Agnon’s “Whirlwind of Voices”: Secular Zionism, Hanukkah, and Contemporary Jewish Identity

What is the difference between a Gentile atheist and a Jewish atheist?

The Gentile atheist does not believe in God; the Jewish atheist believes there is no God.[i]


In Temol Shilshom, Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s panoramic novel that depicts the Jewish settlements in Israel during the Second Aliyah (1904-1912), a memorable scene occurs in a Jaffa inn where historical characters are eating dinner. Gathered around the table are Yosef Hayyim Brenner, a prominent secular Zionist author of the Second Aliyah; Jacob Malkhov, the owner of the Jaffa inn whose character is based on a historical Chabad Hasid;[ii] Hemdat, a fictional character based on Agnon himself;[iii] and Yitshak Kumer, the novel’s torn protagonist. Bemoaning the religious infidelity of the secular Zionists, Malkhov recounts the events of the previous night, in which Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and other prominent Zionists participated in a Hanukkah ball in the Bezalel art school.  Quoting the words of Ben-Yehuda as written in a newspaper, Malkhov describes the raucous party to his guests:

When Professor Boris Schatz made his Bezalel art school, Hanukkah came upon him, that holy holiday they started calling the holiday of the Maccabees. They went and made him a joyous party. They put up a statue of the high Priest Mattithiah, holding a sword in his hand to pierce the tyrant who was sacrificing a pig on the altar they had made in honor of Antiochus the Wicked. They spent all night in riot and gluttony. The next day, Ben-Yehuda wrote affectionately about the party in his newspaper, just that he wasn’t comfortable with that statue they had put up in the hall, for this Mattithiah was a zealot for his religion, for his religion and not for his land, for as long as the Greeks were spreading over our land and robbing and oppressing and murdering and killing and destroying cities and villages, Mattithiah and his sons sat in Modi’in, their city, and didn’t lift a finger, but when the Greeks started offending the religion, as the prayer says, to force Thy people Israel to forget Thy Torah and transgress the commands of Thy will,[iv] he leaped like a lion, he and his sons the heroes, and so on and so forth, and they decided to honor the event with an eight day holiday. And now, says Ben-Yehuda in his article, and now I wonder, when they gathered last night to honor him, if they had breathed life into the statue, or if he himself were alive, if he wouldn’t have stabbed every single one of us with the sword in his hand, and sacrificed all of us on the altar.[v]

Ben-Yehuda’s comments highlight the contradictory role Mattityahu (“Mattithiah” in the English translation) played in secular Zionist ideology.  Standing in the form of a statue in Jerusalem’s Bezalel art school, Mattityahu is described as a “zealot for his religion,” who sat idly by as Hellenists destroyed cities and villages, but “leaped like a lion” when they offended the religion.  His religious zealotry, as Ben-Yehuda notes, would not bode well for these secular celebrators.  Yet, it was those same celebrators, specifically the artist Boris Schatz, who erected the statue of him. A paradoxical image therefore emerges in which Mattityahu would stab the free-spirited supporters who invoked his heroic legacy as a vindication of their philosophy.  This ironic scene captures the revolutionary manner in which secular Zionists looked to biblical and post-biblical liturgy to validate their nationalist narrative.

In broad terms, the celebrations at the Hanukkah ball represent the secular Zionist culture that pervaded the New Yishuv at the time. Secular Zionism—the national, cultural, and ethnic awareness that developed in the pre-state era—was a movement that saw itself as the Jewish nation’s “authentic representative,” in the words of Dr. Yitzhak Conforti, engaging in a “constant dialogue with the Jewish past.”[vi] But the Zionist thinkers’ relationship to that Jewish past was complex, as they would set new ideals in opposition to it and emphasize both connection and rebellion, themes that proliferate throughout their literature.[vii]  Through their efforts to restore the “lost Jewish masculinity”[viii] and move away from the feeble model of Eastern European piety, Zionist leaders and thinkers turned to the traditional liturgy for heroic symbols of secular strength and bravery.

Thus, the Bible was now emphasized for anthropological purposes and viewed as a source of Jewish cultural heroes who would resonate with a generation of nationalistic settlers.[ix] In fact, it was Ben-Gurion himself who instituted the Hidon ha-Tanakh (Bible Quiz) competition, hoping to foster a love of this nationalistic book in an effort to inform and shape the identity of the newly assertive Jew in Israel.[x] Passover took on new significance, as kibbutsim of the pre-state era used a Zionistic version of the Haggadah in their seder commemorations. These Haggadot included Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s poem “Metei Midbar ha-Aharonim” (“The Last Dead of the Desert”) – a text that draws an analogy between the modern Zionist settlers and the biblical Jews who conquered Israel – into the ceremony.[xi]  And it was in the context of this revolutionary historiography that the Hanukkah heroes assumed an especially important place in the twentieth-century Zionist psyche.

Underlying Agnon’s scene is the fact that the secular Zionists at the Bezalel party embraced Hanukkah as a time of national awakening, not religious salvation. The revisionist Zionists amongst the crowd saw it as a festival that commemorates “heroism in battle and self-sacrifice for the nation,” while the socialist Zionists viewed it in Marxist terms, as a celebration of the lower class peasants revolting against their persecutors.[xii]  Both groups, however, celebrated a holiday that was emptied of its religious messages in two main ways. First, the miracle of the oil was ignored, even radically refuted. A popular poem by Aharon Ze’ev, “Anu Nose’im Lappidim” (“We Are Bearing the Torches”), which made its way into various Zionist pamphlets in the pre-state era, proudly proclaims, “No miracle occurred for us; we found no jar of oil.”[xiii] Speaking for secular Zionism, these triumphant poets establish their continuity from Jewish history (declaring themselves to be authentic “Bearers of the Torches”), but revolt against it as well, passionately rejecting the notion of God’s salvation through miracles (“No miracle occurred to us”), a repugnant idea to the masculine “New Jew.”  Second, and related, they ignored the religious zealotry of the Maccabees and cast them in this nationalistic mold of the New Jew.  Hanukkah became “the holiday of the Maccabees,” a patriotic celebration of Mattityahu and company’s self-sacrifice, strength, and heroism in battle, not of their zealotry for the religion.[xiv] Thus, from the annual Tel Aviv torch processions that commemorated the Maccabees’ struggle in the 1920s, to the various secular school trips to the Maccabean caves in Modi’in,[xv] the miracle of the oil was nowhere to be found in the narrative of the Hanukkah story. The Maccabees were championed solely for their nationalistic courage.

It is from this world of Zionist revolutionary historiography that the statue of Mattityahu – which overlooked an art school known for combining “biblical themes, Islamic design, and European traditions”[xvi] in its work – appears to readers through the words of Ben-Yehuda as quoted by Malkhov at his Jaffa dinner table. Through this “whirlwind of voices,”[xvii] Agnon creates a tense dialogue between competing perspectives on the Zionist ambitions.  Malkhov—the defender of religion throughout the novel – conveys Ben-Yehuda’s quotation to his guests to bemoan the hypocrisy of the religiously-shallow Zionist celebrations. Ben-Yehuda’s own voice, by contrast, conveys the internal tension and ambivalence he felt as result of the paradoxical situation, the religious zealot overlooking the secular, often anti-religious celebrators. But another guest at the table, Yosef Hayyim Brenner, behaves more enigmatically.  After Malkhov finishes the story, Brenner erupts in laughter, not voicing an opinion but apologizing for his discourtesy.  Brenner, the existentialist writer of the Second Aliyah, may react so light-heartedly in this scene because he views the entire conversation as trivial. Religion, and adherence to religious memory, did not factor into Brenner’s value system, so the biting irony of Ben-Yehuda’s remarks are taken for what they are—a humorous vignette, a good one-liner. But for those Zionists who viewed their lives and identities as authentic continuations of the Jewish past – namely, the other characters at the dinner table – the ironic excerpt poses difficult questions of Jewish identity and leaves no simple answer.

It is therefore left to readers, who are invited to join Malkhov at the dinner table of early twentieth-century Jaffa, to weigh in on the debate, one which resonates as much in 2012 as it did in 1908. As Hillel Halkin describes in the joke that heads this discussion, Jews, whether they are atheists or not, are conditioned to live in a “purposeful world;” they must believe that there is or is no God.[xviii] Accordingly, the secular Zionists turned to religious symbols of the Jewish past, the traditional expressions of belief, and imbued them with alternate, revolutionary meaning by casting them in a new value system. As a consequence, contradictions emerged in their embrace of these symbols, particularly the Maccabees and the Hanukkah festival. The questions for readers thus become acute: Does our celebration of Hanukkah remain faithful to the Jewish past, or does it, like that of secular Zionists, radically depart from it? Does it matter? Arising from a page of Agnon, contemporary Jews—whether they identify with Malkhov’s criticism, Ben-Yehuda’s ambivalence, or even Brenner’s laughter—must face these unavoidable questions regarding Hanukkah and the Jewish past.


Roni Zemelman is a senior at YC majoring in History.


[i] My paraphrase of a joke found in Hillel Halkin, “The Disappointments,” New Republic 223, 6 (2000): 39-44. Special thanks to Rabbi Carmy for stylistic guidance in the writing process. All errors are my own.

[ii] See Michal Gorvin, “Agnon’s Ironic Spinning Top,” Sh’ma 40/664 (2009): 11-12.

[iii] Ibid, 11.

[iv] See the Al ha-Nissim (“For the Miracles”) prayer.

[v] S.Y. Agnon. Only Yesterday, transl. by Barbara Harshav (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002) 406.

[vi] Yitzhak Conforti, “Zionist Awareness of the Jewish Past: Inventing Tradition or Renewing the Ethnic Past?,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 12,1 (2012): 155-171.

[vii] Ella Belfer, A Split Identity: The Conflict Between the Sacred and the Secular in the Jewish World (Ramat Gan, Israel: Bar Ilan University Press, 2004), 11-32.

[viii] Conforti, 159.

[ix] David Hartman, Israelis and the Jewish Tradition: An Ancient People Debating its Future (Chelsea, MI: Yale University Press, 2000), 74.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Conforti, 163.

[xii] Eliezer Don-Yehiya, “Hanukkah and the Myth of the Maccabees in Ideology and in Society” in Shlomo A. Deshen,  Charles S. Liebman, and Moshe Shokeid, Israeli Judaism: The Sociology of Religion in Israel, volume 7 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995): 303-323.

[xiii] See Hebrew Wikipedia page on “Anu Nose’im Lappidim” for the text of the poem, available at:

[xiv] Deshen, 303.

[xv] Ibid, 309.

[xvi] Edward Rothstein, “Jewish Art, the Hudson and Bingo in the Bronx,”  The New York Times, 10 June, 2009, available at:

[xvii] Gorvin, 12.

[xviii] Halkin, 43.