Photo from Max Pixel.

Ancient Heroine Lights the Way for Our Time

For centuries, Jewish women across the world have told the story of Judith during Hanukkah season.

In this cultural moment, it could not be more appropriate. So, let’s join the tradition!

Judith is a young widow, stuck in the state of mourning after her husband unexpectedly has died three years before. She wears her sackcloth and ashes in a city under siege. But when she sees the children beginning to starve as supplies dwindle, and hears the men in power declare that surrender must be God’s will, Judith asks the men to let her try one thing first.

She takes off her sackcloth and ashes, dresses in her finest clothes, and along with her maid, leaves the city under cover of darkness. They walk straight into the enemy camp and pretend they are planning to defect, winning the trust of the army. Over the course of a few nights, Judith works her way into the tent of the enemy general himself, Holofernes. He’s charmed by her, and invites her to a private feast the next night.

Judith returns for the feast in her best dress, with a bag containing a skin of wine and a chunk of salty cheese. She feeds him cheese until he is thirsty, then wine until he is sleepy. As he drifts off, she takes the sword from his bedside and, with her maid, cuts off his head.

Finally, Judith takes the head and impales it on the city gates, and in the morning, the enemy army wakes up, sees their general’s lifeless head, and flees en masse, ending the war.

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” — Muriel Rukeyser

What a story. Not surprisingly, it’s a favorite of artists, including a female Old Masters painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, the subject of a seven-month sensational rape trial that rocked the 17th-century world; when she painted the scene, many think she gave Judith her face, and the head of Holofernes’ the face of her rapist.

Judith’s story upends the expectations of young women in the ancient world — or ours for that matter. Her victory is not just personal; it’s a triumph for her city, her culture, her people. You could say it’s a miracle, but you could also just say it’s a really smart new strategy.

And a new strategy is needed. After all, in this story, the established power structures have failed. God is not swooping in to save anyone, and the army is powerless to win. Only these two brave women can save their people.

Over the centuries, Jewish women have claimed Judith’s story as part of their living tradition. She’s often associated with Hanukkah, perhaps because of the near-miraculous military victory, or because both the holiday and Judith’s story are apocryphal, not included in the Hebrew Bible.

North African Jewish women celebrated Judith with a Chag HaBanot (Festival of the Daughters) or Eid al-Banat on the seventh night of Hanukkah; Ashkenazi Jewish women told Judith’s story in Yiddish on the eighth night of the holiday; Sephardic women in Turkey read the story of Judith to their children during the festival, as well.

And what about us? Right now, at this moment in American culture, women are beginning to speak the truths in our lives, challenging the structures of power that would keep us silent. We continue to unravel the violence that patriarchy causes women and men. We begin to hold those in power accountable. Judith leads the way, standing in solidarity with us as we discover our voices.

As poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser wrote in 1968, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Judith invites us to do precisely that: to tell the truth about our lives. Through her courage, she reveals our own. A bravery not necessarily predicted by our past actions, a bravery that might call for some reinvention, a bravery that might shatter what is expected of us and rearrange the world in a new structure.

Whether we use this courage for political action, or to carry out important changes in our personal lives, or to speak long-hidden truths, it is time. Time for us to tell the truth about our lives. And in this season of lights, Judith lights the way for us, as she has for so many before.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Judith: The woman warrior who brought down a general

Arabian rugs and pillows are spread out in a tent as Holofernes, the general of the Assyrians, plots his victory over the Israelites. Wearing a tunic, he speaks lines of great beauty: “I am overcome with wonder, trembling with a terrible infatuation.”

He is speaking of war, yet he might be anticipating the woman who will take him to bed later in the evening.

That woman, the eponymous star of “Judith: A Parting From the Body,” resuming its run at the Theater of NOTE on Nov. 30, is the Jewish heroine known to readers of the Apocrypha. Though the Apocrypha was written at the time that the Greek tragedians were plying their trade, British playwright Howard Barker says from England that his play is not influenced by the Greeks.

“Where traditional tragedy operates in a strong moral climate, my tragedy breaks that down,” says Barker, who has been writing plays, primarily tragedies, since the late 1960s.

He adds, “I am not a political playwright. A political play is about informing. I don’t do that.”

He is surely right that his play makes no moral judgments about Judith, the Jewish warrior, nor about Holofernes, the Assyrian general who broods upon death. Yet it does have a servant, who, with her constant chattering and interference, may remind one of Pandarus stoking the fire while Troilus and Cressida try to be intimate.

When asked if he sees any trace of Medea in his Judith, Barker says, “In a word, ‘No.'”

Yet the lead, played by Julia Prud’homme, has a violent passion about her on the stage, all the more so after she has beheaded Holofernes, played by Mark McClain Wilson.

Prud’homme, who trained in London for one semester with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, spearheaded this production. She not only stars in it, she co-produced it. Eleven years ago, she played the servant in a festival up in Seattle, where she was an actress for nearly a decade.

“Throughout history, women have performed heroic deeds,” she says, pointing out that those deeds often go unnoticed.

That is one of the reasons she so desperately wanted to bring this production to Los Angeles and to play Judith.

“Part of what makes this story so epic is if Holofernes succeeds, that’s it for the Israelite race,” she says. “There’s so much weight attached to the fact that your people are on the verge of being exterminated.”

While Prud’homme was drawn to the play because of the heroism of its lead, Barker was inspired by a painting of Judith by Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th century Italian painter, which he recalls seeing at Windsor Castle.

“Her way with the human body is really quite delicate yet savage.” He adds, “That’s unusual for a woman painter.”

When asked if he has ever written about a Jewish subject before, Barker quips, “Not knowingly.”

Barker, like Prud’homme, is not Jewish, but they both have uncovered one of the hidden secrets from history, that of a Jewish woman, who will make a tragic sacrifice that will haunt her for the rest of her life, yet will save her people. In some ways, that is a universal dilemma, one that speaks to people of all nations.

No doubt thinking of the Iraq War and all the other tragedies in the world right now, Prud’homme says, “Things happened then, and they are still happening now.”
“Judith” may indeed provide a parable for our present day. What warrior in Iraq wouldn’t want to have such an exchange with a clever woman:

“I have no equal in the field [that] I’ve made my specialty.”

“Which field is that — murder or philosophy?”

Though Barker mixes in profanity of a modern idiom, his is primarily a sublime diction. Words like “aperture” and “interstices” effortlessly flow out of the mouth of Holofernes, who may be less like Jason or Oedipus and more like Hamlet. When Holofernes says of his battlefield exploits, “I am at these moments most like a God,” one is reminded of Hamlet’s, “What a piece of work is a man” speech when the Prince of Denmark says, “in apprehension, how like a God.”

Like Hamlet, Holofernes does not simply marvel at mankind; in fact, he exudes disgust at man and himself. One would not be surprised to hear him refer to us all as a “quintessence of dust.”

Holofernes, though, lacks Hamlet’s ability to read his enemies. One can’t imagine Hamlet being tempted by any woman, except perhaps Rosalind. But that would be a different play altogether, a comedy in the Forest of Arden. Instead, we have a tragedy in the Holy Land. Much like today.

“Judith: A Parting From the Body” plays Nov. 30 through Dec. 16, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., at the Theater of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. For more information, call (323) 856-8611.

Holiday Heroine

Each year, Jews light Chanukah candles for eight evenings in a row, repeating the story of the Maccabees, the ancient guerrilla warriors who launched surprise attacks on the occupying armies of Syria.

Judah the Maccabee and his four brothers overthrew Syrian tyranny, restored the Temple in Jerusalem, and witnessed a miracle when a one-day supply of olive oil burned for eight days until a new batch was produced.

That miracle and the Maccabees’ daring eclipsed the tale of Judith, the beautiful widow who also met the enemy and triumphed.

During one of Judea’s darkest hours, Holofernes, a general from Asia Minor, laid siege to the town of Bethulia. In no time its water supply dwindled to almost nothing, and the town was close to surrender.

The Book of Judith, an apocryphal work that probably dates to the Second Temple period, relates how a young widow, determined to save her people, purposely beguiled the general, who unwittingly obliged by falling in love with her.

The widow and the general dined together often, until one night when Judith served him salty cheese and plied him with wine to quench his thirst, making him tipsy. Holofernes fell into a stupor. Judith grabbed his sword and cut off his head, rescuing her town and thwarting the Syrians.

Although several versions of Judith’s story circulate, none of them has been confirmed as true. Scholars who’ve studied and debated aspects of the tale for centuries, have generally agreed that it is intended to teach us that the most powerful forces can, with the help of God, be defeated by those who may appear physically weak but are in fact spiritually strong.

In spite of its dubious veracity, Judith’s legend has led to the custom for some Jews of eating cheese and other dairy foods at Chanukah. There is some evidence that partaking in cheese may be as old as Chanukah itself. The salty cheese that Judith served Holofernes may have been in the form of fried cakes.

Recipes for ricotta pancakes in Italy and feta cheese pancakes in Greece may be modern versions of these ancient fried cakes. Today, trendy chefs are reinventing Chanukah pancakes using goat cheese.

Although foods fried in oil have been the heart of Chanukah cuisine for centuries, potato latkes were once considered newcomers. Carried aboard cargo ships from Bolivia and Peru, potatoes first arrived in Europe in the 16th century, precluding the possibility that they played a part in early Chanukah celebrations.

For the most part, Ashkenazic cuisine defers to Sephardic tradition when it comes to serving cheese dishes at Chanukah. Olive oil has always been plentiful in Sephardic countries, but in Eastern Europe oil was once a scarce commodity. Ashkenazim often fried latkes in goose fat shifting their Chanukah celebrations toward meat.

Paying homage to Judith’s courage, in some Sephardic cultures women do not perform work during the first and last days of Chanukah. On the seventh night, women sing, dance, drink wine and eat foods made from cheese.

In deference to the one-day supply of oil that stretched for eight days, the shortening of choice in the recipes below is olive oil.

Although at Chanukah Jews of Eastern European descent clamor for traditional latkes, potato pancakes fried in olive oil complement these menu suggestions. The Festival of Lights offers eight days of opportunities to dedicate a dinner or a brunch to dairy fare. In the spirit of Judith’s bravery, savor cheese dishes, let the wine flow, and toast one of history’s unsung legendary heroines.

Herbed Goat Cheese Spread

  • 1 8-ounce pkg. commercial cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon parsley, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon chives, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary, ground or chopped needles
  • dash of white pepper

In a blender or food processor, combine all ingredients until well mixed. Place in an attractive bowl. Serve with crackers or crudités as an hors d’oeuvre; or as an appetizer with pita bread accompanied by a green salad. Yield: 6-8 servings.

Ricotta & Mushroom Matzah Brei

  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • Salt to taste
  • Olive oil for frying
  • 12 crimini (or white) mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 pieces of matzah, broken into one-inch squares
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 9 inch deep-dish pie pan

1. Place eggs, ricotta, milk and salt in a bowl and mix well. Reserve.

2. Pour 3 tablespoons oil into a large skillet and sauté mushrooms and garlic until soft. Remove from pan.

3. Lightly sprinkle matzah with water and sauté in mushroom drippings until crisp, adding oil when needed.

4. Return mushrooms to pan and mix with matzah. Add more oil.

5. Pour egg mixture into pan, spreading evenly. Sauté until brown. Cut into four wedges. Turn wedges and brown.

6. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Swiss Cheese Quiche

  • Crust:
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick sweet butter
  • 1/4 cup ice water

1. Place dry ingredients in food processor. Cut butter into four chunks and mix. With machine running, slowly pour water through feed tube. Mix until ingredients form a ball of dough, approximately 2-3 minutes.

2. Place dough on surface sprinkled with flour. Cover rolling pin with flour, and roll dough into a circle large enough for pie pan. If dough tears, simply pat edges together with fingers.

3. Cover half of dough circle with foil and fold remaining half over the foil. Repeat with a second piece of foil, so dough is folded into quarters. Lift folded dough and place over 25 percent of greased pie pan. Unfold dough so entire pan is covered. Pat into place. Trim excess dough from rim.


  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 large zucchini, sliced thin
  • 3 tablespoon olive oil
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  • 12 ounces Swiss cheese, diced
  • Cream, 1-2 cups
  • Salt & white pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 350. In a large saucepan sauté onion and zucchini in olive oil.

2. Place onion mixture, eggs, cheese and salt in a two-quart measuring pitcher. Add cream until contents reach six cups.

3. Pour into prepared dough in pie plate.

4. Bake for 40 minutes or until crust browns, top of quiche turns light brown and custard feels firm. Yield: 8-10 servings