Derech HaMelech

The Weekly Raid From Galus

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Chanukah Ner Revi'i

This is a spectacular article from about the Jewish woman, feminism, Chanukah and life. It's a must read. Enjoy.

Michelle Melov Schiffman
In university, I had a sepia print of a vintage suffragette poster from 1914. I had enlarged and mounted it to hold a place of honor on my bedroom wall. It was a fifteen cent photocopy pièce de résistance, proudly communicating my enlightened coming-of-age to the world, my avant-garde catchphrase of who I quintessentially was, what I quintessentially believed in. I am Woman. Hear me vote. See me unshackle my bonds of long endured submission, and those of my fellow sisters, and hereby enjoy rights of unapologetic and unencumbered freedom. After decades of failed attempts to change laws through indirect, “ladylike” means, the patience of women had run dry. Women realized that the only way to be heard, to be treated with dignity and to create positive social change was to take public matters into their own hands. The suffragettes organized, strategized and resorted to militant (and often violent) means to ensure that their demands were finally sanctioned. In the merit of our beloved suffragette mothers, we women now enjoy the right to be free, the right to be safe and the right to have an autonomous hand in the matters that directly affect and shape our lives. And yet, as impassioned as I was with my newfound feminist identity and ideals, there still remained inside me an enigmatic longing...obscure but still annoyingly palpable. It took some time for me to disentangle these inner feelings. I had a boyfriend, a cause and a sensational suffragettes wall poster--what else could a university student want? But I still couldn’t kick this longing for...for something. Something more. A longing for a bigger cause. A better cause. A true cause. A way to genuinely improve the world, and everyone in it, permanently and ultimately making the world a better place. A way to genuinely, permanently and ultimately improve myself. Omniscient and omnipresent justice. Peace and goodness for all. It was the desire for spirituality that was nagging at me. But not just any old generic spiritual pick-me-up would do. Though I did try, no meditation, mantra or daring feat of physical flexibility sufficed to give me that ever-sought-after sense of inward
peaceful tidiness when the world around me still remained so messy. What I needed was a practical spirituality, one that benefitted the physical world, that worked hand-in-hand with it to yield tangible, transformative results. And so, like any good secular Jew, I began my spiritual search at my local neighborhood Buddhist monastery. I read books about Hinduism and Chinese religions. I sat in on lectures on Islam and Christianity. I even attended a meeting for those interested in learning about the ancient traditions of Wicca. The thought of looking deeper into my own Jewish roots was out of the question. How could I - a proud, self-proclaimed feminist with such fantastic suffragette wall paraphernalia – even consider finding spiritual fulfillment in a religion that was stereotyped as patriarchal? How could I find identity with a group of women who were restricted from participation in the communal sphere, occupied solely with matronly child-rearing duties, invisible, voices unheard? And yet I was born to Judaism. And I was secretly drawn to it. Indeed, many unlikely circumstances and people soon started to pull me closer to it, whether I liked it or not, eventually challenging me to open my stubbornly clenched eyelids to see the truth that lay right in front of my unmistakably yiddisha shnoz all along. I started to meet more and more intelligent, educated, upright, awe-inspiring religious Jewish women, whose inward beauty, self-worth and social-worth beamed brightly through their outwardly unostentatious clothing (a feat that, I couldn’t help but note, their secular sisters are still floundering with, despite years of anti-objectification “beauty-is-only-skin-deep” campaigns). I began to learn. I began to participate. Chanukah rolled around. And to my absolute delight, I learned of a beautiful tradition involving a woman abstaining from performing any work for at least thirty minutes after the menorah candles are lit. Naturally, as any owner of a highly coveted vintage suffragettes poster would, my ears perked up, and I inquired as to where this tradition came from. The answer riveted me. The story of Yehudit (Judith) brought tears to my eyes, understanding to my heart and peace to any remaining spiritual dissonance that remained within me. A woman of unbelievable strength and will, bent on making change for her Jewish sisters, at all cost to herself. A beautiful feminist who would not allow her sisters to be taken advantage of any longer. During the horrible time that the Syrian-Greeks occupied the land of Israel, they were determined to assimilate the Jews. Their goal then changed to wanting to desecrate and finally eliminate Judaism from the face of the planet. Staples of Jewish observance, such as Shabbat, maintaining the Jewish calendar, circumcision and keeping kosher, were outlawed, and Jews were forced to prostrate themselves to idols and publically break Torah laws for fear of death. However, despite such threats, the Jews defiantly held on to their practices and suffered unspeakable tortures and even death. Syrian-Greek terrorism aimed to obliterate the very soul of our people. Embodied in their final despoilment of our Holy Temple and their pollution of our sacred burning oil was their sole aim: to violate the purest, most fundamental aspects of who we are as a people. To this aim, the law of “prima nostra” was passed, requiring brides to be subjected to molestation by Greek generals, on the night before their wedding. And then, the patience of one woman ran dry. Yehudit, daughter of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), finally realized that the only way to be heard, to be treated with dignity and to create positive social change was to take public matters into her own hands. Our heroine decided to resort to whatever means necessary to ensure salvation for her people, who now faced starvation and genocide. Formulating a plan that involved utter peril to herself, she snuck out of the city gates, finagled herself past the Greek soldiers and marched straight through the enemy camp to stand face-to-face with the Syrian-Greek commander, Holofernes. Cleverly spinning a false tale of treason, she devised a way of gaining free access to the Syrian-Greek camp by day and to her Jewish city by night, and then singlehandedly played the final card that earned the Jewish army the element of victorious surprise over their enemy. Incapacitating Holofernes with copious amounts of salty cheeses and unfiltered wine, Yehudit quietly beheaded him in the night and escaped back to her city by dawn. In the morning, the Syrian-Greek soldiers were utterly befuddled at the discovery of their commander’s headless body. Shocked, they were unprepared for the Jewish attack upon them soon thereafter. It didn’t take long for me to learn that Yehudit was but one of many Jewish matriarchs who faced - and overcame – perilous circumstances, thus saving the Jewish people from yet another brush with extinction. Our Torah and scriptures are full of such events, all of which transpired centuries before our suffering suffragettes burned their first bras. Hmm. And we continue to fight our matriarchs’ brave battle for freedom and dignity every time we light a set of Shabbat candles, go to the mikvah or perform any of the mitzvot that are our right, that are our responsibility. For it is in these things, in the things that they fought to the death for, that we can see a hint as to what we are meant to live for--our Jewish way of life. Our inner, pure and inextinguishable communal soul. Today, a peacefully serene oil painting of an Israeli vineyard graces my bedroom wall, next to some lovingly framed photographs of the two loves of my life, my wonderful husband and my gentle little baby boy, Aaron Emmanuel. I like this painting. I like to fancy that its aura of tranquility somehow speaks to my inner contentment with who I am, and who I continue to become. And yet, at the same time, it’s just a painting. And a wall decoration can’t really embody all of the continual personal growth that comes from the ever new and delightful evolutions of my Jewish femininity, as a Jewish woman, as a Jewish wife, as a Jewish mother, etc. I eagerly await the time when I’ll be able to replace this painting with a framed copy of my son’s first Crayola abstract masterpiece d’art. And I await, with giddy excitement, the opportunity to celebrate his first Chanukah together with him. Let us all light our menorahs in the merit of our beloved Jewish mothers, because of whom we women now enjoy the right to be free, the right to be safe, and the right to kick up our feet, lean back our chairs, and close our eyes with a guiltless smile for no less - and hopefully more - than thirty minutes, reveling in the miraculous victories of faith that are our proud Jewish legacy.
Michelle Melov Schiffman lives in Montreal, Quebec, with her wonderful husband and son. She is a post-graduate student of Nutrition and Naturopathy.

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