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Yehudit and You

Yehudit and You

A Chanukah Story


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 percent 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 yeshivah. 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 for 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.

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 Syrian-Greek empire on behalf of the Jews who courageously remained loyal to the Jewish tradition.

She was as wise and pious as she was beautiful

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.

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 coworker’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.

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. That student’s name was Yehudit.

Chana (Jenny) Weisberg is the author of the new book One Baby Step at a Time: Seven Secrets of Jewish Motherhood (Urim), and Expecting Miracles: Finding Meaning and Spirituality in Pregnancy through Judaism (Urim). She is the creator of the popular website, and lives with her husband and children in Jerusalem.
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Deborah December 9, 2015

Being Jewish in a non Jewish world I have been one of those Jews living among people that would prefer me to assimilate to their way of life. When I kept my Judaic identity as separate and relevant this caused me to be set apart from my co workers but I kept my faith and strength as so many of my people have done under worst circumstances. Reply

catherine ny December 11, 2012

righteous non jews It may be very true that a spiritual Jewish person stands out in a non spiritual environment but I must add that as a spiritual Catholic person who didn't partake in drugs and drinking in college was also a difficult thing to do. By going to mass or lighting candles and praying to G-d everyday I was also swimming against the tide. So now that I have been studying Judaism and understanding the beauty and depth and wonder of that powerful religion I can understand your frustration too. But we are kindred spirits that can see the difficulties of following a holy life in a secular society. I never told my friends in college about my closeness to G-d because I was afraid they would laugh at me. I kept my values and eventually married a good person and we have a great son. Now he is experiencing they same problem. How does one who wants to keep his soul happy live in a world that wants to destroy that goodness. Its a constant struggle.
I am glad you have found some peace. Reply

Shoshanah Dallas area December 10, 2012

This story gives me resolve. It is especially hard to embrace the Torah life when the spouse does not feel the same way. Baruch HaShem that my spouse let's me participate in synagogue but it is sad that the joy of the moedim is absent at home. But, I am resolved, I will continue to celebrate erev Shabbat. Reply

Anonymous December 31, 2011

chip off the ' old block ' You go girl !

Jewish women often are found having to defend their independence. The latest is the ' walk on the other side of the street '. Men are supporting the women's cause to stem the tide of this silly Jewish sect.

I am a male. I have little tolerance when Jewish men, mostly rabbis, try to steal a higher moral ground. Oh sure there is the ever present ' division of labour and importance of the wife running the household and children's education '. That was okay in the desert but no longer applicable today. It is hard to estimate how many women are driven away from Judaism. Judith ( Yehudit ) did her part in the Chanukah story. I have read a couple dozen Chanukah stories. This is the first one that speaks about Judith. And it took a young woman to get to it. Greek soldiers were highly dependent on their leaders. The murder of Holofernes scattered his troops. Many famous artists have memorialized Judith holding the head of Holofernes in exquisite art forms. Reply

linda nicholson mt jacksoin v, va usa December 31, 2011

Jahudit i truly loved this article, although i am not a orthodox i am a torah observing spiritually new birthed person, just becoming new at things like this, and a lot of us who are in my boat feel very much the same way in a sense, we too like to observe sabbath on saturdays and are trying to apply more of the Torah in our new walks and lives, and find a lot ofpeople shunning us and families not sharing in our ways, so i thank you so much for this and i am sharing it on a group of mine. Shabbat Shalom. Reply

Anonymous Chicago, IL December 29, 2011

I'm puzzled--why did you attend Bowdoin in the first place and continue there? With so many fine colleges enrolling a core of committed Jews, placing yourself in a difficult situation for no apparent benefit to yourself or others when there are alternatives available where you could have done some outreach seems to be a waste of necessary energy. Reply

Lea Phoenix December 28, 2011

Yehudit Hello Chana, I enjoyed reading your article very much. Now that I have been living in the States for nearly 30 years I am praying This year in be able and enjoy all privilrges of being a Jew without a struggle - just as breathing air, without thinking about it even. The funny or sad thing is that in Israel people ascribr it to. "Being Israeli" or "Living in Israel", rather than ascribing it to being q jew in Israel. Who knows maybe the Lord will answer my prayers to be able and live there again, in which case I promise to look you up and wish you Shabat Shalom or Chag Urim Sameach..... Reply

Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW San Rafael, CA December 28, 2011

Thank you for a wise, sensible article You show beautifully how much courage it takes to hold true to authentic Judaism while living in a society that discourages doing so. Yes, it does require sacrifice.A turban-wearing psychologist I used to work with once explained: " I'd rather be a stranger to others than be a stranger to myself. " I still remember this decades later as it sums up how I feel now that I do my best to live the life of an observant Jew.

A professional organization for psychotherapists that I I belong to year after year schedules its holiday party on Friday night and half of it's monthly educational programs on Friday evenings. I say I can't go because it is on the Sabbath. Reply

Aaron D. Michelson Modiin, Israel December 28, 2011

Being Different I liked your story and admire your resolve. I too, lived and worked among nonJews for many years and sometimes had pressure put on me. The reason that I am writing is that sometimes with patience I was able to find understanding and respect for Jewish life in the nonJewish world. Several of my colleagues have visited me in Israel and I still get mail from a few more. None of them want anything other than mutual respect, which is, as I think it should be, our goal in dealing with others. Kol tuv Reply

Anonymous Mesa, Arizona, USA December 28, 2011

Jehudit And You It has been wonderful to find this article this morning in my e-mail. It has given me strength. Most of the comments I read, except for one who is having, sort of, the same problem like me. The difference is that my entire family is xtian and I am returning to my roots of the Anusim. Alone. Because not even the synagogue where I went accepted me. Therefore, I feel isolated. I am 63 years old and single for the past 37years & two months. I promised our King of Kings, Blessed be He, that I would never marry again. Unless, He, appoints a man to me who love Him as much as I do, & serve him with all his heart & soul. Therefore, it is very lonely. But as I read, and hear cases like mine every day, & now, by reading this article, will continue to be a Jewess, even if I am alone. Hashem is my strength, my fortress and my shield. Some people have done very bad things to me, including some jews, but I am alive and well. Hoping in my King of Kings,& Lord of Lord for His promise is fulfilled in me Reply

Julia Kansas City, MO December 27, 2011

Thanks Love this! Reply

Karen Chambers Bakersfield, California via December 27, 2011

Jenny I love your story on staying true to the G-d of Israel. It's hard to be Jewish in a nonjewish College. I admire your faithfulness to Hashem and how you stood up to live a kosher life. It all pays off at the end.
I hope some day to live in Israel, that is my dream. Reply

Anonymous Dallas, TX via December 26, 2011

I, too, understand As a baal teshuvah, I too understand what it means to "fight the good fight". But I am heartened by your insights and wisdom and they give me strength to continue my journey. The Holy One, blessed be he, knows our innermost thoughts and gives us strength each day to continue to be His people. Reply

Anonymous Seattle, WA December 16, 2009

How true For the fourth year in a row, my work has chose a Friday night for the "holiday" party. Once again I told the party planners that I would not be able to attend because it was my Shabbat and once again I was asked if I couldn't attend for a little while just to be part of the team and couldn't I "do my thing" after the party. I appreciate hearing that others face this same challenge. Reply

Anonymous Calgary, AB December 14, 2009

We need to remember that in a host country we respect their ways. Just as we want people to respect Jewish ways in Israel.
There is too much, change your ways for me, going on in countries and not to the good. Were those ideas to take root in Israel, there would soon be no Israel. As Jews are called to be a separate people, it then follows that Jews will need someone to be separate from. Though no human can be G-d, there is a way for the diligent seeker to find the Lord. For this, we should rejoice that there is a way for the nations to 'return' and add their respect and solidarity to the Jewish people. It is a miracle what a little oil can do. Reply

Julie, mother of a Judith Little Chute, Wisconsin via December 26, 2008

Thank You for This Story Your story of college and the retelling of the story of Yehudit (Judith in modern form) spoke deeply to me today.

Having a completely xtian extended family and being the only one to embrace Judaism (NOT as a Messianic xtian) has left me alienated and pressured to participate in xtian traditions "for the sake of peace in the family" I have rejected and renounced.

It's been heartbreaking to be treated, by people I love, with disapproval and discounted as blind and foolish in my choice to love Judaism. HOWEVER, I know I can never go back to a pagan (xtian) life or belief.

My daughter lights the hanukkiah candles each night and listens so respectfully as we say the blessing. She loves Chanukkah and how Mommie comes to school each year to give a presentation on it for her class.

I will remember Yehudit and remember to emulate her the way your article pointed out her mission and responsibility to herself and her people. Thank you, Again! Happy Chanukkah!!! Reply

Chaya Raleigh, NC December 22, 2008

thanks Thank you for reminding me to stick to my principles in saying no to the work "Holiday" party and non-kosher food baked by my government employee co-workers. I am not seen as a team player since I, unlike the 4 other Jews in this work place, don't participate in the festivities. Reply

Anonymous Springfield, MO November 27, 2007

Thanks What a great reminder, and story for all of us living in the Bible-belt of America. I, too, attended university with a very large X-Mas tree, graduations on Chanukah, Friday night ball games and concerts, Saturday classes and mandatory finals, and an unconcerned faculty and administration for the beliefs of anyone defying the Sunday-keeping Christians. It is nice to be reminded that all we go through here, even the persecution felt by neighbors is well worth the fight.
May we all be blessed in the upcoming weeks. Reply

Beth Miriam IL December 14, 2006

Thank you once again for a wonderful look at a side many don't see. I was the only Jewish child in my elementary school until my brother came 4 yrs later. There was a small Jewish community in our town just not in our neighborhood. My parents made Judaism vibrant and alive in our home and shared it with our neighbors. My Mother "taught Chanukah" for one of my teachers for many years after. We kept kosher and elements of Shabbat, we celebrated all the holidays and did many mitzvot. We learned that different is to be celebrated. I guess we were all Yehudit's and I am proud to still be the one who says "no thank you" to my neigbors ham. Reply

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