The tale of Hanukkah is a simple one: a righteous man and his family, the Maccabees, stand up to their oppressors and are rewarded with a relatively minor miracle, that of the oil needed to maintain the reclaimed synagogue’s eternal light lasting not one day but eight. Every year, usually in December, we gather with family and friends, light our Hanukkiah for eight days and remember this triumph fondly.
But once upon a time, Hanukkah celebrated not only the Maccabees and their victory over religious tyranny, but a strong, brave Jewish widow named Judith. The two stories are not related but their through-line of strength in the face of adversity and the vanquishing of tyrants made them natural allies in the celebration of the Festival of Lights.
Judith’s town, Bethulia, was besieged by an Assyrian army led by the notorious Holofernes, who took it upon himself to rape and pillage as he saw fit. Even by second century BCE terms, he was monstrous. But rather than letting her people suffer, starve and die, Judith used her status as a comely widow with feminine wiles to get access to Holofernes, plying him with cheese and wine until he took her back to his tent where he promptly passed out. Raping and pillaging really is exhausting, it seems.
Seeing her opportunity, Judith beheaded the sleeping Holofernes, leaving his troops without a leader and in chaos, providing an opening for the Israelite army to reenter the town and retake it. Her story and image was especially popular with painters during the Baroque period where her calm visage while literally chopping a man’s head off is equal parts disturbing and impressive. The most famous iteration, or my favorite at the very least, is by Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman warrior in her own right.
Born at the end of the 16th century, Artemisia was the daughter of a painter in Rome, apprenticing first with him and then with more prestigious artists as her talents grew. One such tutor raped her but oddly, she was the one put under torture to verify her story. Oh, how times have changed, and yet… In any case, suffice it to say that Artemisia rose above her circumstances and tragedies to become the very first woman to gain entry into the esteemed Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence and nearly all of her works feature women once considered to be victims as those seeking their own vengeance. Her depictions shed the expectations of demure, meek damsels and rather focus on the agency of women in power and working together to slay, sometimes literally, the men who deign to dominate them.
So as Hanukkah comes to a close next week, eat some cheese, resist your oppressors and spend time with the strong women in your life. Chag sameach, bitches!