In the US 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? CPL Jack Perez, a Jewish AD soldier currently stationed at JB Lewis McChord, founded Maccabee Apparel (www.maccabeeapparel.com) to fill that void.
More American Jews volunteer for military service than you might think. Organizations like the Aleph Institute, Kosher Troops and the Jewish Soldier’s 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. It makes absolutely no sense—it would be like if, l’havdil, ISIS took on the United States and won. Only through Divine intervention were the Maccabees able to accomplish what they did.”
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 indeed, those t-shirts have proven to be very popular.
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 philoSemites—that is, anti-antiSemites? 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.”
Jack is currently working with Mark and other talented artists to bring his ideas, and theirs, to life. “So far I’ve done some great work with Moshe Katz (Instagram: @art_ofthe_covenant_) and Alex Garber: (www.alexgarberdesigns.com). But our little Maccabee Army is still growing. Any artists or designers out there who enjoy our particular style and would like to get involved can email us at [email protected]. Aside from catering to fellow Jewish vets, 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.
Originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.