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Masses & Mainstream
November, 1948

Fast's Maccabees

My Glorious Brothers, by Howard Fast.
Little, Brown. $2.75.

THE writing of this novel was an act of defiance. The book was composed during the year in which Howard Fast, as part of that valiant group of the Spanish Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, was in the front line of battle against the tyranny of the Thomas Committee. Together with Dr. Barsky and his associates, Fast had been unbendingly obedient to the law of the class struggle never to surrender names to the enemy. The process of completing the volume was in part a race against the time when he would be compelled to serve a prison sentence for his stand. Since the publication date finds Fast still on bail, I commend the book to the attention of the judges of the Supreme Court, which is now deciding whether to review the case.

For My Glorious Brothers deals with obedience to law. Resistance to tyrants, we learn from this retelling of the heroism of the Maccabees, is the truest obedience to law. We derive the lesson from this inspiriting novel deeply and movingly. The writing of it must have been not a distraction from, but an intensification of, his still uncompleted experience of resistance to the American fascists. In forging his Maccabees, Fast hammered steel for his own use; his own conduct in battle steadied the flame with which the Maccabees burn.

Not since Longfellow wrote his drama has an American writer of distinction taken the Maccabees as his theme, and it is more than fifty years since any American novelist has handled it. In Fast's own case, this is the first of his ten novels in which the setting is outside the United States and the time other than, in the historian's sense, modern. It is of course significant that he turned to the ancient history of his own people.

Yet if the antiquity of 2,100 years ago and the setting in Judea seem unexpectedly close to the reader today, that is because Fast is the kind of historical novelist to whom time and place are secondary and the conflict between progress and reaction is primary. Unlike a Thomas Mann or a Sholem Asch, who provide a many-layered panorama when they deal with the world of antiquity, Fast excites the reader with a sense of urgent immediacy by confining himself to telling a heroic tale of people made easily recognizable in situations and conflicts in which the reader can find his own place. If one does not learn history from Fast – and rare is the novelist from whom one does – one surely learns how to fight more courageously today. And of such inspiration we can never have enough.

Fast deals not with the Maccabean dynasty, whose rule from about 140 B.C. to about 30 B.C. was far from popular with the masses, but with the Maccabean revolt against Greek-Syrian religious and political oppression, from 166 to 160 B.C. Taking the skeleton of none-too-plentiful fact which the old chroniclers furnish, Fast has fleshed it with the insight derived from study of the resistance movements of the past decade.

He knows that resistance does not come easy and is not instantaneous. In the source-material, when the Greek King of Syria, Antiochus IV, orders the Jews, on pain of death, to abandon their religious practices, to worship Greek gods, eat swine's flesh, violate the Sabbath and abandon the practice of circumcision, the Maccabees (the aged priest Mattathias and his five sons, John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar and Jonathan) spontaneously rise up, kill a Jew who would obey and the Syrian mercenaries who would enforce the order, and take to the hills.

To this bald and, in modern experience, unconvincing outline, Fast skillfully adds the following elements: initial fear of an overweening enemy; doubt as to the possibility of victory over such a power; the need for organizing and equipping even a small guerrilla force; and, most significantly, the vitality that the mood of the people themselves gives to their leaders. When the degenerate emissaries of Syrian terrorism first come to Modin, the little village not far northwest of Jerusalem where the Maccabees live, a child is wantonly killed and the old Mattathias is slapped by Appelles, the Greek warden. There is no resistance. But soon after, Judas, who is to become the foremost of the Maccabees, beset by fears and doubts, goes off for five weeks to roam through Judea to see what, if anything, can be done. Appelles and his mercenaries come again to Modin and publicly burn the holy scrolls while the whole village stands by. They kill Ruth, the beloved of both Judas and Simon, who loves Simon only. There is no resistance. But when Judas returns the next morning, he comes bringing both the spirit and a plan of resistance.

The spirit he has imbibed from a Rabbi Ragesh, a character through whom Fast represents the mass Judean sect of ultra-pious Hassidim, which fought splendidly for religious freedom but later refused to support Judas's struggle for political independence. Together Rabbi Ragesh and Judas convince the villagers of Modin to organize themselves, forge such weapons as they can and prepare for action. As Mattathias says to the still hesitant Simon, "Only the people can make out of themselves a Maccabee and raise him up."

Even the observance of the Sabbath, which had stood in the way of resistance because the enemy cunningly attacked on that day knowing that the Jews would not fight, is made subservient to life when Mattathias judges that "The Sabbath day is holy, but life is holier." The next time the mercenaries descend upon Modin, the Jews refuse to worship Pallas Athene, exterminate the troops of the enemy and evacuate the entire village and its movables to the hills. "We learned the new war," says Simon, "the people's war that is not fought with armies and wealth, but with the strength that comes out of the people."

The Maccabees rouse the whole countryside, the well-equipped legions of the enemy are cut to pieces by the mobile guerrilla tactics best suited to Judean hills, and the Temple at Jerusalem is restored and rededicated in a celebration that became the festival of Hanukah, the first non-Biblical holiday in Jewish history. Greek-Syrian armies keep coming and are beaten back (with the minor aid of an international brigade of Alexandrian Jews) until palace rivalries lead the Regent of Syria to offer peace with religious freedom and a reduction in taxes.

The war aims of the Hassidim having been satisfied, they withdraw from the struggle despite Judas's exhortations to fight for total independence instead of relying on the mercy of the occupying power. Rather than surrender, as is demanded, Judas and Simon continue the resistance until Judas is killed in battle. It is at this point that Fast breaks off the stirring narrative, although, historically, complete Judean independence was not achieved for almost twenty years.

Fast has elected to tell the story in the form of a reflective reminiscence written out in the first person by Simon the Maccabee, the elder brother and close companion of Judas. For his purpose Fast has developed a mildly mannered but simple style that is flexible enough to be effective for many moods, from boyhood recollections to the vividly evoked battle scenes. The style is sometimes tinged with the movement of biblical prose, sometimes it recalls the narrative pace of the Malory of Morte D'Arthur, and sometimes, when Simon's mood becomes one of brooding over the events of twenty years before, the prose takes on some of the involutions of Edwin Arlington Robinson's dramatic monologues. In his previous writings which sometimes were marked by an undistinguished bareness, I do not remember having noted such happy diversity as he reveals here.

Whether placing the story in Simon's mouth was the most fruitful way of telling it is open to question. Thinking in what he considers to be Simon's terms, Fast has lifted the heroic foreground almost entirely out of the complex background of the clash of ancient empires (Greek, Syrian, Egyptian and Roman) in which Judea was, so to speak, in the vortex. For Simon, and it would seem for Fast too, Judea is the center of the universe, geographically, politically and even morally. This emphasis is one of the unfortunate nationalistic elements running through the heart of the main conception of the book. Simon sees the Jews as somehow the focus of the hatred of the whole world "because to all nations and all peoples the Jew was the same, an abomination whose ways were not their ways." Simon believes Antiochus IV orders the regimentation of Judea out of some mysterious anti-Semitism caused by the "separateness" of the Jews, and not because of the strategic and financial considerations that scholars have assigned for the action. Throughout the volume there is an unqualified scorn for Greek civilization that is by no means redressed by Simon's noting, in a fleeting and unimpressive passage, that his hatred is not for the glory that was Athens but for the oppression that inevitably accompanied Greek imperial domination of other lands.

Simon also disappointingly spares us details of the treachery of the urban upper class of Judea and of the corrupt highpriesthood, which were the main "Hellenizing" agents of Antiochus and sold out the Jews for their own class and personal interests. Simon's viewpoint is that of a narrow religious nationalism in which the Jews are the chosen people, the fount of all good and the enemy of all evil. Fast even exaggerates the military strength of Judea by having the imperial power of Rome send a legate to Jerusalem to offer a treaty to Judea, when in point of fact, as far as we know, it was the Judeans who sent emissaries to Rome to ask for a treaty that would help secure their independence from Syria, and the alliance gained was decisive.

That Fast does not entirely share Simon's nationalistic views is suggested in the lengthy coda to the narrative consisting of the Roman legate's report of his visit to Simon in Jerusalem. The legate challenges Simon's concept of the chosen people. He tells Simon of the real relationship of international forces which made possible Judea's independence. "'Can you survive against the whole world, Simon? ... You say you fought for your freedom and you will never fight for any other cause. That is a bold statement, Simon – for I will not believe that a Jew is so different from all others....'

"The Jew stared at me, his pale eyes puzzled and sad. He was disturbed, not with fear, but with a deep uncertainty. Then, he made as to dismiss me."

The Roman talks sense, but because it comes from one who confesses he hates the Jews, one is impelled to discount it. The deep uncertainty, however, still seems to be Fast's.

Nevertheless, from My Glorious Brothers the Maccabean heroism shines with new concreteness and splendor, pointed for the reader in America's hysterical epoch. The same story inspired the early Christians for the first four centuries of their era, when they celebrated the Maccabees on August 1, and has been an almost universal model to the Jews since the Middle Ages. Erasmus, in the days of the Inquisition, braced himself and his companions by rehearsing the great deeds of defiance of Mattathias and his five sons. And row, wherever this latest version by Howard Fast is read, Jew and non-Jew will breathe more deeply and fashion themselves into bolder opponents of contemporary tyrants. Fast's Maccabees are heroic Jews and heroic people. Because they were once slaves in Egypt, they know their duty to be resistance to oppression. The loss of six million in the last war has not blunted the lesson. Nor is the finger pointed at Jews alone.