Letter from Modi’in: Hanukka With Two Genders
The crowd seated on the hilltop is gathered around a young woman dressed in a blue velvet gown. All eyes are on her when she suddenly rips open the bodice.
“What have you done?” cries one of the men near her, in Hebrew.
“On the night before my wedding, I will be forcibly handed over and violated by a Greek officer,” she replies. “So it is better that you see me in my shame before he does.”
There is murmuring in the crowd before the man thunders: “Such things will not happen in Israel; you will not be handed over to anyone but a Jewish man.” Another adds: “We will fight the Greeks and put an end to this edict and all the other evil edicts.”
That scene unfolds year after year at Kfar Hashmona’im (The Hasmonean Village), an outdoor educational center halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, just outside the modern-day town of Modi’in. Zohar Baram, founder of the center, stages this version of the Hanukka story as part of his efforts to preserve the legacy of the Hasmoneans, who won religious freedom and political independence for Jews in the Land of Israel in the second century B.C.E.
For many years, Baram, a tall, lanky man in his sixties, used to perform a more traditional tale of Hanukka before groups of schoolchildren and adults—the one in which the Syrian Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes decides to force all people under his rule to Hellenize, outlawing Jewish rituals and imposing Greek ones instead.
When Greek soldiers come to the village of Modi’in and demand that the Jews sacrifice a pig, one villager is ready to obey. The elderly priest, Mattathias of the esteemed Hasmonean family, is so incensed by this that he kills both the Jewish collaborator and the soldiers, then flees with his five sons to the mountains, where they and their followers conduct what may be the first recorded instance of guerrilla warfare.
One son, Judah the Maccabee, defies the odds and defeats the Greeks, purifies and rededicates the Temple in Jerusalem and ushers in a period of Jewish sovereignty that lasts nearly 100 years.
Baram usually plays Mattathias in this tale, brandishing a sword and donning an embroidered blue tunic. But a couple of years ago, he introduced a new beginning and a new character to the drama: Hannah, daughter of Mattathias.
This rendition is based on a midrash that alludes to “the rite of the first night,” whereby all Jewish women about to marry were forced to lose their virginity to a Greek soldier—a rite that has a questionable historical basis, according to most scholars. At her wedding feast, Hannah rails against her family’s complacent acceptance of this outrage and invokes the biblical brothers Simon and Levi, who, in response to their sister Dinah’s rape, sought ruthless revenge. It is Hannah’s provocative protest that spurs her brothers to rebel against the Greeks.
Baram, a historical geographer who specializes in the Hasmonean period, found the story a few years ago after a journalist asked him whether women had any role in the revolt—a query that prompted him to scour through the sources. On discovering the midrash, he decided to include it in an adults-only version of his Hanukka play, which is staged at Kfar Hashmona’im during the holiday.
“Here we have another version of the events that sparked the Hasmonean revolt,” he notes, adding that “this midrash, as well as other references I found to women during the Hasmonean period, convinced me that women were as determined as the men to fight for Jewish survival and sovereignty, and when that proved impossible, they did not hesitate to choose death.”
Baram is one of a diverse group of educators, scholars and rabbis in Israel who have begun to explore the role of women in the Hanukka tale in general, and the Hasmonean revolt in particular. And, to a more limited extent, they have tried to integrate their research into the way the holiday is marked in the modern State of Israel.
Yael Levine, an independent researcher with a doctorate in Talmud from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan who focuses on issues related to women and Judaism, sees contemporary relevance in Hannah’s story.
“In a broader way, it is possible to see the figure of Mattathias’s daughter as an archetype and representative of all women throughout all generations who dared, protested and rose up against the exploitation of women’s bodies by men,” Levine wrote in an op-ed in the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv two years ago. “In that sense, this is a story that we are obligated to read today more than ever. In an era of sexual harassment, rape, prostitution and trade in women, the exploitation has not ceased and a miracle has not taken place.”
The Hasmonean period is the first time in Jewish history that martyrdom occurs, notes historian Tal Ilan, a professor of Jewish studies at the Freie University in Berlin. I and II Maccabees—the most reliable firsthand source of the Hasmonean revolt—both contain short yet searing references to women’s martyrdom.
“In accordance with the decree, they put to death the women who had circumcised their children, hanging the newborn babies around their necks,” reads I Maccabees 20:60. “Nevertheless many in Israel…preferred to die rather than…break the holy covenant, and they did die.”
In II Maccabees 6:10, the text describes the brutal measures the Greeks imposed against Jews who kept their traditions: “As an example, two women were brought up on the charge of having circumcised their children. They publicly paraded them around the city with their babies clinging to their breasts, then hurled them headlong from the wall.”
“The fact that both books refer to this incident is strong evidence that it actually happened,” says Ilan. “And that tells us that martyrdom was open to women, too.”
The other hallmark of the Hasmonean revolt, according to Ilan, is the appearance of zealotry—in which a person takes his people’s destiny into his own hands in a manner that alters history—something Mattathias clearly does when he defies and kills the Greek officer and Jewish collaborator in Modi’in. While there are no examples of zealotry in the books of Maccabees, an entire book in the apocrypha is centered on a woman who is the very model of zealotry: Judith.
The Book of Judith—included in the apocrypha of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Old Testament but excluded from the canon by Jews and Protestants—is written as a gripping historical novel. It relates the story of a pious Jewish widow who risks her life to save her people in a city under Assyrian siege. After convincing her community to support her unorthodox scheme, Judith heads off to the headquarters of the Assyrian general Holofernes to seduce him. She gets him drunk and severs his head—an act that enables her people to easily rout their spooked, leaderless enemy and win freedom for all of Judea.
“She single-handedly changes history,” says Ilan.
The Book of Judith is so packed with historical anachronisms, it is dismissed by most scholars as having no factual basis. Still, it has been traditionally associated with Hanukka. In fact, medieval Hebrew versions of the story begin with the instruction, “To be read on Hanukka,” and this was indeed the practice in a number of communities in Europe and North Africa during the Middle Ages and beyond. Poems about Judith were included in the 11th-century Italian and German liturgies, notes Susan Weingarten, a historian at Tel Aviv University. That tradition, however, faded long ago.
In Modi’in—scene of the original Maccabean revolt— one woman is reviving the tale of Judith. Kinneret Shiryon, founder and co-rabbi of Kehillat YOZMA, the city’s Reform congregation, reads the Book of Judith at the Rosh Hodesh meeting for women in the month of Kislev, where the group also discusses the story’s modern-day implications. She also performs a colorful children’s rendition of the story in each of YOZMA’s classrooms and kindergartens, using a doll to play the heroine.
In the first act, Shiryon, a charismatic, American-born 54-year-old, dresses the Judith doll in black to show that she is mourning the loss of her husband. When the doll sets out to seduce—in the children’s version “win the trust of”—Holofernes, she dons bright clothes and adorns herself with jewelry and baubles, even perfume.
She also prays using the Book of Psalms. “I want to show that she is a pious woman,” notes Shiryon. The Judith doll—accompanied by a maidservant doll, as in the original tale—enters the tent of Holofernes with a sword, and when they emerge, Shiryon tells the children that Holofernes is “no longer alive” and that “Judith succeeded in getting rid of the tyrant who was trying to destroy all the people in her village.”
“The kids love the story,” she observes. “They already know the story of Judah the Maccabee, which recounts how a persecuted minority rises up to defeat a tyrannical oppressor. I tell them that the Book of Judith is read on Hanukka because, even though it takes place at a different time, under a different ruler, the story is similar. Here you have a brave, smart woman who saved her people much like [Judah did].”
It is no coincidence that the Hebrew version of the heroine’s name is Yehudit, a feminization of Yehuda, which is the Hebrew for Judah, adds Shiryon. “The kind of faith and motivation she espouses is in keeping with the story of Hanukka. The Hasmoneans have a strong sense of identity, a willingness to risk their lives to achieve their goals and faith that they will prevail. So does Judith.
“I ask the children if they see any similarity in the names Yehuda and Yehudit and if they can connect that to what we are—yehudim [Jews],” she explains. “They are quick to figure it out.”
Many of the children’s parents respond to the story with surprise. “Most have never heard of Judith before; the mothers in particular are delighted and want to know more,” says Shiryon. Occasionally, she encounters a less enthusiastic response. “One of the educators in our movement questioned whether it was appropriate to recount such a violent story to children. But the story of Judah the Maccabee is no less violent and we do not think twice about telling that. Somehow when men commit acts of aggression it is acceptable. Of course, I do not go into the gory details of the story. And I present Judith’s act in the context of self-determination and self-defense. She does what she does in order to save her people.”
While the story of Judah the Maccabee and the Hasmonean revolt is referred to in various historical sources, the tale of Judith is considered by most scholars to be pure literary invention.
“Whether the story has any truth is not significant: Judith is part of our folklore and she represents an inspiring model of leadership,” notes Shiryon, who, as the first woman rabbi in modern Israel, is a groundbreaker in her own right.
The figure of Judith—who has been the subject of innumerable paintings, particularly during the Renaissance, operas and poems—was adopted by Christianity early on as a symbol of chastity and martyrdom, even as a version of the Virgin Mary, notes Weingarten. In the Middle Ages, Judaism started to reclaim Judith as a Jewish heroine, Weingarten says, noting that medieval Jewish accounts portray Judith not as a saintly, ethereal figure but as a flesh-and-blood woman and much-respected leader of her community.
In scholarly circles, the Judith figure has also been making something of a comeback. This December marks the publication of The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines (The Judith Project; www.openbook publishers.com), a book based on the proceedings of an interdisciplinary conference held in New York last year in which 28 researchers from eight countries—including two from Israel—presented a multifaceted look at Judith in biblical studies, literature, art, music and psychoanalysis. Among the participants were Tel Aviv University’s Weingarten, a specialist in food in the Talmud, who spoke about Megillat Yehudit, a medieval Hebrew variation of the Judith book; and Deborah Levine Gera, an associate professor of classics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is currently working on a commentary on the Book of Judith.
But that academic interest has not been translated into a significant change in ritual.
In previous centuries, many Sefardim would set aside one day of Hanukka, often Rosh Hodesh Tevet, for a celebration of women; in some communities, the deeds of Judith would be recalled. This practice was in keeping with the Gemara in Shabbat 23a that quotes Rabbi Joshua ben Levi as saying: “Women are obligated to light the Hanukka menora, for they took part in the miracle.”
In her article in the journal Kolech documenting the myriad ways women once celebrated Hanukka as a hag banot (girls’ festival), Yael Levine called for a contemporary revival of the practice—perhaps as a women’s study day. But, she notes ruefully, this has not happened.
With the founding of the State of Israel, the narrative of the bravery of the Maccabees eclipsed the miracle of the oil lamp as the story most associated with Hanukka. The Zionist ethos of the fighting Jew who takes his fate into his own hands resonated more than the stories of faith and miracles.
Some scholars speculate that, in the same spirit, this emphasis on masculine values—the strong, muscular and brave sabra—nixed any mention of women in marking the holiday in Israel.
And so in contemporary Israel, Judah the Maccabee tends to trump Judith, indeed any references to the role of women in the holiday. Still, little by little, and especially in and around Modi’in, another more minor revolution is under way. Women are regaining a place in the Hanukka story. H