The Ballad of Judith


The following Ballad of Judith was originally published in the Reconstructionist for February, 1976, volume XLII, in an abridged form. The abridgment was made by the translator, having been requested by the editor on account of space constraints. This full form is published with the agreement of Richard Hirsh of the magazine. Stanzas published here for the first time are marked with an asterisk.

Judith is a story figuring in the Apocrypha which consists of books which were not admitted to the biblical canon. The ballad is written in Judeo-Arabic and was published in Sousse, Tunisia, a city which had a Jewish printing and publishing house until 1963. This free rendering attempts to preserve the informal spirit of the original, as well as the characteristics of its rhyme and rhythm.

The Ballad

Listen to me, brothers all,
Hear a tale that will enthrall
About a lady best of all –
Judith, doing wondrously.

I speak of Judith full of grace,
Righteous, pure, fair of face.
A brutal man she showed his place,
Despising money utterly.

One day her husband on his ground,
Grew dizzy, fell into a swound.
The sun's great heat, they said, unbound
His soul so prematurely.

In grief, she vowed, her life should end.
No man his gaze on her should bend.
Her chastity she'd gladly tend
Beneath a veil kept closely.

I sing of Judith's bounty, friends,
The pauper's lot she aye amends;
Shelter gives, food, clothing sends –
Tender generosity!

Merciful, compassionate she
Dwellings built that she might see
Orphan daughters lodged there free,
Saved from care benignly.

One day a foe besieged her town,
Constantly more troops brought down,
Thought he'd add it to his crown
By starvation slowly.

*With hunger, thirst he'll root them out
He threw a cordon round about,
In the road placed a redoubt,
Quarantining thoroughly.

*About the town a siege he cast,
The springs and wells he stopped up fast.
Until the dwellings fall at last
The mountain is his aerie.

*In the city panic rose,
Their thirst now rages, grows and grows.
By the spoonful water flows –
See the tanks all empty!

Hope the people now had none.
Tearfully they cried as one:
"Woe to us, we are undone!
How can this end happily?"

Judith heard the big commotion.
She said at once: "Please cease from motion.
Weeping is a silly notion
When we need action speedily!"

*They said: "Believe us, we're a-fearing!
The enemy is ever nearing.
If his words we won't be hearing,
Perish must we utterly."

*"To thoughts of failure give no place,"
She said. "The honor of your race
Don't sell. For if you seek his grace
You'll find he'll act deceitfully.

"To the enemy this night I'll go,
I and my companion so
His destruction we can show,
Trusting God so faithfully."

*They said: "That's much too hard for you
(Please God his guidance to renew!)
You think that you can slay him too?
A champion, undoubtedly."

*She said: "Please leave me to my plan.
Don't ask me how I'll get my man.
Unlock the door and in a span
I'll return. Wait patiently."

They said: "O comely, beauteous one,
Your people's hope is almost done.
But if you come with battle won
A woman's holiday shall be."

She said: "Enough! My cause is right.
Let me try with all my might.
I'll risk my head for you this night,
And yet return successfully."

Straightway she called her woman friend,
Told her what she did intend.
That night in her house she should spend –
Their plot they'd nurture stealthily.

Her widow's weeds she cast away,
Donned a cloak all bright and gay,
Bracelets, rings in fair array,
A belt embroidered cunningly.

Confident she left that night,
Her boon companion at her right;
A sack with victuals she held tight
With help from the Almighty.

The front line men were on patrol.
They saw a woman on a stroll.
They all were smitten heart and soul
By such a gorgeous beauty.

She said: "'Tis victory you seize.
Take me to your leader, please.
Soon your foe you'll smash with ease –
Mark you well my prophecy."

"We'll take you right away," they said
"You'll not be stopped where'er you tread.
Pearls round your neck will soon be spread,
And hard things will come easy."

When he saw Judith coming nigh,
His people's wits went all awry.
Her beauty really socked the guy,
She blew his mind entirely.

*He let her sit before his feet.
He spoke to her in phrases sweet.
Her servants wondered at her feat,
Her face had grabbed them truly.

He said: "O glory of creation,
Your nation is the basest nation.
We've fixed for them elimination,
We'll rub them out completely."

She said: "I'm angry at my race.
No longer pity has its place.
Victory you'll soon embrace.
They overlook facts blithely.

*They do not grasp their sorry state;
They're victims of this evil trait.
They'd rather overlook their fate –
Stupidity and folly!"

He said to her: "My lady dear,
We'll set a tent for you right here.
Stay with your maid and do not fear;
Don't visit us so briefly!"

She said to him: "My lord, with speed
Allow my voyage to proceed.
I see with me you are agreed.
You'll have your will entirely.

*"Each night I go out on my mission.
As one we size up the position.
My task leaves room for no omission.
Far I range and widely."

"Take care of her," he told the guard,
"Lest with delay her way be marred.
Where'er she goes, see she's not barred.
She'll leave and enter freely."

Each day for news of her he yearned.
"Be patient, pray," she aye returned.
The more she spoke, the more he burned
In love he'd fallen madly!

To his confidant and chief minister
(A eunuch) he told his plan so sinister.
To cool his passion, he'd administer
Words alluring sweetly.

On the fourth day, as evening fell,
He threw a feast, food, drink as well.
She came and found him feeling swell,
In good a mood as he could be.

He bade her: she came smartly dressed.
To her servant she'd expressed
The thought that this night was the best –
It's now or never truly.

When the evening reached its end,
A meaning wink he gave each friend.
Their stay they should no more extend.
They left and locked up tightly.

When at last they were alone
He quick struck up the lover's moan.
He poured out wine (hear Judith groan)
"Drink, my precious, freely!"

In her throat she made a motion,
Down her collar dropped the potion.
His fixed gaze gave her the notion
He was love-sick as could be.

"O you who utmost praise deserve,
I swear by all the gods I serve
No one of your kin I'll preserve
Child or youth or elderly."

She answered: "Please to drink, my lord.
You their secrets I'll afford.
Their heads are hard as your iron sword,
But numbers have they barely."

He said: "Your rebels soon I'll slaughter;
Submission time grows ever shorter.
They'll give us then each wife and daughter
And you too, my sweet filly."

*She said: "Please drink up, O Emir,
Your heart's desire shall soon be here.
You'll even have my orphans dear
And take your will quite lawfully!"

The fumes rose up into his brain,
Dulled his sense again, again.
Dizzy he, well-nigh insane,
Begged her favors cravenly.

She gave a teasing smile and said:
"Since the night's been long you want my bed.
You claim you love me, but instead
You're a fickle lover, truly."

He said: "My passion is above
What I can bear. I crave your love.
When I possess you, bright-eyed dove,
The days will fly so quickly!

"When I take you home with me,
The queen of all my realm you'll be.
You'll know my secrets – just you see!
We'll dwell as lord and lady."

She said: "Oh what a lovely gift!
To such a thing my hopes I lift.
My life from pleasure ne'er shall drift –
A joy not bought by money."

*He said: "O ornament of sight,
Whate'er you want, you'll have this night.
Pass the cup, I'll soon get tight.
The night goes on, let's dally!"

Drunk he was, and sozzled good.
He left the viands and the pud.
A camel he, in happy mood,
Bowed, stretched out quite slowly.

There he lay sprawled on his back.
His sword hung from its scabbard slack.
His drunken sleep no one might crack
Upon his bed so cozy.

Courageous Judith rose, drew near,
Prayed success might now appear,
Struck him hard and without fear
Sliced his head off smoothly.

The blood gushed out. She drew the veil,
Called her servant, who'd ne'er fail.
They put his napper in a pail
And homeward steps turned briskly.

In haste they went along the road,
In darkness and in shade they strode;
At midnight came to their abode
New moon day, a day of glee!

*She stood outside the city gate –
"No more of sorrow you shall prate!
Tomorrow victory is your fate,
And hope we now see brightly!"

As soon as they heard Judith shout,
They lit up lamps all round about.
With dance and praise they straight went out,
Surrounding her so joyfully!

*The chief men said: "Of women the flower,
If you'd delayed another hour,
Submissively we needs must cower
By might of sword continually."

Upside down she showed his head
And proved to them he was quite dead.
"To meet Old Nick his soul has fled,
Headlong will flee his army!"

*They hung his head upon the wall.
By morn they'll know their leader's fall.
His guardians, his family all
Will cringe in dread ungodly!

*They gather at the peep of day,
Their arms with joy on high display.
"The foe beholds you. Right away
See messengers run quickly."

Their general lay sprawled in bed.
"How drunk he is, you might say dead!
Let's wake him, and put them in dread,
Lest men should call us cowardly."

The chief guard opened up the tent,
A headless body found. He rent
The heavens with his scream. A bent
Sword lay on the body.

*And now chief eunuch comes along,
Heavy, horseless 'mid the throng.
He fainted, and did not last long.
With ropes they dragged his body.

*The shrieking of relations rose
Anent the Emir and his woes.
Besotted blood stained all his clothes.
His head was missing strangely.

His beard, yes, his moustache are gone.
A woman stole them on her own!
Great damage to his folk he's done,
His friends depart all hastily.

Her folk quick rode out to attack
And gave their foe a mighty whack.
With spoils of war they soon came back,
Carrying their booty.

*The shock brigade fell on the foe –
Great his defeat, and deep his woe.
The soldiers were befuddled so
They fled in a great hurry.

A great foe saw a great defeat.
Our people's victory was complete.
We see them now in full retreat,
It's time for fun and party!

Judith marched in grand parade,
The young girls after a fine sight made
With men and women. The drums were played,
And singers there were many.

*Judith's rare smartness deserved the fête:
For courage, O Judith, you have no mate!
The enemy suffered a horrid fate
And you're a heroine, truly!

In gladness they conclude the feast
With parties and sport that scarcely ceased.
She prayed that she might be released
Content with honors fully.

"Brothers, sisters dear," she said,
"Upon my way I must now tread.
Praise him who helped me thus and sped
Us from the mire so kindly."

My tale is done for him who hears.
Happy who for such has ears.
For virtue Judith has no peers:
This tale's the greatest, really!

Translated from the Arabic by Alan D. Corré

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Alan D. Corré