The story of Hanukkah, the annual festival of Maccabean might and miracles, doesn’t talk much about women, although two are occasionally associated with the holiday. One is Judith, the beautiful Jewish widow who single-handedly comes up with a plan to end a major military siege of the town of Bethulia, then implements it herself: She talks her way into the enemy camp, wins the trust of the Assyrian general and chops off his head with his sword. Her astounding bravery is left out of the Hebrew Bible; instead it’s relegated to the body of texts known as the Apocrypha. The other woman is Hannah, praised for supporting and encouraging her seven sons to sacrifice their lives, rather than succumb to King Antiochus’s efforts to force them to publicly eat pork. The story of Hannah, who martyrs herself after her sons are killed, is briefly recounted in the Second Book of Maccabees, but she is unnamed.
I’d like to make the case that these little-known figures, Judith and Hannah, are just two of many women in history we should be remembering on Hanukkah. In fact, it’s time to shine a feminist light on the holiday and further elevate the eighth night. Why the eighth night? It’s when the full complement of candles are ablaze and the menorah casts the most light, when the divine feminine aspect, Shekinah, linked with light, is at her most powerful. Let’s add a new blessing to remember all the Jewish women who paved the way for the rights women enjoy today. In this way, we can rescue more women from the flickering shadows.
Last Hanukkah, on the eighth night, a group of us gathered in Washington, DC, at an event to discuss the legacy of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The children present lit the candles, and Rabbi Rachel Gartner, then-Director of Jewish Life at Georgetown University, said a blessing:
“They lived in ancient times and in times nearer our own, in faraway lands and here in America, and they each had different talents and interests. Whether of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Middle Eastern descent or converts, they were guided or shaped by Jewish beliefs or values.
Some were poor and self-taught; others were rich and were fortunate to receive a better education than most women of their era.
Some had parents who understood and encouraged them; others had families who stood in their way.
Some had brothers who received preferential treatment; others had no brothers and were expected to do whatever sons might have done.
Some married and had children; others didn’t, some by their own choice.
Some had hard lives; others never personally suffered.
Some lived to old age; others had lives tragically cut short by illness or were killed in the Holocaust and other cataclysms. Many faced antisemitism as well as gender discrimination.
Some never saw themselves as torchbearers for other women; others were very conscious that they were trailblazers. A few were proud to be called ‘troublemakers.’
What they all have in common is that they transcended what was expected, allowed or tolerated for a woman of their time despite the obstacles. They achieved what was unimaginable, and the unimaginable led to the advancement of women and to changing the world for the better.
May we remember them, learn from them and continue their work. Amen.”
Everyone in the room, whatever their age, gender or faith, was moved by this blessing and was filled with gratitude for the women who led the long march toward gender equality in the Jewish world, the United States and around the globe. For me there was also the added element of surprise. Rabbi Gartner had taken these lines from the prologue of the book about inspirational Jewish women that I wrote in collaboration with Justice Ginsburg, and it was amazing to hear the words come alive in the candlelight.
Since last Hanukkah, we’ve seen how easy it is to roll back women’s rights in this country, making it harder than ever to ignore that this march through history to gender equity is not finished. That’s why on this upcoming eighth night, I suggest people of all ages, faiths and genders say this blessing, name a trailblazing woman and share her story. This new ritual will make the final night of the holiday even more meaningful than it already is.
I’ve come to realize in recent years that finding inspiring people whose qualities we want to emulate helps us evolve, whatever our age. It is, in fact, a tremendously important human endeavor. That’s why Moment has spent much of this year talking to people we admire about their role models for our ongoing Role Model Project. We published some of the interviews last issue, which was all-digital, and have included the full project to date in this one. I hope you will find people in these pages who inspire you or lead you to think about the people on whom you have consciously and unconsciously modeled yourself.
This edition, like all Moment issues, is a feast of intelligent writing and probing questions. The separation of church and state has become an even hotter issue than usual in the past few months. In “Perspectives,” we examine it from three different angles. Fania Oz-Salzberger looks at the fight by Haredi leaders in Israel and the United States against state oversight of schools; Marshall Breger examines the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of the high school football coach who led prayers on the field and shows why it may hurt religious minorities; and Steven Waldman discusses how both Yeshiva University administrators pushing back against calls for gay rights on campus and pro-choice Jewish women are using religious freedom to argue their cases. And in “Moment Debate” we examine a different phenomenon: American conservatives embracing Hungary’s Viktor Orbán as an admirable leader. We ask Ira Forman and Jonathan Tobin: Are conservatives romancing an antisemite?
In “Literary Moment,” Robert Siegel reviews a new book chronicling the German families who made massive fortunes during the Nazi era—and kept them. Carlin Romano reviews the memoir of poet laureate Robert Pinsky, and Amy E. Schwartz examines the outcry over one school’s banning of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in the context of a new collection of essays about the graphic novel. In “Visual Moment,” Frances Brent takes us inside a painting from pre-Anschluss Austria, and in “Jewish Word,” Jennifer Bardi examines the theological debates over translations of the Hebrew word almah and how it relates to arguments about reproductive choice today.
In “Talk of the Table,” Dan Freedman explores falafel’s murky origins and wonders if the fried chickpea ball can be a uniter, not a divider. Plus, we include fiction from the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest.
A few years before he died, Moment cofounder Elie Wiesel told me how much he had come to love Moment, because, as he said so poetically, it tastefully and elegantly expressed the tumult of Jewish thought. I think of this often. The staff and I work long, long hours to carefully craft this magnificent tumult and distill it into something of clarity and beauty. This holiday, please honor our labors of love and spread the word about our important work by buying print and/or digital Moment subscriptions for friends and family. It is a perfect way to introduce them to the mind-expanding breadth and depth of the Jewish world.