Chances are that you have met up with some version of the following story, maybe in the Hanukkah supplement to a Jewish magazine, or in a sermon—or perhaps it was once told to you as a bedtime story.
The story is recounted from the perspective of an unnamed solitary young Jewish soldier who is serving in the American revolutionary army during the bleak winter of cold and hunger at Valley Forge. Lighting his Hanukkah menorah, a memento from his father in Poland, brings the young man some solace and a hope for victory in that difficult hour. That night his tent is visited by General George Washington himself, who is profoundly moved by the power of the Jew’s faith, and this presumably inspires him to his ultimate victory against the British forces. The following year, Washington visits the young man’s home in New York City where he confers on him a specially minted gold medal portraying a menorah and an inspirational caption.
The tale of George Washington and the Hanukkah menorah has been circulating for many decades in Jewish periodicals and children books. Some leading Israeli rabbis have taken to citing it in their sermons. The version that is currently making the rounds on Jewish religious sites on the Internet concludes with the words “This is a true story.”
And it almost goes without saying that the story is not true at all, but a work of fiction.
In spite of the assiduous efforts of several scholars, its original text has not been discovered, and is probably irretrievably lost. Chances are that it was composed for the children’s section of a local Jewish periodical. The earliest known printed version is actually in Hebrew. It appeared under the title “Hanukkah on the Battlefield, 1777” in the Hanukkah volume of the anthology of festival texts Sefer Ha-Moʻadim assembled by folklorist Yom-Tov Lewinski, published in 1954. The story’s author is identified there only by his initials: Z.R. A surprising amount of energy has since been expended on futile efforts to identify an eighteenth-century Jewish soldier whose name would fit those initials. However, the author or adaptor was probably Zalman Robushov, better known as “Shazar,” who would afterwards serve as Israel’s president from 1963 to 1973. Robushov, an author and journalist, did in fact contribute some other chapters to Lewinski’s Book of Festivals.
The tale is so packed with factual errors that it is hard to imagine why anyone would ever have been induced to accept it as non-fiction. For example, it dates the events at Valley Forge in the winter of 1775-76, whereas they occurred two years later. It situates Washington, apparently in the role of President, in New York City during the winter of 1776; in reality, the general was then waging war elsewhere, and his presidential term would not commence until 1789. Washington promises to award the lad a Medal of Honor—but that award would not be established until the Civil War, almost a century later. The narrative assumes that the Jewish soldier hailed from Poland (he equates the British oppression with that of the “poretz” in the old country). This is unlikely in terms of the demographics of the eighteenth century, though of course that detail would have appealed to a readership in the twentieth-century when the vast majority of American Jews were of eastern European origin.
In the quest for a historically authentic narrator-hero, a number of names were unearthed from among the hundred or so Jews who were enlisted in Washington’s Continental Army. One of them, Phillip Moses Russell, served faithfully as Surgeon's Mate, and at Valley Forge as Surgeon, and he received a commendation from Washington. However, Russell lived in Philadelphia, not New York, and there is nothing in the records to connect him with the menorah legend. Another candidate for the hero’s role was even more unlikely: the famous Haym Solomon, also a Philadelphian, was indeed Polish-born (though of Sephardic extraction), but he never saw combat whether at Valley Forge or elsewhere. His contributions to the revolutionary cause were mainly in a financial capacity, as well as through intelligence gathering.
As a work of fiction, we can readily appreciate how this story could capture the hearts of American Jews by merging the struggles for freedom that underlie the epics of the Maccabean uprising and the American Revolution, and reminding American readers of the Jewish participation in the their struggle for independence. This message has particular relevance during a season when the majority of Americans are celebrating Christmas, a holiday with a very different thematic colouring. The story also underscores the contrast between the welcoming character of the American diaspora and previous exiles where Jews were victims of harsh persecution.
To be sure, Washington was favourably disposed toward the Jews of his realm, as attested in his famous 1790 letter to the community of Newport Rhode Island in which he wrote: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
While the legend’s attraction for American Jews is easily understandable, it is fascinating to note how it was put to diverse uses in Israeli culture. During the 1950s and 1960s, simplified Hebrew versions appeared in newspapers published for the benefit of new immigrants. In keeping with the prevailing Zionist ideology, those retellings tended to downplay the distinctive role of America as a haven for persecuted Jews, while stressing instead the bond that united the ancient Jewish insurgents with their American counterparts taking up arms to resist tyranny. More recently, the story has been circulated as a factual memoir by organizations promoting the return to old-time Jewish religious values. Preachers from these circles, who have rarely been noted for their insistence on historical accuracy, tend to stress the young soldier’s religious faith and ritual observance as the story’s chief lessons.
Now this kind of tampering with the historical truth might seem especially incongruous when it is applied to the great American leader who declared “I cannot tell a lie!”
But then again, historians tell us that the familiar tale of the hatchet and the cherry tree was also a pious fabrication by a later story-teller (a certain Parson Weems) and had no basis in historical fact.
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