The forgotten Hanukkah heroine who should be celebrated


Hanukkah means latkes, menorahs and the retelling of the story of Judah and the Maccabees. But there’s a woman from a few hundred years before Judah who is just as important to this story.

This Hanukkah, let’s bring this forgotten feminist back into the spotlight.

Judith is not mentioned in the Torah. Her earliest known stories aren’t even in Hebrew, but in Greek. And she’s on the fringes of medieval texts, at best. And her story is interwoven with quite a few fictional elements. But the story of Judith is too important not to celebrate and share. She is the feminist activist we need right now, even if she happens to be from antiquity.

Judith’s story starts in Jerusalem centuries before Judah’s story of the Maccabean revolt. A widow of three years, she has been in deep mourning, only wearing rags and ashes. And her children are on the brink of starvation, as her city is under siege by the evil Holofernes and his armies, who have been sent by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar to conquer the city and convert the Jews living there.

Though they had fought back against Holofernes as best they could, the Israelites were ready to surrender. But Judith was not. Determined that her city will not fall, she devises a plan and convinces her people that she can singlehandedly defeat their enemies. Judith is disgusted by the faithlessness of the leaders of Jerusalem and tells them that God will act through her.

That night, Judith sheds her mourning clothes, dresses herself in her finest jewels, and, with wine and her maid, leaves the city under the cover of darkness.  

Alone, the two women walk into the enemy’s camp and straight up to the royal tent – not something you did back then. But, struck by her beauty, Holofernes asks, “Who are you? Where do you come from and where do you wish to go?”

Judith responds, “I have heard of your wisdom and skill, and since Israel has sinned, I know that you will conquer the city and take possession of it, so I came to save myself and my father’s household when you take the city.” She promises to help Holofernes conquer the city from inside, and he invites her into his tent, intending to seduce her. She follows him.

Inside, Holofernes feasts and drinks more than he ever has in celebration of his coming victory, with Judith feeding him cheese and pouring him more and more wine. Yes, my friends, cheese and wine are the weapons of choice in this story. Judith feasts, too, but only on what she has brought with her.

Holofernes soon falls asleep. Turning her thoughts to God, Judith grabs the sword on his bedpost, and, in one swift motion, beheads Holofernes as he sleeps. (OK, so the sword was a weapon, too.)

Judith then puts his head in her bag and swiftly leaves the tent. She and her maid  return unnoticed to the city walls, where she commands the guards to mount Holofernes’ head up high for all of king’s armies to see at sunrise.

When Holofernes’ men see what has become of him, they flee. Jerusalem is safe, thanks to Judith. The Israelites enter the enemy camp and plunder the invaluable riches, which they sorely need after years of living under siege.

Judith is given Holofernes’ tent and all his possessions. She is blessed by every woman and leads them in song and dance. She praises God for giving her the courage and strength needed to save her people. Judith is celebrated for three months.

Though many offer, Judith chooses not to remarry, instead living her life as a free woman. She frees her maid before she dies at the age of 105.

This story was once told each Hanukkah, alongside the better-known story of Judah and the Maccabees. Judah and Judith’s names come from the same root, and both stories are about military victories that seemed impossible. 

There has been a movement to place Judith back in the forefront of the Hanukkah story. Some even eat dairy on Hanukkah to commemorate the cheese Judith fed Holofernes before taking his head (cheese latkes, anyone?).

This lone woman, determined not to let her children starve or be converted, takes matters into her own hands. Like Judah, she will neither cower nor surrender.

(Alma via JTA)

STEPH BLACK is a women’s studies major at American University.

Hanukkah, Judith