Hanukka, like many Jewish holy days, is a great opportunity to invoke and inculcate particular family memories along with those of our collective consciousness. At Passover, we remember the greatness of Miriam in song. In Purim, Esther’s role in saving the Jewish people is celebrated. At Hanukka, however, few remember of celebrate the story of Yehudit, our tradition’s most under-heralded heroine.
The story of Yehudit, or Judith, is found in the eponymous book that is not included in Tanakh, the Jewish canon. Yehudit is the daughter of Yochanan the High Priest in the time of the Maccabees and the Hannuka story. Among the myriad oppressive behaviors employed by the imperialist Hellenist rulers (including the Syrian Governor/General Holofernes) was to deflower Jewish maidens on the eve of their weddings. Yehudit refused to stand idly while such ignominy was being perpetrated. Utilizing her beauty (like Esther in the Purim story), Yehudit pretends to be seduced by the general. She proceeds to feed him cheese to inflame his thirst and wine to quench it, while kindling other desires. Eventually, Holofernes’ lust is drowned in wine and he falls asleep. Yehudit then cuts off his head and places it on a long pike and parades it around the Hellenist/Syrian battle lines, which caused the encamped enemy to flee from an impending planned battle with the Maccabees.
The descendants of Yehudit include every woman who has fought for what she believed in, including women like, well, my mom, Ruth Goldstein.
While my mom’s story is not as dramatic, it is of no less consequence.
Many either remember or have seen the iconic figure of World War II, “Rosie the Riveter.” My mom was “Ruthie the Welder,” building submarines in the Brooklyn Navy Yard from 1943 through most of 1944. The “Greatest Generation” understood that everyone played a part in defeating the Nazis. While in all wars there are individual heroes, during World War II there was a sense of collective heroism rarely experienced before or since.
My mother is too humble to view herself as a hero, but her work at the Navy Yard was essential to ending the war and saving the Jews who escaped the Shoa. Without diminutive figures like my mom, it would have been impossible to build submarines. It took a vertically challenged body, with great strength, endurance, and fortitude, to weld in tight spots. It took a women sure of herself and her mission.
But that was not her only contribution to “saving the world.” In the 1960s my mom had already started working as a pollster and market research analyst (without the benefit of a college degree), while raising a family, volunteering in the Jewish community, and working as a “semiprofessional” actress in summer stock theater.
Still, that was not enough. Feeling a responsibility to utilize her many skills and understanding of human nature, my mom volunteered with a suicide prevention program in the Cherry Hill area called Contact. She never talks about it, but I know my mom, who will celebrate her 91st birthday on Dec. 4 — the last night of Hanukka — saved countless lives.
Therefore, this Hanukka, raise a glass of excellent Israeli kosher wine to Ruth, Yehudit, and all the woman who have made a difference. And make it a permanent tradition.