Josh Hovsha, Executive Director of the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies
Writing on the Festival of Chanukah in his Legal Code ‘Mishneh Torah’ the great 11th-century Jewish leader Maimonides outlines the history of Seleucid Empire’s invasion of ancient Israel and the Maccabean revolt which sought to end Jewish persecution at their hands.
Maimonides explains that the Hasmoneans, “Saved the Jews from their [the oppressor’s] hand. They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple.” (Laws of Megillah and Chanukah Chapter 2). Two hundred years was all that was achieved. That was it. Two hundred years which ended nearly two thousand years ago.
It can feel detached from us. Even for Maimonides who lived at the halfway point between us and the Chanukah story this history must have felt far removed. Yet, writing more than a thousand years after the end of this era of sovereignty, Maimonides speaks about how much this time mattered.This brief time of self-determination in the long night of Jewish Exile matters, because symbols matter.
In the introduction to his new work ‘We Were Eight Years in Power’ the author Ta-Nehisi Coates explains “Symbols don’t just represent reality but can become tools to change it.” For Coates, symbols remind us of what is possible and allow us to effect change. The symbol which a society chooses to emphasis reflects much about that culture. Whose stories do we tell and whose do we leave out.
The period of the Maccabees might have ended a thousand years before the time of Maimonides and two thousand years before our own time, but it reminded us that Jewish people had the right to control their destinies like any other people. It is for this reason that the early Zionists were captivated by the stories of the Maccabees.
Historical imagination is a powerful tool indeed.
If you go into the Jacob Gitlin Library, you will find editions of this paper in its previous form dating back to the turn of the twentieth century and earlier. Those old publications are filled with life.
I often think of what the Chronicle must have meant to a small community of Jews disconnected from the lands which their parents and grandparents had known. To feel removed from their homes and histories and yet determined to record their own lives and Jewish connections.
This writing was a declaration that their lives and unique Jewish journeys.
We have recently been able to host the World Jewish Congress Directors Conference in Cape Town. A conference where Jewish leaders in diaspora communities throughout the world came together to collaborate.
Before all else we can delve into the symbolism here — World Jewry coming to the same centre where those early editions of the Chronicle are kept. The descendants of the communities left behind and so many others coming to see all that has been built here in Cape Town and simply being left breathless. We can be proud of what has been achieved in this community as we look to make our own impact in a country which needs us.