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Jewesses with Attitude

Celebrate Judith; Celebrate Hanukkah

Last week, JWA led the first online learning program of the year, “Hanukkah: Ignite and Inspire.” We spoke to almost 20 educators from across the country, covering topics from incorporating lessons of Jewish heroines to the challenges of creating a refreshing and relevant Hanukkah curriculum. I was most excited to talk about Judith, a Jewish, Biblical era woman whose story is not included in the Jewish scriptural canon.

For those who don’t know the story of Judith, here’s my brief synopsis of her tale:

A couple hundred years before the Maccabean revolt, a town in Judea called Bethulia was in great danger. King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonian Empire, sent one of his generals, Holofernes, to conquer and ultimately kill or convert the Jews there. Holofernes’ main tactic was having his thousands of soldiers make camp outside the walls of the city, preventing food and water and general activity from going in and out of the city.

After resisting and fighting back, the Jews of Bethulia were ready to give up hope, when one woman in the town, a widow, declared she had a plan to save them. That woman was Judith.

In the night, Judith and her handmaid snuck into Holofernes camp, pretending to surrender. Holofernes was immediately struck by Judith’s beauty and invited her into his tent, where no doubt he intended to seduce her. Instead, she fed him salty cheese and poured him wine. And then poured him more wine.

Thank goodness for Judith and her town that Holofernes was a lightweight, because shortly thereafter he fell into a deep sleep.

At this point in our story, things get a little gory. Once she was certain Holofernes was passed out, she took his sword and chopped off his head! For the art history lovers and the curious folk out there, you’ll find over a hundred paintings of this moment. The part of me that can’t stand the sight of blood is pretty grossed out by this image, but the part of me that loves the slightly grislier things in life like Buffy the Vampire Slayer says “YES! You GO, Judith!”

Once Judith finished the deed, she and her handmaid stuck Holofernes’ head in a bag, leaving his headless body behind. She snuck back into Bethulia, and the sight of Holofernes’ head, the Jews were bolstered back into combat mode. On the other side of the city walls, Holofernes’ men freaked at the sight of his decapitated body, and proceeded to fall into a state of confusion and disarray. You might say they were running around like chickens with their heads cut off (sorry, I couldn’t resist!). In the commotion, the Jews attacked and were victorious over the opposing army.

I love Judith; she’s independent, clever, and brave. It’s also important to note that she didn’t act alone: her handmaid escorted her to the camp and likely held open the bag where Holofernes’ head was dropped after his demise (as depicted in Caravaggio’s famous 1599 painting of the story). It’s just as important to tell the stories of groups of women acting together as the stories of individuals.

I’m sure some readers are wondering what all of this has to do with Hanukkah. Some rabbinic texts include Judith’s story along with the revolt of the Maccabees. Of course there is the parallel of the improbable military victory, but it’s also interesting to note that the names Judah (as in “Judah the Maccabee”) and Judith have the same root word of Judah, which is certainly where the term Jew derives. Both Judah and Judith were leaders of their small yet mighty communities. If only children were taught to look up to Judith the way they look up to Judah.

All of this being said, I was terribly disappointed when we polled the participants of last weeks webinar to see who knew about Judith. Only 40% knew her story well, and even less, a mere 25% teach about her to their students. Why do so few people know about Judith? HOW do so few people know about her?

It’s true her story isn’t included in the Tanach, but in this day and age of sharing stories I hoped that more people would be aware of this audacious Biblical woman. And I know that just because I know her story doesn’t mean that everyone would. I’m a pretty special exception: I studied feminism and Jewish texts throughout college, so stories like Judith’s were shared frequently. While I wish everyone would be required to take at least one gender studies course, that’s (unfortunately) not the case. It seems that Judith’s story, and others like it, are not discussed as often as I’d like.

If people don’t know stories like Judith’s, what other stories don’t we know? Who are the other heroines throughout history who have performed acts of bravery and self-sacrifice that people have ignored or forgotten? And what on earth can we do about it?

First of all, educate! If you read this blog post and think your friends or family should know the story of Judith, tell it to them. If you’re wondering about other unsung Jewish women heroes throughout history, take a look at JWA’s Encyclopedia or sign up for our This Week in History emails. If you know of a modern Jewish woman hero whose work isn’t being lauded enough, let us know about her in the comments below. Let’s not perpetuate the idea that women’s stories can disappear simply because they’re about women. Let’s keep these stories alive by retweeting, reposting, and retelling them.

I’d like to leave you with a fun fact: based on Judith’s story, early rabbinic texts encouraged the practice of eating dairy on Hanukkah to commemorate the salty cheese Judith fed to Holofernes. I don’t know about y’all, but I love all things cheesy, and am happy to eat dairy on pretty much any occasion. So, in order to celebrate strong women everywhere, I think I’ll be putting some shredded cheese into my latkes this Hanukkah. How will you celebrate Jewish women heroes this Hanukkah?

Gentileschi_-_Judith_Beheading_Holofernes
Full image
Judith beheading Holofernes, by Gentileschi.

How to cite this page

Cantor-Stone , Miriam . "Celebrate Judith; Celebrate Hanukkah." 11 November 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/celebrate-judith-celebrate-hanukkah>.

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