A Taste of Judith

I have been editing and writing. Writing and editing. Next week I’ll be participating for the first time at LitCrawl, a kind of pub crawl where we take literature to the streets. I’ll be reading from my new manuscript about the Nicaraguan Revolution, and with my Writing Co-op. It is a dream come true to read at this event, so to celebrate I thought it would be fun to share a feLitQuakew paragraphs about Judith, since I haven’t yet shared anything publicly from For You and All of Us. This is from a scene that has been cut, so no spoilers. I’d love to hear from you! 

On our goat hair mattress in the early dawn I rested one hand on my aching belly and felt the sticky blood on the fingers of my other hand. I knew I should rise to find a rag, but I wanted to savor the moment of change. I had plans for my womanhood. I would be expected to leave this house soon and have children of my own. I would have many. For, although I could not weave like Raisa, I was of strong build. And I was good with the little ones. I often entertained them in the courtyard so my aunties could finish their chores.

A fine man would choose me and my parents would be proud of so many grandchildren. I would bring my sister to help me and she would be happy again, like the old Raisa. She had stopped talking with me about our future together. She had mostly stopped talking with me at all. But maybe now things could change. We would live in Jerusalem where there were not so many rules. Where a woman could study and engage in trade. Where we could live in a solid house that did not need a new roof after every rainy season. Where there was entertainment other than watching the antics of baby goats.

Although, I would miss the baby goats.

But I knew my plans were tenuous. What if the Seleucid soldiers appeared again on my wedding night, horses stomping on the packed clay of our courtyard? I was overwhelmed once again by the rancid smell of horses sweat, as though I couldn’t wash the scent from my skin.

If I did marry, I would take my sister with me, so that we could be friends again.

Raisa’s breath was sweet. With her eyes still closed, she rolled over and rested her hand on mine, on my belly. Her fingers were rough from weaving. “Has your time come?” she mumbled.

“How did you know?” She always knew what I was thinking.

I hoped she would speak, and we could talk like we used to. I pleaded silently for another moment with my sister.

She pushed me off the mattress onto the cold dirt floor.

 

Slut-Shaming Judith

D.W. Griffith “What happened in the room?” That was my big first question when I started writing Judith and Holofernes. Judith is a widow, she is sexually experienced, and she has spent three days getting close to this man, building his trust, flaming his desire. And he is a formidable man, powerful and intelligent, leader of the Syrian King’s largest army.

Does she find him attractive? Do they have sex? Does it matter?

These questions inspired me to sit down and write. It was years until I stood up again for a fresh look. I had sent the manuscript to an interested literary agent and she suggested that I ‘embrace the eroticism’ inherent to the story. I was shocked. Of course it was erotic! Except that when I looked at the pages, it was not there. The agent was right. I was not only protecting my character, I realized then that I was slut-shaming her.

I did not want anyone to call Judith a slut – or in the case of a biblical legend – a harlot. Truth is, I spent too much of my own life trying to prove I was smart so no one would call me a slut. I guess I tried to do the same for Judith. She is really intelligent and calculating. I wanted her to be notable not just for seducing the general, but for fooling him that she had important information – forget about the sex, mostly she outsmarted him.

When I was a college student I went to Nicaragua during the revolutionary period. I went to study social change, but in reality, I also studied how to have love affairs with revolutionaries. Sex and politics go together in delicious and scandalous ways. I embraced it then. So why was I intent on keeping all of Judith’s clothes on?

There is certain hesitancy in literary circles to write sex scenes. Also, it can be difficult to be original and sincere with family members reading over your shoulder. I asked friends to suggest their favorite erotic scenes from books. I read a few beautiful crafted literary love scenes. One of my favorites was The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, which has some breathtaking moments. I am a little ashamed by how much I enjoyed Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I was just looking for some good examples to learn from, but that book was an unexpected pleasure.

I noted that, whatever the story, sex is an important driver of tension. Who wants the curtains to go down on the good part? So I went back to my manuscript and allowed the reader to see Judith take her clothes off. And guess what? She is still smart, heroic and awesome. She is also a sexual being, like me, like you, and like most of us.

What happened between Judith and the general in that room? You will soon find out!

Judith of Bethulia is a Badass

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Giorgio Vasari (1554)

Giorgio Vasari (1554)

I took my 14-year-old daughter to see the film Divergent. After, pumped with the adrenaline of a good action film, she said. “Triss is such a badass!” And I knew that she meant, ‘I want to be just like her.”

That moment was ten times more exciting than any in the movie. My daughter’s goal is to be a badass. How cool is that? Not to be a movie star, a side-kick, or a bride. To be a “bad ass.” Divergent was not her favorite book. She preferred the Hunger Games. The girls in her class argue about who gets to play Katniss Evergreen. What a bounty, to have such heroines to choose from!

I reflected on my teen years and the few female characters I had to inspire me. Slim pickings. Nancy Drew? She was smart, but she was not a badass. I always liked Pippi Longstocking she was tough, but she was made out to be kooky. You wanted to know her, but you did not want to be her. A Wrinkle in Time—Meg—she was a brave one. And, well, that is pretty much it. It didn’t bother me at the time. Maybe I didn’t know enough to be bothered. So I simply identified with the boy hero.

I asked my daughter what a badass is. She said: “They are people who can protect themselves and other people. They are strong on their own—they can take care of themselves. They are cool, not tying to conform. They are themselves and they are proud of it.”

Times have changed for the better when this is the aspiration of a 14-year-old girl!

I am proud to say—with no spoiler alert required—that Judith of Bethulia meets the definition. It takes my young widow awhile to get there. After all, the stakes for nonconformity in a biblical town are higher than my daughter can even imagine. But Judith gets there. Judith of Bethulia is a badass.

How about you? Which characters inspired you before there was a Young Adult genre to celebrate glorious brave girls?

A Poem to Say Good-bye (written for Uncle Harvey)

IMG_1772With Me
By Melina Selverston

Every time I hug my children
So they know they are loved
You are with me
Because you gave me hugs

Every time I relieve stress with humor
So we can laugh instead of fight
You are with me
Because you laughed with me

 

Every time I smile with my partner
Instead of letting anger take us away
You are with me
Because you always smiled

Every time I give someone a dollar
So they can be less afraid
You are with me
Because you gave me a dollar

Every time I touch someone’s back
So they know they are not alone
You are with me
Because you touched my back

Every time I hold my head up high
And value myself
You are with me
Because you valued me

Every time I stretch my fingers out to embrace life
Every time I dance, every time I sing
You are with me
Because you danced with me

The Chance to Feel Needed

judith faceSlept too late.  Rushed to get everyone ready for school after a busy weekend. Managed not to yell at anyone. Dropped kids at school on time, yay! Pulled up to parking spot in front of yoga class. Dug through purse to find phone to check emails. 50 text messages?  49 from the son and one from the daughter?

Panicked.  Said good-bye to yoga.

There was no reason to panic. Lucian simply forgot to have me sign the permission slip for his field trip that day. He sent 50 text messages because he is under the impression that I am more likely to see them if there are more. Or that text messages somehow get louder with each repetition, or by WRITING IN ALL CAPS, or adding a row of exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!

Clio forgot her homework and asked me to bring it because her teacher could not accept it late.

Of course I was annoyed. I do not care to spend my morning driving around the city.  My kids are in middle school and rarely need me during the day. I am accustomed to my independence. After all, that is what school is for! To give me time to go to yoga! Still, I just took care of it, because I could. When I was working in an office I would not have been able to do anything to help them.

And then a surprising thing happened. I walked into Lucian’s classroom and he looked at me with such adoration and gratitude that my heart melted. “Thank you, you are the best mommy ever!”  I was stunned.  He still needs me. I can still help him.

Then I walked into Clio’s drama class with her homework and as I handed it to her the whole class said: “Awwwwww!” Apparently they all thought I was the best mommy in the world, too.

Sometimes I need an opportunity like this to be reminded how important it is to stop and help someone.  How important it is to feel needed.

In my manuscript, Judith is motivated to protect her town, partly because she feels her life has no meaning since she is a childless widow.  She longs to be needed, to be helpful, as we all do in some way. It is the same need that inspires heroism.  And it inspires that early morning drive across town to assist our children.

And, because life can be like that, I made it back in time for my yoga class.

 

Inspiration to Cross the Finish Line

I am so inspired.

Judith has inspired many great artists

A few days ago, at a day-after-Thanksgiving-after-party, I was explaining my manuscript to a charming young woman when she exclaimed, “Judith of Bethulia? Of course I know her. She is part of our Hanukkah celebration. What a strong woman!”  Her mother had long ago incorporated the story of Judith into their annual ritual, and they recount the story each year.

“Which account?” I asked, thinking there might be a version I haven’t yet seen. “Where did you find it?” Blank faces. “I mean, is there a bibliographic reference?” They laughed, because they had just written the story themselves, for their own holiday book.  A book that guides their own family celebrations.

That it what my Judith project is about: sharing the story, telling each other inspiring stories, our founding myths. Each time we retell a story it changes, it finds new meaning, new relevance to the community sharing it. Judith proudly held a sword atop candelabrum in European ghettos, secretly inspiring dissent. Donatello sculpted his iconic statue of the beheading as a symbol of revolt against the tyrant Medici in fifteenth century Florence.

Scholars believe that the Judith story we know was written before the Maccabean war, possibly to inspire Hebrews to stand up to the oppressive King Antiochus. In that case, the story was certainly successful. The Maccabees successfully wrested back control of Jerusalem, which we celebrate during Hanukkah. At the end of the Judith story her people promise to sing her name for eternity.

A random encounter with someone who knows Judith brings me the same excitement experienced by a teenager meeting a friend who shares the same taste in music. Really? You like the Led Zeppelin too? Awesome! Wait until I tell you about Judith and Holofernes!

Finishing a project as immense as a novel has its challenges. Writers try not to worry too much about the imaginary readers looking over our shoulders. It can prevent us from taking important risks. But it helps me tremendously to know people are interested in this story and will want to share it. This blog helps me stay connected during this lonely stage of writing. I can see the finish line up ahead and I just received a beautiful dose of the inspiration I need to sprint across it. See you there!

Five Ways to Celebrate Judith for Hanukkah

In honor of this opportunity to celebrate the Fall harvest and Hanukkah together, I am reposting my original “Five ways to celebrate Judith for Hanukkah” post. Have a wonderful holiday friends, and don’t forget the wine and cheese!

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This year I am exploring a new way to celebrate Hanukkah.  Alongside the well-known story of the Maccabees, I will tell another important Hanukkah story: Judith and Holofernes. According to tradition, Judith is related to Judah Maccabee, daughter of the Hasmonean priest Yochanan.  She saves her village from an invading army by demanding to meet with their bloodthirsty General, Holofernes.  Alone with Holofernes in his tent, she gives him wine and cheese. When he passes out drunk she takes his sword and with two powerful swings she decapitates him. She carries the head back to her walled city, inspiring the Hebrews to chase the invaders off into the desert. Another version mentions that Judith rose up against the practice of Greek soldiers deflowering Hebrew girls before they married. A single act of bravery against all odds saves an entire city. The story has been an inspiration for many communities for over two thousand years. Here are five things you can do to celebrate women during Hanukkah.

  1. Tell the story of Judith and Holofernes! Teach sons to be respectful. Teach daughters to be strong. Remember that we are making history by the choices we make each day.  Here is a nice refresher on the story.
  2. Celebrate the Festival of the Daughters! Traditionally on the seventh night, the night of the new moon, this Sephardi custom honors women in different ways, from singing and dancing to passing on special heirlooms. In Hebrew this night is called Chag Habanot.
  3. Enjoy Wine and Cheese!  If you keep kosher, treat yourselves to a special bottle of the delicious wines available. Jews, often in hiding or on the move, often had to make do with whatever wine they could manage. But in biblical times wine was an art form. The wine that Judith served Holofernes must have been tasty – and strong – for him to have passed out.
  4. Make cheese pancakes! We can’t eat potato latkes every night. Besides, the potato was brought to Europe from the Americas in the late 16th century and not adopted until the 19th century. Whereas the Jewish Code of Law recommends: eating cheese on Chanukah since the miracle came about through the milk that Judith fed the enemy. There are gourmet versions, or more kid-friendly ricotta cheese latkes.
  5. Give the girls the night off!  According to Jewish law no one is supposed to work while the Hanukkah lights are burning, especially the women. Come on guys, give the women a break on this night. At least the grandmothers. At my house we call it the Judith Night of Hanukkah. We all cook but the men do the serving and cleaning up.

My family will celebrate the seventh night with cheese and wine and stories. It is particularly exciting to me because I  I am in the final stages of editing my manuscript about Judith and Holofernes. How about you?  How will you invite Judith into your family celebration?