Life is Belief & Struggle - Ahmed Shawqi

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Judith and Holofernes

One of my favourite old master painters is Artemisia Gentileschi – an Italian Baroque painter (circa 1600’s). She had a colourful life, and since the rise of the feminist movement and the search for ‘women’ artists - there is a renewed interest in her work. 

While the modern Feminism movement might have brought Artemisia to my attention; it is her use of light to create a sense of movement in her paintings and her portrayal of women in her paintings that held my attention. 

 Artemisia’s women are all womanly flesh, bone and blood. There is a complexity and a haunting realism in her women that I often find missing in other old masters.  All of which brings me in this Chanukah season to a common theme of Judith and Holofernes.

There are two common ways Judith is protrayed in old master’s paintings. Judith will be painted with almost a man’s body with the breasts tacked on as a bit of an after thought. She will often possession the demure of some kind of shrinking violet with the face of innocence and purity which all leaves the suggestion; Judith is really incapable of killing a mouse.

Artemisia was heavily influenced by Caravaggio but I believe she surpassed his talent.

This is Caravaggio’s Judith beheading Holofernes. Notice how Caravaggio’s Judith looks so young and naive, hardly capable of coming up with a plan of action to behead a man to win a war; let alone have the wherewithal to carry it out.

Caravaggio’s Judith looks horrified by the act she is in the midst of committing.  And it is Judith’s elderly maid who is the sinister one here. Judith’s elderly servant is painted to as a foil to Judith’s youthful innocence.  The servant acts as a kind of evil crone to egg on Judith to behead Holofernes.

Contrast this with the strength and resolve of Artemisia's Judith. This is a woman who can make a war plan and has the wherewithal to see it carried out to victory.

The Chanukah Stores we tell ourselves.

 Chanukah has never been a favourite holiday of mine.   It’s a minor holiday and not the most festive of our holidays. As a child the only ‘gift’ I received was chocolate coins. The presents thingies had more to do with Reform Jews attempting to complete with Christmas. The only requirement is to light a hanukkiyah  (8 branched menorah) rather than standard 6 branched menorah and custom dictates you  eat dairy products and fried food.   

 Of course, if you count the candle holders on a hannikyah, there are 9 and 7 on a standard menorah.  We don’t count the candle holder which is usually raised slightly higher than the rest. This we call the shamash and is known as the helper/guardian/ servant candle holder.  We light the shamash, and use then use the flame from the shamash to light the other candles. Since the role of the shamash is to help it does not get counted as a light against the darkness.     

This particularity oddity of not counting the obvious has a long tradition in Judaism. 

For example, every day we recite the Amidah or standing prayer as part of our daily liturgy.  The Amidah comes from the Tannaim period (10-220 CE) mostly before the destruction of the Temple with some minor fine tuning after the destruction of the temple. An important component in the Amidah is the reciting of the Shomneh Esreh – or 18 blessings, except well, there are actually 19 blessings.  This of course, does not hinder us from referring to this part of the Amidah as the 18 blessings.  My favourite part of the Shomneh Esreh is always reciting the the Birkat HaMinim; concerning the plea to punish the heretics, slanders and informers against the Jews.  Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised to discover my conservative shul still uses it, but then again, our weekday siddur is an Artscroll - Ashkenazi  one.

Then  are 613 mitzvot (laws) that are to govern a Jew’s life, except depending on what you are counting, there could be 634 more or less, but tradition dictates we refer to the group collectively as the 613 mitzvot of Moses.   

All this leads me to my favourite Chanukah story which really isn’t a Chanukah story at all since it had nothing to do with the Maccabeen victory,  and happen long before said Maccabee victory, but we only tell it at Chanukah.  There is even an Ashknenazi custom for the women of the home to do no work in honour of Judith’s bravery for a half hour after lighting the hanukkiyah.  We even have special hanukkiyah that depict Judith holding Holofernes’ sword in one hand, and in his head in the other. 

The short  version of the story is that the town of Bethalia was being siege by the Assyrian General Holofernes. Judith, a young beautiful widow, of the town came up with an idea of going to the General’s headquarters and plying him with salty cheese and wine in his tent. Her beauty she used to induce him to take her into his tent alone -  without guards. The salty cheese Judith brought was used to make him drink more of the potent wine, and the role of the potent wine was for him to pass out quickly from the drink.  
After Holofernes passes out drunk, Judith picks up his sword, and cuts off his head. She calmly walked back to the town with the general’s head concealed in her basket to show to the town’s people.  Once the general’s troops discovered his headless corpse in a tent most ran away and those who stayed, were slaughtered by the townspeople of Bethalia who were now emboldened by Judith’s actions.

But this Chanukah is special to me. This year, my daughter, the Last Amazon, will be in Ha’aretz Yisrael for the first time.  She’s wanted to go since she was 9 years old. We were supposed to go so many times but something always came up; a death, a war, university, being broke. This time, she’s on Taglit (Birthright) which in this particular case, turns out to be more reliable than Ima. Although, if she likes it. I promised her a wine tour...