In the U.S. military community, Army veterans starting their own t-shirt line has become something of a cliché. Ranger Up, Grunt Style, Nine Line Apparel, these are some of the myriad of brands founded by veterans and catering to service members, other vets, and freedom-loving Americans in general. Often, these brands’ designs will blend spiritual inspiration with the “tough guy” aesthetic. But this usually means something with Crusader or Norse Pagan imagery. What of Jews, or Christians who enjoy the “holy warrior” vibe, but don’t wish to glorify the Crusades or pay homage to Odin? Jack, a Jewish American soldier, founded Maccabee Apparel to fill that void.
More American Jews volunteer for military service than you might think. Organizations like the Aleph Institute, Jews in Green, and the Jewish Soldier Project all exist specifically to cater to the needs of Jewish servicemembers stateside and deployed overseas.
“In the service, I was often told by my peers and supervisors ‘you know, you’re the first Jew I’ve ever met,” Jack says. “And I would tell them, unless they were from the middle of nowhere and had never left home before, ‘probably not—I’m just the first one you’ve seen in yarmulke.’”
Stereotypes of Jews as cowardly, or not doing their fair share when it comes to national service, still persist despite having no basis in reality. Maccabee Apparel seeks to turn that stereotype on its head. “American Jews have served their country with distinction since the Revolutionary War, and though we don’t really talk about it, the Jewish People have a long and proud military tradition going back thousands of years.”
Jack’s original inspiration comes from the Hasmonean (Maccabee) rebels who liberated Ancient Judaea from a brutal foreign occupation, leading to the establishment of the Festival of Hanukkah. “The Sages emphasized the miracle of the oil, where a one-day supply of consecrated oil lasted for eight days in the newly-rededicated Temple. It makes sense; the rabbis didn’t want the Jews to become a bunch of violent psychopathic zealots. But I find the miraculous victory of the Maccabees over a vastly superior foe to be just as compelling, if not more so.”
For his first few designs, Jack collaborated with New York artist Mark Strauss (Twitter and Instagram: @viperxmns), with whom he is creating a graphic novel telling the story of the Hasmonean Revolt. “I saw some of the early artwork and said, this would look awesome on a t-shirt!” says Jack. And so it did. But Maccabee Apparel really picked up steam in response to the rising popularity of openly anti-Semitic clothing. “I’d turn on the news, and there’s a guy with a t-shirt that says 6MWE, short for ‘Six Million Weren’t Enough,” or a hoodie with ‘Camp Auschwitz’ written on it, or another shirt blaming the Jews for COVID-19. And I said to myself, why not make something for Jews and philo-Semites—that is, anti-anti-Semites? Something that says we’re proud of who we are, we refuse to kneel, and we refuse to hide. That’s what Maccabee Apparel is all about.”
Maccabee Apparel includes work from a diverse range of artists and designers, among whom you’ll find historians, military veterans, and even Torah scholars. Some of the designs are serious and Biblically-themed, often incoporating paleo-Hebrew text, others are tongue-in-cheek homages to popular culture overlaid with Jewish themes, and still others are satirical, fighting back against Jew-hatred by subverting anti-Semitic tropes with humor. All joking aside, Jack takes that fight seriously. “The answer to anti-Semitism isn’t to take away others’ freedom of speech,” says Jack, “it’s to use our own.” One of the reasons he feels so strongly about this is probably because his own content has been censored repeatedly on social media. “We post a meme making fun of terrorists or White Supremacists, and somehow this gets branded as extremist content! We are clearly, and adamantly, anti-extremist. I’ve tried appealing the decision multiple times, and each time was rejected. So, I’m no longer allowed to produce paid advertisements, and Facebook and Instagram, which are owned by the same company, won’t recommend us to people with similar interests. When we ask them for an explanation as to why internet trolls are allowed to flood our page with Nazi imagery with no consequences, yet our account gets restricted, they tell us they’re not allowed to give details pertaining to their ‘investigation.’ So, no transparency, and no accountability. It’s frustrating.”
“At first I thought it was a fluke, that it was just us,” Jack explains. “But I keep hearing how other Jewish activists and mainstream religious organizations getting flagged, censored, or even deplatformed when anti-Semites fraudulently report them. It’s a real problem, and it feels like no one is talking about it. Yet we still rely on these services. Even with the restrictions, they’re the best way to reach new people, and they’re where we built our initial fanbase.”
But Jack is finding creative ways to reach new audiences, and even to turn it into a mitzvah. “I’ve taken it upon myself, whenever I encounter a case of a fellow Jew being bullied, harassed, sometimes even assaulted for being Jewish, or for standing up for Israel—and there’s no shortage of such incidents these days—to encourage them not to hide, but to embrace their identity even more. To that end, I occasionally send them free Maccabee Apparel gear.” This practice has made Jack a few new friends, and has earned Maccabee Apparel some new supporters. But with the dramatic rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes, Jack says, “I just hope we don’t go bankrupt before we hit our stride!”
Aside from catering to fellow Jewish vets and giving chizuk to the victims of discrimination, Jack hopes that his modern take on Judaica will catch on more broadly. “Celebrating the legacy of the Maccabees and other Jewish freedom fighters needn’t be limited to Chanukah,” says Jack. “Maccabee Apparel makes a much more interesting and original Bar Mitzvah gift than the traditional fountain pen,” he adds with a smile.
We agree, and while you don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy Maccabee Apparel’s unique, Biblically-inspired style, it certainly doesn’t hurt. In addition to their website, you can follow Maccabee Apparel at Facebook.com/MaccabeeApparel, on Instagram @Maccabee_Apparel, and on Twitter @MaccabeeArmy.
Maccabee Apparel’s “Hebrew Warrior” design, featuring artist Mark Strauss’s portrayal of Judah Maccabee in combat with a Seleucid foe, was initial inspiration for the Maccabee Apparel brand.
Comedian Dave Chapelle caused an uproar when his latest special with jokes involving the LGBT community, yet his anti-Semitic “Space Jews” routine didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows outside the Jewish community. Maccabee Apparel’s subversive take on this joke has become a hit in its own right.