November 26, 2010
In the Maccabees’ footprints
DAVID J. LITVAK
Two years ago, I visited Israel during Chanukah. I wanted to commemorate my favorite holiday, the Festival of Lights, in the land where the miracles took place. On this, my second visit to Israel, I got to follow in the footsteps of the Maccabees, from their birthplace of Modi’in to the holy city of Jerusalem.
My Chanukah odyssey in Israel began in Modi’in, which in 2004, passed a law making Chanukah its official holiday. This planned city of 70,000 is located halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and was designed by Canadian architect Moshe Sadfie. I was there to visit my friends Morey and Alissa, two former Vancouverites who made aliyah the year before with their intrepid dog Maimo. Upon my arrival in Modi’in, my friends met me at the train station and took me next door to the town’s spiffy new mall. There was a festive feeling in the air.
In the middle of the mall, there were numerous vendors selling a dizzying array of mouth-watering sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) as well as Chanukah-related Judaica. I had never seen so many sufganiyot in my life! After savoring a few, I decided that they definitely taste better in Israel. But munching on sufganiyot in the Modi’in mall was literally just a taste of things to come because, just prior to Chanukah, Morey, Alissa, Maimo and I headed to the outskirts of town in an attempt to locate the elusive graves of the Maccabees.
The Maccabees were born close to the present-day city and are apparently buried somewhere nearby but no one really knows the exact location. The ancient village of Modi’in was destroyed centuries ago, but on the edge of the new city there are many archeological sites related to the Hasmonean and Second Temple era, including a treasure trove of archeological riches on Titora Hill which has among other things, ancient mikvot, olive and wine presses and a crusader watchtower. So, in an attempt to find the Maccabean graves, my friends and I piled into a rented car and we drove to a nearby site that is supposedly the official final resting place of the Maccabees.
We wandered around the area where the city has erected a modern memorial. The site is actually listed on a map as “The Graves of the Maccabees” but we were told that the officially sanctioned site is not necessarily where the Maccabees are buried. So, we continued our quest to another possible site nearby in the forest and we stumbled upon a domed tomb. Some Jews believe that this tomb is the final resting place of Mattityahu, the Hasmonean priest and the patriarch of the Maccabees, who led the revolt against Antiochus and the Seleucid Greeks. If this was truly Mattityahu’s tomb, then we assumed that the rest of the Maccabean graves had to be nearby.
We ventured further into the forest and we came upon came upon a mound on a hilltop which looked like it could possibly be a burial site. Had we stumbled upon the unmarked tombs of the Maccabees? The actual location of the Maccabbean graves remains an unsolved mystery until today (archeologists cite Titura Hill – which is located on a hilltop overlooking the ocean – as one possibility). To be honest, regardless of whether we actually found the Maccabees’ graves or not, looking for them was a great way to get into the spirit of Chanukah. Later that evening, at my friends’ apartment on the edge of town, we lit candles to commemorate the first night of Chanukah and we ushered in the holiday with latkes and song. It was a special feeling celebrating the first night of the holiday in Modi’in – the birthplace of the Maccabees.
The next day, I followed in the footsteps of the Maccabees and traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Chanukah there. In the evening, I wandered the winding streets and alleyways of the Old City, which were illuminated by the dancing lights of countless chanukiyot. As I approached the Western Wall, a giant chanukiyah caught my eye; a testament to the inspiring victory of the Maccabees and the miracles of Chanukah. As I stood there, I imagined the Maccabees of Modi’in, centuries ago, lighting the menorah to rededicate the ancient Temple.
David J. Litvak is a freelance writer and publicist living in Vancouver.