready to sacrifice his own son, which had scarred poor Isaac for the rest of his life.
“‘The misunderstanding was a lesser miracle,’ the master builder said quickly, ‘We moved it into a corner, as you can see.’
“He pointed to what would have been a corner if the room hadn’t been completely round. At this point the distinguished visitor expressed a wish to go outside, for the lack of air in the foundation was hard to tolerate. The builder obliged, supporting the old man as he climbed up the stairs, while Abraham moaned and complained of pain in his knees and back. When he rejoined the little group and told the other two visitors what he had seen, they too expressed a wish to see their quarters.
“It was the turn of Moses to look at the first floor with its large parlor, the far side of which was divided evenly into ten spaces, one for each of the plagues, the builder explained. When Moses gave his guide a look of utter incomprehension, the man hurriedly listed the plagues, pointing at each of the stalls:
“‘Blood in rivers. Frogs. Lice. Wild animals. Pestilence. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Deaths of the first-born.’
“‘But you’re housing miracles like livestock in a barn!’ Moses said with indignation so terrible it made the man tremble with fear that the old one’s next miracle might well be directed at the poor builder himself. In his defense he said that, indeed, this was to be a house of miracles, and it was being built according to specific instructions they received from you-know-who, as each miracle was to be preserved for future generations ‘intact,’ the instructions said, and as the space was limited, and as there were so many miracles to be housed on the first floor, they were forced to…as you can see, we have them all here.
“‘Is that my burning bush?’ Moses said in a voice that the master builder would hear in his sleep every night to the end of his days. They were both looking at the center of the room.
“‘This is not for me to say,’ the master builder said diffidently. ‘We’re building to exact specifications…We invent nothing…’
“‘Very well,’ said Moses, ‘I shall speak with the one who’s behind it all.’
“He went outside and told the other two what he had seen, whereupon the third one, known for his wisdom, said he would pass on the tour of the second floor, and not only that, he said firmly to the disappointed builder, he also wanted to offer his own part of the house to the Maccabees, because their miracle was the kind that would light up the hearts, while his was merely wisdom.
“You remember, Judah,” said Yemin, “After I mentally transmitted these words to you and you said them out loud to the public, the people began to stir. The people have done plenty of listening; they demanded to see the shimmering patriarchs and the house of miracles with their own eyes….They felt especially hurt that on a day like today, a day like no other, they had been treated to a scam, a fraud, a swindle. What little shimmering they were able to see for themselves was quite formless to them, and as they could see neither the house under construction nor the patriarchs themselves, they became quite agitated. Someone shouted, ‘Impostors!’ More voices joined in, and soon a loud outcry shook the hall: ‘Impostors! All three of them! Bring water, pour it on them! That’ll teach them how to fool us with their shining!’”
“And then you, Judah, rushed to the center of the hall where the Shimmering Ones stood still, as though they couldn’t believe that this blaspheming crowd had descended from the same people they had led out of captivity and protected and ruled with patience and wisdom. No, these must be some other people, if they couldn’t recognize their own forefathers, shimmering and translucent though they were. You held your arms wide apart as though to protect them from the crowd, but your outstretched arms must have seemed more of a menace than a comfort to them as their shimmering grew duller and soon dimmed altogether.
“‘No!’ you cried, “We are still your people! Your great-great, and so forth, sons! But we’re tired of old stories and thirsty for new miracles. I wish to ask you…’ you lowered yourself on your knees, ‘to address the assembly, one of you, or all three of you…if you could give meaning to us, something to raise our spirits and give us hope, a true speech, words that come directly from God. Inspired words are what we need, because we are a people that cannot live without inspiration.’
“‘What inspiration do you want other than the miracle of the oil, which will shortly take place in the Temple?’ said Abraham.
“‘No,’ said Moses decisively. ‘Words are not the way to impress a new miracle onto the weary consciousness of our people. We must create a symbol strong enough to be reenacted every year, for millennia. It shall be called Hanukkah, and it shall be born thus. First, we must make them see the small cruse of oil, the only one that is still sealed. Then we must impress upon them that there is no oil left anywhere else. They must see it with their own eyes: not a drop, anywhere.’
“‘We don’t have to try very hard since they’ve seen empty jars lying among the refuse that littered the Temple. The Greeks had opened them and poured the oil out just to spite us,’ you said.
“‘Still, it would be nice to impress it upon their consciousness how little there is, or was. How it can’t last longer than a day,’ said Solomon.
“‘And when it does…’ said Moses.
“‘There’s your miracle,’ said Abraham.
“‘You don’t mean,’ you said to them, “you don’t mean to say that all miracles…are made like this’ ….
Judah stood by the altar, and as he was about to pour a few drops of oil into each of the seven lamps, the jar in his hand reflected the light that wasn’t coming yet from the menorah because it was still unlit. But the light was there, the light was of the future, and as he looked at the men around him, he saw their faces lit by the glow of this future light, and he saw everything that would come from this moment, all the prayers for all the Hannukahs for millennia to come, and all the humiliations, all the expulsions, and all the massacres, but he couldn’t remember the details because they flashed by so quickly, and the men behind the menorah were still saying the words of a prayer when the vision evaporated and his hand dropped the first drop of oil into the first lamp.
Moscow born, Nina Kossman is a bilingual writer, poet, translator of Russian poetry, painter, and playwright. Her English short stories and poems have been published in US, Canadian and British journal. Her Russian poems and short stories have been published in major Russian literary journals. Among her published works are two books of poems in Russian and English, two volumes of translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, two collections of short stories, an anthology, Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myth, published by Oxford University Press, and a novel. Her new book of poems and translations has just been published. Her work has been translated into Greek, Japanese, Dutch, Russian, and Spanish. She received a UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, an NEA fellowship, and grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture, the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and Fundacion Valparaiso. She lives in New York.