Jewish Currents April 1981 35:4 (384) pp16-19, 31
For Jewish Music Month, March 20 to April 18

--A Jewish Feminist Opera

At U.S. Military Theater in Heidelberg


Even the rabbi had never heard anything like it. "Suddenly the bride ripped off her clothes and stood naked before her bridegroom, her father and all her people." Why? And what did this signify?

We were discussing the climactic event in the legend of Hannah, the daughter of Mattathias, sister of the Maccabee brothers, at a large Conference on Women and Judaism called together by Rabbi Morris Goldfarb at Cornell University in the spring of 1977. Bryna Fireside, leader of the seminar titled "The Image of Women in Jewish Folklore," was summarizing various tales from Emmanuel Bin-Gorion's Mimekor Yisroel, first published in English in 1974, and developing various theses:

In traditional Jewish folklore, which in this respect differs little from other folklores, women were often honored, but rarely for the products of their minds. More often they were seen as courageously exemplary in the use of their bodies, usually as wives, consorts, whores or mothers: Ruth with Boaz, Esther with Ahasuerus, Judith with Holofernes, and the other Hannah in the Hanuka story, with her seven sons. This did not say much for the intellectual status accorded a woman in Judaism, but it did indicate an enormous awareness of her biological power to do good as well as evil.

Also indicated is the fact that Jewish history and folklore has nearly always been written by men. Thus the motivations for the dramatic action taken by Mattathias' daughter Hannah, described in our first paragraph, are hardly hinted at, let alone sketched, in the literature. We never get to see much of what she is thinking or what brings her to do what she does. We see only her action and its effect on the men: according to the legend, she shamed her father and brothers into starting the violent Maccabean revolt as a protest against a Hebrew bride's having to spend her wedding night with the local hegemon or overlord.(1) Yet her own act of protest was essentially nonviolent and involved the risk of shedding no one's blood but her own. (The men's initial reaction is "She shall be burned." --see Lev. 21:9.) Thus her act could be seen as one of the first in the unsung but vital tradition not only of Jewish female activism but of Jewish nonviolence, which, organizations like the Jewish Peace Fellowship have sought to point out, did indeed exist in Judaism long before the time of Jesus.

The one-page story of Hannah, her nonviolent protest and the enigma of her motivation kept turning over in my mind long after the conference was over, and I finally decided to make her the subject of my fourth opera. My first two operas, a completion of the late Marc Blitzstein's Idiots First and my own Karla, both one-acters based on short stories by Bernard Malamud, had been quite successfully produced in Ithaca, Indiana, and by Bel Canto Opera in New York (reviewed in the Editor's Diary, March 1978); but both had been based on stories told with a male and/or omniscient perspective.

My third opera, Sima, in two acts (premiered by Ithaca Opera Association in 1976, televised 1977), had been based on David Aizman's compelling 48-page story of pre-revolutionary Russian pogroms, squalor, and nouveau-richesse, "The Krasovitsky Couple," which focussed more closely and compassionately on women than on men, although it too tended towards an attitude of detached observation.

Now I was faced with a one-page narrative that gave no background, hardly any character, and, worse yet, scarce insight into the motivation for the central action. I decided I needed to do considerable historico-mythographical research at Hebrew Union College and Jewish Theological Seminary, and to collaborate with a woman on the writing of this libretto.

Several months and a huge bibliography later, my co-librettist Orel Odinov and I finished the first draft, in three acts. We chose selectively among the several sources for the legend in M.J. Bin-Gorion's Der Born Judas, v. 1, pages 56-59, 351; A. Jellinek, ed., Bet La-Midrash VI:2-3; and the three Hanuka Midrashim in M. Grossberg, ed., Megillat Ta-anit, as well as atmospheric details and scriptural poetic images in 78 other ancient literary and modern scholarly sources. We developed the character and the story of our Hannah by creating two contrasting subordinate female characters. One is Hannah's mother, whom we called Zipporah (after the wife of Moses), who is resigned to the status quo and the repressed roles women play in it (and who also, I must confess, provides some much-needed comic relief in certain Jewish-motherly ways). The other is a cousin of Hannah's whom we called Dinah, after Jacob's daughter, whose brothers' vengeance on her ravishment by Shechem is invoked as a precedent in the original legend. Dinah's fury at having been raped by pagan soldiers (in a parallel legend) is all too ready to explode into violent, bloody revenge.

We see both Hannah and Mattathias trying to steer a middle-course between the violent action called for by Dinah and Judah ("If you're an anvil, be patient; if you're a hammer, strike!--Old Arabic Proverb; the word Maccabee is close to the Arabic word for hammer), as opposed to Zipporah's non-action and a more peaceful, persuasive course urged by Hannah's betrothed Eleazar. But Mattathias' vacillation results in the creation of an unendurable situation for Hannah: she is ordered by her father to set an example and follow the law of the land for the sake of peace.

"Before I give my body to the hegemon, I'll sacrifice myself to God, like Abraham's son," she vows suicidally, invoking the Akedah. "And yet," she muses further, "God released Isaac from the sacrifice." There must be another way. She finds it, in the nonviolent act of protest described earlier, taking inspiration from Isaiah (20:3; 32:9, 11) who "walked naked for a sign upon Egypt and Ethiopia... Arise... strip you... and make you bare."

In the final act, Jonathan (a composite of Mattathias' two Apocryphal sons John and Jonathan), Dinah's betrothed, who had shunned her after she was raped, is reconciled to her and she to him. Their alliance is built on his recognizing her personhood and rejecting the primitive paramount importance given to virginity(2), but also on the seductive siren of preparation for war, as planned for and eventually led by Judah--traditionally a hero in most Hanuka legends, but a deliberately misinterpreting, violent near-villain in our reading of the story.

When the pent-up emotions finally do explode, not only the hegemon Nicanor (a composite of the historico-legendary Bagris, Apollonious, Gorgias, Lysias and Nicanor, generals of Antiochus') but the innocent Eleazar is killed. Mattathias eulogizes him, proclaiming "Some laws, we have learned, must not be obeyed," but admonishes his sons, "Let us never take possession of other men's land"--a warning that was to go unheeded, as Maccabean descendants converted numerous neighboring peoples by force (peoples who were later among Christianity's earliest followers), and, one might add, seems destined to go unheeded today, not to mention the broader and even more widely-ignored message of nonviolence.(3)

In the concluding Prophecy Scene, Hannah predicts the outcome of the Maccabean War she has started, leaving her youngest brother Simon to "plant the grain for a new nation," but warning him that "He who lives by the sword shall die by it."(4) Simon then pledges that Hannah's vision of a day "when no man shall use force to intimidate anyone" will survive: "We'll remember, Hannah, by lighting the earth with candles."

Shortly after the completion of the libretto's first draft, I began setting key scenes and arias in order to develop characteristic motifs for later use throughout the opera. We had several opportunities to consult with and to receive suggestions from feminist-conscious writers Polly Joan, Susan Yankowitz and Barbara Tumarkin Dunham, as well as the benefit of a number of audiences' reactions. The love duet for Hannah and Eleazar, based on the Song of Songs, Proverbs 13:9 and Antigone, was performed at a wedding reception in Nov., 1978. Then the Ithaca Music Club, "Meet the Composer," Steinway, the Metropolitan Music School, and Friends of the Jewish Opera Guild co-sponsored a series of concerts in Feb., March and July 1979, featuring singers from the Met, New York City Opera and elsewhere singing various scenes, arias, duets and choruses.

The first complete reading took place, rather ironically, at the Roadside Theatre at the Autobahn Kaserne in Mannheim-Seckenheim, West Germany last May, co-sponsored by several different American and German organizations in Heidelberg. I say "ironically" because of the deeply mixed feelings any advocate of nonviolence must have, working with the military, and any Jew must have, working in Germany today, especially on an opera dealing with the fear and destruction of the Jewish people. Indeed, we were not far from the Berlin where only a generation ago Hermann Goering had told Leo Baeck, in words we re-used in Nicanor's pseudo-apology to Mattathias for his soldiers' rape of Dinah: "Well, when one planes, then shavings do fall."(5) There was also a certain irony in realizing that the telephones and many of the buildings we were using for communications and rehearsals were the same military telephones and buildings which had been built by Hitler, with a very different purpose in mind.

But by and large the response of both the German and the American communities, straddled admirably by Heidelberg's Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut (DAI), was enormously supportive. Thanks to the co-sponsorship of the Jüdische Gemeinde Heidelberg, contributions were tax-deductible. And thanks to the financial generosity of DAI and the Students' Association of Heidelberg University, where a preview concert of excerpts was given (coordinated by the Gesellschaft für christliche-jüdische Zusammenarbeit), as well as the generously-provided rehearsal and xerox facilities of the Seventh Army Soldiers' Chorus, 33rd Army Band and DAI, the budget was able to pay every one of the singers--for the first time at any American military theater--and professional soloists were brought in from Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Pforzheim and New York to join the international cast.

The free concert performances were "sold out," and the papers unanimously praised the "astoundingly high musical quality of the singing," the "religious spirit infusing the music" and the "respect for the text" both in the composition and in the performance. An unusually high proportion of the Roadside audience was German, while an equally unusually large number of Americans attended the university preview concert. In act, perhaps it was fitting that Heidelberg, where the first Hochschule für Jüdische Studien in all of Germany opened last year, was the site of the first both German- and American-sponsored venture in contemporary opera, and that it was a feminist-conscious Jewish opera which capped the annual festivities last May honoring German-American Friendship Month.



1 This "law of the first night" or "jus primae noctis" has frequently been the subject of dramatic treatment, from Beaumarchais' Le mariage de Figaro down to the recent film about the Roman emperor Caligula. Whether the custom in fact extended back as far as the Greeks was the subject of great controversy, hotly debated by I. Weil, Israel Lévi and S. Krauss in the Revue des Etudes Juives some 90 years ago. Krauss pointed out that as far back as Rashi, Hanuka has been known as the "fête des femmes," while Lévi challenged Weil's assertion of Hannah's historical authenticity, on the grounds of lack of any documentary Hellenistic-era evidence of her existence. The legend has, however, definitely been a part of Jewish folklore at least since the Middle Ages. See the article and bibliography under Jus Primae Noctis in The Jewish Encyclopedia.

2 The circumstances under which a woman might be blamed or not blamed for unsanctioned sexual relations are discussed in Numbers 5:6-31 and Deuteronomy 22:13-29, but were also being debated and elaborated on in the Talmud at this time--see Babylonian Talmud Ket. 3b, Shab. 23a and Jerusalem Talmud Ket. 25c. (I am much indebted to Professors Lawrence Avery, Philip Miller and Martin Cohen for this and other background information.)

3 There is legitimate question as to whether Hannah's act was indeed one of non-violence or of inciting the men to violence. In the original legend, as obviously written by men, the latter was the case. But was that really her intention? Our character has something more humane, even if dynamic, in mind. She is an activist, but that her plea for compassion is misinterpreted by the men as a battle cry does not diminish the Messianic and nonviolent vision we would like to believe she had. See Daniel 11:14: "The children of the violent shall establish the vision, but stumble and fall," which was written around this time, and which she quotes in her final prophecy.

4 This statement first appears in Matthew 26:52 but, as Cantor Charles Bloch has pointed out, it has definite precedents in Gen. 9:6, Exod. 21:12 and Lev. 24:17.

5 Leonard Baker, Days of Sorrow and Pain: Leo Baeck and the Berlin Jews, p. 154.

DR. LEONARD LEHRMAN, a new contributor, is a former Assistant Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, the Heidelberg Opera and the Augsburg Opera. Currently he is a Conductor of the Basel Opera in Switzerland and Schauspielhaus Wien.