In the Christian world the story of Yehudit is familiar as “The Scroll of Judith”. The scroll is included in the apocryphal Protestant liturgy (out books), and in the Catholic canonical old testaments’ liturgy (within the canon itself). However, it is not acknowledged as a part of the Jewish literary/sacred text tradition.  This out of canon female-centered Chanukah story, had been banned from the Jewish tradition for generations, by the ancient Israelite priesthood and their Rabbinic successors.

This story begins in a dark time, during the Second Temple period. Nebuchadnezzar sent his general, Holofernes, to conquer the land and submit its people to the royal decree.  In order to assimilate the Jews and diminish ‘Zera Yisrael’ (the seed of Israel), he established the "First Night Rite," a cruel decree that forced the young Israelite maidens to be brought to the Assyrian officers, to be violated and intentionally impregnated before their wedding night.

Heretofore, patrilineal descent determined the national/religious identity of a child.  But these deliberate sexual violations created a national crisis: How could they integrate and embrace the countless number of offspring with non-Jewish fathers?  The priestly leadership found a solution to the crisis by decreeing that the mother’s identity would determine the child’s religion, thus establishing a colossal paradigm shift for the Jewish people. Matrilineal lineage would decide any questions about Jewish identity. 


The First Modern Chazzanut Opera

When Holofernes’ army put the city under a siege, the high priest Uziyahu chose to be passive, and let God take care of the situation. Yehudit, a Jewish widow from the city of Betuliah (allegorical name meaning “her virginity”), opposed the Israelite male leadership, and took matters into her own hands. Inspired by the bravery of Yael, who saved the day by killing Sisra, Yehudit decided to act. Her hope, faith, and bravery, led to triumph. 

Yehudit seduced and decapitated Holofernes, giving the Israelites the advantage to fight the leaderless army. After the military victory, there was great relief and celebration— the daughters of Israel were saved from a culture of rape and humiliation.  Israel’s salvation by the hand of this brave woman, is a heroic story of courage, love, and sacrifice. The Christian liturgy does not mention crucial elements of the Yehudit narrative: the abuse of the Israelite women, the silent acceptance of the decree by the priests, and the High Priest's refusal to accept Yehudit back into the city. In fact, she was labeled a traitor because she “slept with the enemy.” These painful narratives were buried within the Jewish medieval writings of Midrashei Yehudit. Yehudit’s story was not given the voice and the honor it deserves.

My intention in creating this opera is to bring Yehudit’s voice and heroic deeds out of historical obscurity. Adding another thread to the tapestry of Jewish women whose story must be told.


Iris Karlin