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Shield of the Maccabees: A Hanukkah Graphic Novel

Dov Smiley
In this graphic novel set during the time of the Maccabees, Jonathan, a young Jewish boy, forges an unlikely friendship with Jason, his Greek neighbor. 128 pages; ages 10-13.
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Printed Material
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"A fun and clever twist on the story  of the Maccabees. I wish comics like this had existed when I was in school."  ---Steve Sheinkin, author and illustrator of The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey

Our story begins just before the very first Hanukkah . . .

Greeks and Jews are living in an uneasy peace in ancient Judea. Jonathan, a Jewish boy, sees a Greek boy attacked by bullies, and stands up to defend him. They become best friends. But when war comes to their land, Jonathan joins the Maccabees while his friend joins the Greek army.

They seem destined to fight one another.

How will their friendship survive?


"All history books," Dara Horn has written, "fact or fiction, are really about the times in which they are written, not about the times they supposedly describe." This is particularly true when it comes to historical fiction, and it's very true about Shield of the Maccabees, Eric Kimmel and Dov Smiley's graphic novel about a friendship between a Greek boy and a Jewish boy that is fractured by the conflict between the Greeks and the Jewish Maccabees.

Kimmel uses this framework to tell a story about friendship transcending differences -- a story that should appeal greatly to its intended modern-day audience, although the main message might have made little sense to its historical characters.

Its main point aside, this vivid, fast-moving book includes plenty of authentic and well-researched historical facts. Greek myths, sports, and methods of teaching are all brought into the boys' story and relationship. Jonathan and Jason are both well-drawn, relatable characters, brought to life by fun, exciting drawings. The author builds up both their friendship and the roots of the conflict before the story gets serious; once it does, the horrors of war are also touched upon in an age-appropriate and non-graphic way.

This book meets the criteria for consideration for a Sydney Taylor Book Award; it is essentially a modern Jewish retelling of an ancient Jewish story, and modern American-Jewish children will both enjoy the book and learn from it.

--Leah Cypess, The Sydney Taylor Schmooze

Children’s books about the his­tor­i­cal and reli­gious ori­gins of Hanukkah often empha­size the hero­ism of the Mac­cabees. In 167 B.C.E., these Judean free­dom fight­ers were com­mit­ted to oppos­ing both a repres­sive Greek regime and the assim­i­la­tion­ist strate­gies adopt­ed by many of their fel­low Jews. The joy­ous win­ter hol­i­day of Hanukkah cel­e­brates both the mil­i­tary vic­to­ry and the mirac­u­lous small jar of oil found in the des­e­crat­ed Tem­ple, which allowed the meno­rah lights to last for eight days. Eric Kim­mel and Dov Smi­ley have cho­sen a more nuanced approach in their new graph­ic nov­el, empha­siz­ing the valid­i­ty of both Jew­ish and Greek cul­ture and the tragedy of war for both peo­ples. The Jew­ish rebels are still brave defend­ers of their right to reli­gious free­dom and nation­al self-deter­mi­na­tion but the nov­el also depicts the ter­ri­ble price of intol­er­ance. The close friend­ship of Jason and Jonathan, a Greek and a Jew­ish boy, is the lens through which Kim­mel and Smi­ley view this truth.

An ancient set­ting and a con­tem­po­rary tone tell Jason and Jonathan’s sto­ry. Jews and Greeks appear eth­ni­cal­ly dif­fer­ent; Jonathan is olive-skinned while Jason is improb­a­bly pale and blond. (The author takes some his­tor­i­cal lib­er­ties, some of which are clar­i­fied in the book’s back mat­ter.) While in real­i­ty, a young Jew would not have attend­ed school with his Greek friend, thanks to a con­ve­nient­ly tol­er­ant teacher, Jason is allowed to invite his friend to class­es about the Socrat­ic method and Homer’s Odyssey. Jonathan’s fam­i­ly warm­ly wel­comes Jason to their Shab­bat din­ner and Purim cel­e­bra­tion. The friends have many con­ver­sa­tions about their com­pet­ing belief sys­tems, which are mutu­al­ly respect­ful and preter­nat­u­ral­ly mature. (Jonathan: ​But why do you need so many Gods? Jason: I think it’s because peo­ple have dif­fer­ent needs at dif­fer­ent times.”). Not every moment of their time togeth­er involves phi­los­o­phy; there is also plen­ty of dis­cus throw­ing and fishing.

Then a change of lead­er­ship threat­ens the rel­a­tive coex­is­tence in their Hel­lenis­tic king­dom. Anti­ochus IV is pre­sent­ed as a wound­ed bul­ly with an ugly and infan­tile per­son­al­i­ty. Angered by his recent mil­i­tary defeats he blames the Jews and revers­es pre­vi­ous poli­cies which had allowed them a degree of auton­o­my. The gen­tle tone of the nar­ra­tive becomes full of ten­sion and fear, as sol­diers serv­ing their tyran­ni­cal leader con­front Jew­ish guer­ril­la fight­ers with uncom­pro­mis­ing tac­tics. Kim­mel is care­ful to pre­serve the ide­al­ism of the Mac­cabees while also show­ing the chaos of war, as Jason and Jonathan become caught up in ter­ri­fy­ing cir­cum­stances beyond their con­trol. Smiley’s famil­iar com­ic book images of boy­hood friend­ship become con­vert­ed to dark­er scenes hatred and combat.

In his ​Author’s Note,” Kim­mel explains both the his­tor­i­cal back­ground of mul­ti­cul­tur­al Judea, and his own ide­al­ism in giv­ing young read­ers a hope­ful sto­ry of two coura­geous indi­vid­u­als who embody the best of their own tra­di­tions. Jason and Jonathan’s quest can be as much a part of Hanukkah tra­di­tion as Jew­ish vic­to­ry over Greek despots and their collaborators.

--Emily Schneider, Jewish Book Council