It was always Judah the Maccabee if you were raised in a Reform home or Mattityahu if you were raised Orthodox.
But, over the decades, Yehudit also made it into the Hanukkah narrative.
After all, it was a woman’s heroism — the widow who decapitated the Assyrian general Helefornus after she had fed him her goat cheese — that brought her town in ancient Israel, Bethulia, to victory. Her story is a staple of the holiday’s narrative: the vulnerable Jews bringing down the occupying Greek forces (or Assyrians, depending on which historical version you subscribe to.)
Nonetheless, Yehudit’s ancient heroism made it possible for us to think that women can also change the course of history, beyond blintzes and cheese noodle kugel. Which got me thinking. What about modern-day Yehudit-like heroines?
In honor of Hanukkah 5775, I have created a list of eight heroines who have come to our attention since last Hanukkah, women who dream of an ideal world, but who face the harsh reality before them and create change; Heroines who turn our often times dark world into a place where we can hope, illuminating for us joy and meaning. (Please add your heroines and share!)
Michal Ben Baruch: A young woman who launched a petition onasking the staff of the Orthodox seminary in Israel found to harbor an alleged predator to publicly apologize to his victims. The 2011 graduate of the seminary did not allege that she was assaulted, yet Ben Baruch demonstrated the strength it takes to speak up against injustice, especially when your social circle is so tight and the subject so taboo.
Rachel Frenkel, Bat Galim Sha’ar and Iris Yifrach: Mothers of the three Israeli teenage boys whose pleading faces are engraved on our collective soul. These women shared their loss publicly and galvanized many Jews worldwide to unify because of their missing boys. At her son’s funeral, Rachel Frenkel recited the mourner’s prayer, Kaddish, no doubt an authentic religious expression for her, but also a statement about Orthodox women’s progress in ritual involvement.
Florence Nasar: A young artist from Deal, N.J., who is exploring and challenging the boundaries of the Syrian Sephardic synagogue life she was raised with through art and dance. She asked her audience to participate in her struggle in her first show, “The Women’s Section,” at Hunter College’s theater in New York City. She handed out a paper to each person in the audience that said, “Please be quiet, please be aware of your body,” asking them to experience the limitations she is attempting to highlight. She is billed for another performance exploring the subject of Sotah.
Alice Herz Sommer: The classical pianist who played in the orchestra of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, keeping herself and her little boy alive, against unimaginable horrors. When the Holocaust ended, she continued to perform and play for hours daily, until she died this year at 110 in London. Her life and wisdom were summed up in an Oscar-winning documentary, The Lady in Number Six, where she speaks of music’s redemptive powers. Even after her death, she inspires us to live gratefully, “every day in life is beautiful,” she proclaims in soprano.
Rabia Kazan: A Turkish journalist, whose book “The Angles of Tehran” exposed Islam’s temporary marriage or legalized prostitution, Kazan launched a project called, “This Is Not My Allah.” Her project is meant to break the silence of moderate Muslims, who fear speaking out and aimed against fundamentalist Islam. She hopes to attract Muslim women to help her lead her campaign. The reaction so far from Islamic fundamentalists: Death threats. I hope many join her campaign with courage.
Rachel Azaria: The young deputy mayor of Jerusalem who has tried to promote diversity and to break monopolies in the holy city since she established her party “The Yerushalmim” in 2008. Her activism goes back to her student days, when she began campaigning against the Get problem, when Orthodox men refuse their wife a Jewish legal divorce. As a mother and politician, Azaria has worked hard to illustrate both the working part of the term working mother, and the mother aspect. She can be spotted at political events wearing one of those infant carriers with her baby inside.
Bubby, also known as Lila Marcusz Silberstein: Her 96 years came to an end on a hot day this past August. This will be the first Hanukkah without my family’s matriarch, who made sure we remembered what Jewish life was like in Hungary, before her family was swallowed up by the notorious statistics of the Auschwitz death camp. We will miss the little dreidel cookies, the compote, the latkes, the wax-covered menorah, the singing and all the stories we got to hear at apartment 2H on 48th street in Brooklyn, New York.