George-a Maccabi

December 18, 2008

I was originally going to link to this story about George Washington and Chanukah as an “Ooh!  Cool!” type of post, but then I skimmed the comments and found this post, which is more or less a take-down of the historicity of the Chanukah-at-Valley-Forge story.  Still, I find it hard to read this:

In fact, rumor has it that General George Washington first learned of Hanukkah while at Valley Forge. The rumor states that General Washington was intrigued by a private’s odd looking candlestick. Upon questioning the private, Washington learned of the Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah. Allegedly the solder recounted to the General the history of Hanukkah, and how the holiday commemorated the victory of the Jews over a superior tyrannical force. As the legend goes, Washington then thanks the private by responding, “Perhaps we are not as lost as our enemies would have us believe. I rejoice in the Macabees’ success, though it is long past…It pleases me to think that miracles still happen.”

and not feel that it doesn’t merely fail to contradict the image I have of Washington, but fits in nicely and reinforces it.  Learned, magnanimous, hopeful, caring — I can’t help but imagine those words attributed to him in a deep-voiced genteel Virginia accent. 

So even if this story is false, which it well may be, the more interesting thing — to me, at least — is the commentary on our perceptions of Washington.  Washington the Myth seems fairly distinct from Washington the Man, and I don’t think people are generally all too worried: how many are really bothered by the fact that the cherry-tree honesty fable is, when you get down to it, a lie?

Washington’s status as a mythologized semi-demi-god of America is curious because it is entirely self-conscious on our part, and has been since shortly after his presidency, if not earlier.  The man had himself sculpted as a latter-day Cincinnatus, for crying out loud!  So little ahistorical tales like these can still be illuminating, just not in the ways we may first expect (especially if we’re expecting them to be historically truthful).  It makes the idea of Caesar’s “deification” appear much more plausible: it was probably only a more intense version of our own way of looking at Washington.

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