Yehudit and You: A Chanukah Story

by Chana Jenny Weisberg
Reprinted from TheJewishWoman.org,

Someone once claimed that my alma mater, Bowdoin College of Maine, is the most thoroughly non-Jewish college in the United States. This isn’t really true. In fact, Jews make up a full 10% of the student body.

But it is true that Bowdoin is not a college that Jewish students generally attend in order live a Jewish life. Bowdoin’s Jewish Student Organization is so small that the only activities it sponsored during my college years were High Holiday prayers and weekly Shabbat candle-lighting services that I attended- until I tired of sitting in a room by myself with a pair of candlesticks waiting for someone else to show up. Even the nearest Chabad House was a full forty miles away.
On strict orders from my landlady, I lit Shabbat candles in my shower stall

This suited me just fine until I traveled for my junior year abroad to Israel and spent two months studying Judaism in a yeshiva. I returned to Bowdoin with one kosher pot, a few boxes of kosher macaroni and cheese, and a braided candle to perform the Havdalah ceremony to mark the end of Shabbat.

I thought I was all set to live a Jewish life in the Maine wilderness. This was going to be fun. But, from the very beginning, it turned out to be anything but fun.

Unlike my spiritual, song-filled Israeli Shabbats spent with families and good friends, at Bowdoin, on strict orders from my landlady, I lit Shabbat candles in my shower stall. For my Shabbat dinner I ate macaroni and cheese on my own in a kitchen that smelled perpetually like sausage, and then topped off my Shabbat experience with a few hours spent reading magazines in the college library.

Weekdays weren’t any better.

The ceremony marking the beginning of the school year was held in a local church. When I went to speak with the college president during his office hours about this non-inclusive choice of venue, he answered me with a kindly smile. The kind that is usually reserved for a particularly dumb two-year-old.

In my Jewish Studies class as well, I was a vocal defender of traditional Judaism. This meant that I was loathed by my professor and fellow students alike who thought that the Torah was old-fashioned and musty, and desperately in need of renovation and ventilation.

Then the dress rehearsal of the orchestra’s final concert was scheduled on a Friday night. As soon as I found this out a few weeks before the concert, I told the conductor that I would not be able to attend the final rehearsal since I was Jewish, and Judaism prohibited playing the French horn on Shabbat. The next day his secretary called me to tell me that I was no longer a member of the orchestra, leaving me scrambling for enough credits to graduate that spring.

Several weeks after my college graduation, I moved to Jerusalem. For the past fourteen years, I have lived in a country where Shabbat is an official day of rest. Today, I share my block with three synagogues, and have a choice of dozens of kosher restaurants located within walking distance of my home (Thank G-d, I haven’t touched macaroni and cheese from a box in years).

Many people who live outside of Israel think it must be a tough place to live. And it’s true, sort of. Over the years that I have lived here, there have been countless terror attacks, several wars, and constant threats to be driven into the sea by our Arab neighbors.

But looking back at my own life, I realize that for me, it was infinitely tougher to live in Maine.
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The Greeks of the Chanukah story were not like the Nazis or the Arab terrorists who go after Jewish blood for its own sake. They came to the Jews with one request: become like us, so we can all live happily ever after…

And who in their right mind, the Greeks reasoned, wouldn’t want to join the wave of the future, and give up this musty, old-fashioned religion called Judaism? What did the Jews have against philosophy anyway? And gladiators? And paganism? Why would any enlightened human being have anything against progress?

To this end, the Greeks outlawed observance of Shabbat, and circumcision, and Torah study. Most Jews were sucked in by the Greeks. These Jews started dressing like Greeks, thinking like Greeks, and praying like Greeks. Within a generation or two, the descendants of these assimilated Jews were no longer members of the Jewish people.

The heroes of the Chanukah story, the Maccabees, were different. This was a single family that dared to take on the whole Greek empire on behalf of the Jews who courageously remained loyal to the Jewish tradition.

But did you know that Jewish tradition teaches us that Judah the Maccabee had an aunt? A lone Maccabee-ette. She was a young widow named Yehudit, and she was as wise and pious as she was beautiful.

Yehudit lived in a village that bravely refused to give up the Torah in order to live happily ever after. In response, the Greeks laid siege to the village until its residents were starving and dying of thirst. The village leaders decided to submit to the Greek demands.

But one brave woman felt otherwise. Yehudit dressed up in her most beautiful gown, put on her fanciest jewelry, and her most expensive perfume, and risked her life as she set out for the military camp of the evil Greek governor, Holofernes. The governor noticed the beautiful Jewess and invited her for a private audience in his tent.

Yehudit got the governor so drunk that he fell asleep. Instead of the romantic encounter Holofernes had counted on, Yehudit beheaded him as he slept, setting the stage for a surprise military victory for the loyal Jews of her village.

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We can learn many lessons from Yehudit’s story, but most importantly this brave Jewish woman teaches us that being a good Jew is something that often requires courage and self-sacrifice.
It is these Jews who have a special opportunity to live up to Yehudit’s legacy

Her story personally reminds me that it is one thing to be a Jew in a place where there are three synagogues on your block, and dozens of kosher restaurants within smelling distance. And quite another thing to be a Jew practicing his or her religion in a place where Judaism is considered exotic at best, and musty and old-fashioned at worst.

It is these Jews who have a special opportunity to live up to Yehudit’s legacy, and to bring the special light of Chanukah into the world.

The Jew who raises questions when she turns down a slice of her co-worker’s famous baked ham at her office’s annual x-mas party is a modern-day Yehudit.

The Jew who raises eyebrows by putting a menorah in her window in a sea of neighbors’ tinsel and flashing lights is a modern-day Yehudit.

The Jew who raises awareness by giving a presentation on Chanukah to children of diverse backgrounds in her son’s first-grade class is a modern-day Yehudit.
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Every year on Chanukah, I remember being a freshman at Bowdoin College, and seeing the 30-foot-high x-mas tree in the Student Union. I then noticed a small paper menorah that one brave Jewish student had posted up beside it.

To this day, I have no idea who that student was. But I can tell you one thing for certain. Their name was Yehudit.

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One comment

  1. A Jerusalem Mom

    This story is very moving.
    As Yehudit also stood for traditonal Judaism, as opposed to her fellow Jews who became Hellenized, I would dare to add the following –

    The Jew who demands to wear a skirt below her knees, making her look rather dumpy, when the latest style is just above the knee, is a modern day Yehudit.

    The Jew who gives more to tzedaka instead of remodeling her 5 year old kitchen is a modern day Yehudit.

    The Jew who is careful about saying brachot before and after she eats, even when everyone around her seems to have forgotten, is a modern day Yehudit.

    I don’t mean to be provocative, just thought-provoking.

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