When I was a little girl, 5 years old, my lungs asserted themselves inauspiciously. Starting with several months of pneumonia, they proceeded, as I grew up, into various bronchial uproars, and then asthma attacks.
It was during an extended asthma episode when my mom, an assiduous tender of the machine which whirred next to my bed, dispersing medicated mist, handed me a book she’d pulled out of our shelves — Howard Fast‘s My Glorious Brothers, a lyrically expressive, historical fiction about the Maccabees.
My Glorious Brothers was remarkably effective treatment. I read it in a sort of supine ecstasy. That asthma attack was my last.
I wanted to grow up to be a Maccabee. They were heroes, they were sexy. Immediately, I seized the idea of guerrilla warfare as a mighty strategy for victory. A small and widely dispersed group of oppressed people, thought to be weak, without weaponry, defeated a large force of heavily armed oppressors. They fought for their freedom, they won their freedom. Thrilling, wasn’t it?
That’s what the story meant to me. Actually, the Maccabees (the name is an epithet drawn from the Greek and/or Arabic word for “hammer”) fought for the freedom to be what we’d now call fundamentalist Jews — and fought with a ferocity no contemporary war college would countenance — but Fast expanded and widened this ancient purpose and meaning into the mid-20th century, when he wrote the novel. Freedom means choice; fighting for freedom means fighting against the enemy, the enemy kills choice.
Here is Howard Fast’s dedication:
To all men, Jew and Gentile, who have laid down their lives in that ancient and unfinished struggle for human freedom and dignity
And that’s how I, as a child, read it.
Last year, now afflicted with a new bronchial problem, a chronic condition known as bronchiectasis which I mitigate with a tiny little inhaler, I re-read My Glorious Brothers. I linked the two things together in that previous sentence although I have no reason to believe my unconscious led me to my own bookshelf and to that same hardcover 1948 edition I read when I was an asthmatic kid.
The story is as soaring as it was a lifetime ago. And Howard Fast’s way of telling a story, quite idiosyncratic, still holds incantatory power.
My paternal grandparents came from Odessa. My familial connection with Ukraine was severed around 1905, when my grandparents emigrated to New York.
I know too much about World War II and the spread of Hitler’s genocidal mania to feel a warm sense of shared heritage with Ukraine. But it’s complicated. My Glorious Brothers in reality were an eye-for-an-eye sort of Old Testament Jews, violent and unforgiving. Yet the people they did not forgive were moral monsters.
This isn’t about moral relativity which, really, is only a way of identifying the profound complexities of life in its shifts. There are heroes, there are monsters, there are neither, we are both.
There are, however, lessons to be gathered up and treasured. My Glorious Brothers and the techniques and dynamics of guerrilla warfare, the victory overwhelmed people can win over evil…
One more memory, not entirely disconnected from lung problems, Maccabees and Ukraine’s peril, was provided by my late father.
In 1985 or so, before Putin’s tyranny, when my father was diminished, in a wheel chair with an oxygen tank because of the emphysema that would kill him, some new words were introduced into the international conversation: Glasnost. Perestroika.
This encouraging news was emerging from the Soviet Union. A whiff of democratic ideals, a sense of soaring hope for us optimists of a world in which America’s great experiment in self-governance would take hold.
“This is really something, isn’t it?” I said to Dad, who had been since his youth a student of Soviet-style tyranny.
With the emphysema, Dad was no longer able to express himself as he had always done — in concise, deeply informed, remarkably articulate monologues — little lectures, actually. He no longer had enough air for one.
I had a long and painful history of assuming I understood Dad’s thinking. I was almost always wrong. And here all he was able to say in response to my hope was…
“Don’t trust them.”
He could have been and would be today talking about a Russia controlled by Putin. “Don’t trust them.”