Judith and Me

I discovered Judith and Holofernes in New York. Like many feminist parents I wanted to celebrate women in our holidays. I’m not religious but I honor my ancestors and the seasons by celebrating Passover and Hanukkah with my family. So I found myself at the Tarrytown, NY Jewish Community Center with an art historian discussing a mysterious Hanukkah menorah from Germany. It featured the figurine of Judith designed to inspire oppressed Jews in Europe the same way she had inspired the Maccabees in the Hanukkah story.  In one hand Judith raised a sword; in the other she dangled a large man’s head.  By the hair.

I was fascinated. This young widow had walked brazenly into the camp of the bloodthirsty army that surrounded her ancient village, Bethulia. She convinced the dreaded General Holofernes that she had important information to help him triumph. In celebration of her arrival he called for a feast. Judith plied Holofernes with salty goat cheese and quenched his thirst with wine until he was so drunk he passed out.  Now, alone in a tent with the sleeping General, she drew courage from her remarkable life story, her family and her faith. She lifted his heavy sword and—with two blows—sliced Holofernes head clean off.

And that’s not even all.

Judith stuffed the severed head in a sack, walked back through the army camp and up the hill to her village. Upon seeing the head of the fearsome General, the Bethulians were inspired to attack. The invading army, despite their enormous strength, was lost without their leader. They scattered helplessly into the desert. Judith had saved her village.

I have to admit, the first time I heard the story of Judith and Holofernes I felt this glee inside. This rebellious, sneaky, solidarity-with-my-sisters joy. I mean, she beheaded the guy. Disgusting. And she lied and tricked him into being alone with her. Not at all ethical. But wars aren’t ethical, and he was about to destroy her entire tribe. I felt the way I did when I learned about Lorena Bobbitt. Remember the woman who got so fed up with being raped by her husband that she finally cut his member off? What she did was completely unacceptable, and yet I felt elated. I cheered for her. Didn’t you? And most of the women you know? And men for that matter?  Obviously, we don’t teach our daughters that violence will solve our problems.  But we teach them to be strong. And there is just something deeply satisfying about women warriors.

I was enraptured by Judith of Bethulia. She had used her brains and courage to prevent the wholesale slaughter of her citadel. Hear that girls? Brains and courage!  And there was no miracle other than her own strength.  But how did she conquer her fear?  Being a scholarly sort of woman I researched the story. Seems I’m not the only one she inspired. Judith has been imagined by hundreds of the greatest artist from the masters to the modern. My personal favorite is Rubens. She looks so confident!

But the actual story of Judith has faded into near obscurity. It was relegated to the Apocrypha by the rabbis of old. Because there was no miracle, perhaps?  We have only a truncated Greek translation of the original. A few poems. A French mystery play. A noteworthy silent film. But no one has written the story for a contemporary audience.   What?  No one has written the book?!

As you might have guessed, I have busy writing a historical fiction version of Judith and Holofernes ever since. Women like Judith have changed the course of history. Many of us need courage just to get up in the morning.  Ironically, Judith has given me the courage to focus on my writing so I can share her story. Tomorrow will be the first night of Hanukkah, five years after I was first introduced to Judith. I have learned so much and been so fantastically inspired I have to share my excitement.  I hope you will follow this blog and join the discussion. melinaselverston.com

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