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Chanukah and the Heroic Jewish Woman

November 23, 2010 | by Emuna Braverman

Are we willing to fight for what’s right?

For Shabbos we try to make the perfect challah, for company perhaps the perfect soufflé, and for Chanukah we try to make the perfect brisket and of course the perfect latke. In the midst of all these food preparations, after ferreting out the most creative menorah and those special artisan candles, we don't want to lose sight of the holiday. How can we have the perfect Chanukah?

All beginnings are based on understanding. There was a prominent advertising campaign for a shopping mall in southern California whose motto was "Don't Blend In." You have your own unique style; don't be caught looking like a carbon copy of someone else. In fashion, it's clear. For some there is nothing more mortifying than to catch an acquaintance wearing the same outfit as you. While we may have mixed feelings about the application of this motto to clothing, the application to Jewish pride should be unambivalent.

Chanukah is the holiday of Jewish pride; it's the time when we made a historic commitment not to blend in. Despite the allure of Greek society, despite the capitulation of many of our brothers and sisters, the true heroes were those who stood apart. They were not seduced by the blandishments of the Greeks; they knew they held a precious treasure and it was not to be relinquished…

Related Article: The Beauty Wars

The Lioness Roars

One of the lesser-known yet not-unsung heroines of the Chanukah story was the widow Yehudis. Perceiving the danger that her people were in – the physical danger of the Assyrians at the door, and the spiritual danger should Jerusalem fall, she devised a plan. Her town was under siege, its inhabitants on the verge of surrender due to lack of water when Yehudis acted. Pious and resourceful, she requested a meeting with the Assyrian General Holofornes.

She recommended herself as his advisor in his campaign to defeat the Jews. Seduced by her intelligence, blinded by her beauty, Holofornes agreed to her plan. She invited him to a luxurious dinner where she served him great quantities of cheese – to promote thirst, and wine – to quench it. Finally he fell into a deep and uncomprehending sleep.

Without wasting a moment, Yehudis grabbed his sword, cut off his head, and returned with it to the anxious, waiting Jews. The severed head was displayed on the walls of the city, terrifying the Assyrian army who panicked and retreated. The Jewish soldiers were victorious and a prayer of thanksgiving was offered up, with gratitude to the Almighty and his righteous agent, Yehudis.

When the chips are down, women have the power to rise above.

When the chips are down, women have the power to rise above. When our families are threatened, we become mother lionesses, roaring at and attacking our enemies. When our people are at risk, we have the power to save them. If we use it wisely. If we're focused on the goal.

Too frequently, the goal is obscured. We blink and we've lost sight of it. We have a brief moment of insight and then we're back to carpools, homework and (finally!) bedtime. But what are we giving our children if it's only a ride from place to place? What is our lasting legacy if all we talk about is homework and shopping? We want to teach our children how lucky they are to be Jews, that it's a heritage not worth trading for all the money in the world.

America has been a wonderful haven for the Jews. Our gratitude knows no bounds. But it also defines itself as a "melting pot." The goal is that the edges should blur as all races and ethnicities blend into one "American" whole. That is not a Jewish goal. We recognize the tremendous loss that occurs when we sacrifice our uniqueness. Again we say "don't blend in."

As Jewish women, we need to model, to embody this motto...

Strength and Pride

The Greeks outlawed the Jewish celebration of the new month, dismissive of man's relationship with God in framing time, dismissive of Jewish calendar, a Jewish perspective on the yearly cycle. We have to reclaim the Jewish calendar. Our lives are deepened if the week is centered on Shabbos instead of Sunday. Our dinner parties are infused with meaning if they're connected to Jewish celebrations. Our tradition is upheld and reinforced if it is the clear priority, and not the non-Jewish or secular holidays that surround us.

We're proud of being different.

Chanukah is a good place to start – but the message should inform all our activities throughout the year. Our ancestors fought many long and bloody battles to preserve their Jewishness. Chanukah is a celebration of the victory in that struggle, not the physical victory – for the battle was not yet over – but the spiritual one. Jews at Chanukah said, "We're not afraid to be different; we're proud of being different. And we'll fight to the death for our privilege and responsibility to remain different."

With no imminent battles on the horizon, how do we take our stand today? By living a life that embodies Jewish values. Just as we are unique as women, we are even more precious as Jewish women. And we have a message to teach the world – beginning with our family and friends and expanding outward in ever-widening concentric circles. We can dress in a way that teaches the world about dignity. We can talk in a way that teaches the world about thoughtfulness. We can treat others in a way that teaches the world about kindness. We can raise our children in a way that teaches the world about morality. And we can pray in a way that teaches the world about God.

We don't have to do it on our own. The Torah is the guidebook for our actions. We have community to reinforce our beliefs. But we should be prepared to go it alone. We should have the strength and the pride that nothing can stand in our way. We need to find the battle that Yehudis would have fought today – and drawing on her legacy of strength and spirit – lead the troops…

And while we're doing all this – while we're developing into great Jewish women and using our strengths and talents to impact our world, while we're standing up with quiet dignity and inner fortitude and refusing to blend in, we can also be at home – spinning the dreidel, passing out Chanukah gelt, eating latkes, and teaching our children, our families, our communities how to live an inspired moral and unique life; a life that only we as individuals, and we as members of a people, can create.

Excerpted from Inspiring Lights (Afikim)

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