The Story of Regina Jonas, the First Female Rabbi

​Regina Jonas, the first ordained woman Rabbi, writes to Martin Buber, Jewish philosopher and scholar of Hasidic lore, asking for guidance during the dark times of Berlin in 1938.

Rabbi Regina Jonas, May 1935. Photo: Centrum Judaicum Archives, first published source: Klapheck, Elisa. Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi, Toby Axelrod (Translated) ISBN 0-7879-6987-7

“I was born in Berlin to a religious family, and my father died when I was 11 years old. I didn’t have the means to go to university, but I studied with vigor at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin. I have to and want to support my mother, who is in great pain. (I also have a brother.)”

– Rabbi Regina Jonas to Martin Buber, 1938. Martin Buber was already living in Jerusalem

Part 1 of Rabbi Regina Jonas’ letter to Martin Buber from the Martin Buber Archive, click to enlarge

Tucked away in a box in the National Library’s archives, kept meticulously in a carefully catalogued envelope, is a letter by an often overlooked figure, who was lost in the midst of the tragedy of her own people.

Rabbi Regina Jonas seems doomed to be rediscovered over and over again, by the simple virtue of being a pioneer in her profession and a reformer of her religion in her own right. Were it not for letters such as the one she sent to Martin Buber, she would likely have been forgotten, condemned to eternal obscurity.

Regina Jonas’ graduating thesis at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin was titled “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi?”,  for which her teacher, Rabbi Eduard Baneth, gave her the grade “Good”, two weeks before he died unexpectedly in 1930.

She would have to wait another five years before she was granted smicha, ordination, by liberal Rabbi Dr. Max Dienemann, helping her make history.

She was the first woman to officially receive the title. She insisted she be referred to as Miss Rabbi (Fraulein), for Mrs. Rabbi (Frau) would always refer to the Rabbi’s wife. She would distinguish herself by wearing purple robes instead of black and worked tirelessly to promote equality for women in the Jewish faith as well as fight for her own position as a Rabbi in the Reform Movement in Berlin.

When she sent her letter to Martin Buber in 1938, three years after her ordination, she told him of her work in Berlin as a Rabbi:

“In Berlin, I give spiritual guidance to patients in hospitals and to the residents of nursing homes. I also lecture at the Synagogue, I’ve presided over funerals, and I give sermons at the synagogues of the nursing homes.”

Part 2 of Rabbi Regina Jonas’ letter to Martin Buber from the Martin Buber Archive, click to enlarge

The above were duties her male counterparts were glad to let her keep, while they would preside over marriages and look over divorces. The poignancy of knowing what was to come for German Jewry is tangible in her words to Buber:

“Religious life is beginning to deteriorate [in Berlin]. And I have come to believe that in the Hassidic community the woman has more freedom and there is less prejudice pitted against her. I had hoped to find in you an understanding for the ideal that I could not find with all my teachers; the ‘question of women’ is as complex as the ‘Jewish question’ in the Diaspora.  I do not want to leave my profession, I must work. Is there a possibility in the ארץ [the Land (of Israel)]?… So often you hear how the Jews in Germany, specifically the youth, have such unsophisticated religious ideas.” 

Part 3 of Rabbi Regina Jonas’ letter to Martin Buber from the Martin Buber Archive, click to enlarge

In 1942 she was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp with her mother. There she truly came into her own as a rabbi; comforting the afflicted, giving sermons to the people she loved so much and for whom she worked so hard to be ordained.

There are conflicting reports regarding Rabbi Jonas’ death. But we know that by the 12th of December 1944, she was sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.

Parts 4 and 5 of Rabbi Regina Jonas’ letter to Martin Buber from the Martin Buber Archive, click to enlarge

This article was written with the generous help of Dr. Stefan Litt, of the Archives Department at the National Library of Israel. 

The Jew Who Fought Against the Censors of the Inquisition

From a rare Jewish-Italian manuscript: An outraged letter from the Jews of Ferrara to the Inquisition authorities requesting they stop censoring their printed books.

St. Dominic and the Albigenses, Pedro Berruguete

Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the modern era, many Christians questioned what their attitude to the extensive wealth of Jewish literature should be. Should the entire genre of holy works (led by the Talmud) be regarded as a group of subversive texts which eternalize the lies at the basis of the Jewish faith, or on the contrary – as works which prove (through tiny details of Rabbinic distortions) the undeniable truth of the Christian Gospel? And what about the negative remarks about Christianity in the Talmud? Whether they were fond of or hated Jews themselves the answers provided by Christian philosophers and the Papal establishment varied.

The development of the Hebrew printing industry, which lagged several decades behind the Christian printing industry, made this complex question more urgent, as thousands of copies of any Jewish text could now be circulated. During the first eighty years of the Hebrew printing press, steps were occasionally taken to censor or supervise this flourishing industry, but the intimidating presence of official censors had yet to appear. It was only in the mid-16th century, as part of the Catholic Church’s re-organization in response to the Protestant reformation, a years-long process known as the “Counter-Reformation,” that the Catholic establishment finally began to examine Hebrew literature, aiming to correct “past injustices” or perhaps simply erase them altogether.

The institutionalized supervision of the Hebrew book was done through several concurrent channels; the mass public burning of holy books is the most famous, but there were also other, less sensational, methods. The general tone dictated by the Catholic establishment was set by a special index of books whose publication was forbidden, to which subversive works were added or removed from time to time. Alongside these lists of books – most of which were not even Jewish – an extensive censorship industry developed. This was a sub-industry within the printing industry which thoroughly and systematically deliberated about the content of the works allowed to be published, supervised their printing, sometimes erased or censored forbidden paragraphs, and occasionally insisted on making changes to the text.

During periods in which the Catholic establishment took a more liberal approach to its Jews and their culture, channels of communication were opened up between representatives of the Jewish communities and the Inquisition, which was responsible (in most of the Catholic world) for censoring the books. An Italian manuscript recently purchased by the Library, dated to the late 16th century/early 17th century provides an example of such a channel.

The first page of the defense of the Jewish books. Click here to browse through the full manuscript.

This manuscript, A General Response to the Desecration of Sanctity in the Hebrew Books, is a defense of the Jewish books that were censored and confiscated by censors on behalf of the Inquisition in Italy. The response is firm and detailed, a thorough and methodical refutation of the many claims that despicable attacks against Christianity are scattered throughout the Hebrew books printed in Ferrara.

The letter of defense’s author is unknown, but it was clearly written by a representative of bodies within the Ferrara Jewish community. Throughout the manuscript, the writer shows himself to be fluent in Italian, the language in which the majority of the manuscript is written, as well as in Hebrew, in which he brings quotes and excerpts from the Jewish books he is defending in the left-hand margins of the text.

At the beginning of the manuscript, the author explains the significance of common Hebrew words which are interpreted by the censor as denigrating Christianity and its leaders. For example, regarding the word “Notzrim”, usually meant to refer to “Christians”, the author explains that in a particular case this word is used to refer to the biblical nation of Edom. The word “Goyim” [Gentiles], the author continues, does not refer to Christian people, but to the Gentile nations, idolaters who surrounded the Jews in the Land of Israel. Later, the author puts forth his ultimate argument counterring the claims of the censors, explaining that the Jews have a halachic obligation to pray for the welfare of the monarch and the nations they dwell among.

The Ex Libris (stamp) of the previous owners, Ariel Tauf

What Next?

After presenting all the details we are aware of, though they are few, we are left with a challenge. The manuscript now rests on a shelf in the National Library of Israel dedicated to rare finds. It awaits a researcher who will pick up the gauntlet, examine the findings and provide us with more concrete details about this curious manuscript, and the complex triangular relationship it reveals – the censor, the Jewish community, and the Inquisition authorities.

Either way, we would love to find out more about this fascinating manuscript

Just How Literate Were Jewish Women of the Past? The Cairo Geniza Tells All

Boys in antiquity were taught to read and write - this we know. But were girls their brothers' peers? What about their mothers?

An unconventional suggestion: strike the child at home as well

A question that seems to reoccur more often than not about Jewish women of the past is: Were they literate? What did they learn and where? With the new school year upon us, we must ask these pertinent questions about studious girls, women teachers, and mothers involved in their children’s education.

As a rule, women received minimal education. Women were taught domestic duties such as embroidery. Many women did not have a grasp of the Hebrew language in speech, let alone in reading and writing. Nonetheless, evidence from the Cairo Geniza suggests that even girls of low stature and economically poor backgrounds received some kind of Jewish education, and girls of higher stature received more.

Various documents from the Geniza tell of girls gone who went to school, and women who were teachers.

In the letter you see here, the teacher is telling the child’s parents that the beatings he gives the child do not help, and he suggests that the parents strike him at home, as well. He goes on to say that the beatings are not working because, “Every time I strike him, the teacher jumps in and dismisses him after four-five strikes.” The gendered nature of Hebrew informs us that the dismissing teacher was a woman and most likely the other teacher’s wife. The couple most likely taught children together, boys and girls. How can we know this? Well, the aforementioned child is written about as, “Never ceases to fight and curse, he and his sister.”

An unconventional suggestion: strike the child at home as well

Teaching couples seemed to have been common, and the education occurred in the teachers’ home, or at the child’s home, if a wealthy family could afford a teacher. In a list of the needy from Fustat there is mention of “The (Female) Teacher from Domyat,” a town in the north eastern region of the Nile Delta, and right next to her there is mention of “The (Male) Teacher from Domyat” – possibly her husband. Perhaps due to some trouble the couple had to flee Domyat to the capital.

The teachers are tzedakah beneficiaries

Teaching was a family profession. In a complicated question to Maimonides, a woman and her children were abandoned by her husband, and the woman sought livelihood. In the document it is written, “And the woman had a brother who would teach the little ones Bible and the woman had knowledge of the Bible.” Perhaps her knowledge came from her father who would teach her along with her brother? In any event, the woman in need of aid began to teach the Bible to her children alongside her brother for years. “And afterwards, when the brother travelled away, she sat in his place, took the little ones, and taught the Bible to them for four years.” She even took her oldest son, a grown man by that time, to teach by her side.

We saw girls being educated and women teaching both boys and girls. And mothers were very involved in their children’s education, especially widows. Melicha, the widow of Abu Sa’ad, arrived at the Beit Din (the rabbinic court) accompanied by her brother and another man by the name of Abu Alfachel. It was agreed by all sides of the court that Abu Alfachel would teach Melicha’s son, Haba. The document below tells us that Haba will be taught to write a letter without misspelling and without mistakes, as well as how to use an abacus.

May everyone’s up coming school year be as successful!

A contract between a teacher and a mother regarding the education of her son
5th row: “So that he may write a letter without misspellings… and without mistakes…”

(The letter by the teacher who beats pupils can be found in the Cambridge University Library: TS8J28.7 and was originally published in a paper by Shelomo Dov Goitein. The Tzedakah listing including the teachers from Domyat is also at Cambridge: TSNS320.30, as is the contract of the widow Melicha regarding the education of her son Haba:  TSNSJ401.I and published by Goitein in the same paper.)

No Children Allowed: Introducing Lilith, the Jewish Vampire Queen

​Dracula? He’s nothing compared to the first vampire in history, the one and only Lilith. Among her many “hobbies”: hounding humankind, causing crib death and night emissions in men, and sucking blood.

Article by guest-writer and vampire-catcher Odelia Barkin-Kamil

On May 26, 1897, the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker was published. The novel caused a sensation and initiated an entire genre of vampire literature and culture, from the books Interview with a Vampire, to the film series Twilight, and the television series True Blood and even an Israeli Vampire series, titled Hatzuya (“Divided”), which was broadcast in over sixty countries around the world.

But in fact, vampires and demons were not created with Dracula. They have been part of human imagination since the dawn of humanity. Evidence of vampire-like creatures called by different names can be found as far back as Sumerian and Babylonian mythology. The Jewish source for vampirism is mentioned in connection with Lilith, the first wife of Adam—who even made a guest appearance in one of the seasons of True Blood. The series creators who were familiar with the myth, gave the Lilith of Genesis an honorary role in season five in which they suggested that God had created the vampires as a race superior to humans.

Two versions of the creation story appear in Genesis. The Midrash explains this by saying that first woman was created as man’s equal, and she was called Lilith (“Male and female He created them,” Genesis 1, 27). The two first human beings argued because Lilith wanted to be on top during sex, and when Adam would not agree, claiming that she was lesser than him, she pronounced the ineffable name of God and abandoned him in Paradise.

Birth amulet with a depiction of Adam and Eve, the earliest known printed Jewish amulet. Amsterdam, c. 1700. From Angels and Demons (ed. Filip Vukosavović)

God sent three angels to find her סנוי, סנסנוי וסמנגלוף   (Sanvay, Sansavay, and Smangalof), and when they reached her she was already deep in the ocean. She chose to become the wife of the king of the demons, Ashmadai, and she too became a blood-sucking demon. They begged her to return to Adam but she refused. As punishment they commanded that one hundred of her newborn sons would perish every day. In revenge for this terrible punishment she announced that she would pursue the human infants, the children of Eve.

Amulet for new mothers, from the Amulet Collection of the National Library of Israel

Thus, according to Jewish tradition, Lilith is believed responsible for crib death. Boy are especially vulnerable to her influence until the ninth day after their birth, and girls until the twentieth day. To avoid her harmful influence, even today there are new mothers who carry a picture of the three angels in their purse or hang the picture over the crib of the newborn, for according to the Midrash the angels came to an agreement with Lilith that she could do any harm in any place where she sees their names. After Lilith left Paradise, Eve was create from Adam’s rib, as subordinate to him.

An amulet intended to protect newborn mothers and infants from Lilith, featuring the three protective angels

How to Protect Oneself against a Vampire

Garlic cloves can be used to protect against vampires. One can also use a crucifix, holy water, or a Star of David, since the Vampire being a Satanic, soulless creature, is the antithesis of holiness and is repelled by religious symbols.

In addition, if a vampire is chasing you, it is recommended to throw a handful of sand, rice or salt at it. According to folkloric legends about vampires in various mythologies – Chinese, Indian and Slovakian – the vampire is cursed with an obsessive compulsive disorder related to numbers (arithmomania) and must count any granules in his path. One of the ways to escape a vampire therefore is by distracting him by throwing a handful of rice or any other granules in his way, which will force him to stop to count them and thereby delay his pursuit. In the 1970s, this characteristic was adopted by the creators of Sesame Street for the character of Count Von Count. Besides the amusing pun with regard to his name (Count is an honorific title and also the verb “to count”), he is a Transylvanian vampire who speaks with an accent, wears a cape like Dracula as portrayed in the early film by the actor Bela Lugosi. This characteristic was also adopted by the creators of the Israeli vampire series Hatzuya.

Odelia Barkin-Kamil is a vampirologist. She lectures on vampires in popular culture, mainly in film and television as an inspirational and empowering figure.

Special thanks to Dr. Zvi Leshem and Yuval De MalachDemalah of the National Library of Israel’s Gershom Scholem Library Collection for their help in locating sources and in the preparation of this article.