In 1932, Rachel Katznelson-Shazar published an extraordinary anthology titled: The Plough Woman: Memoirs of the Pioneer Women of Palestine. In 1994, Elizabeth Sarah, in a wonderful anthology edited by Sybil Sheridan, and titled Hear Our Voice. Women in the British Rabbinate, published a long piece about the life of the first woman rabbi in Jewish history: Fraulein Rebbiner Regina Jonas.
Thanks to the 23rd annual New York Jewish Film Festival (January 8-23, 2014), and to the work of two filmmakers: Michal Aviad and Diana Groo, the women I have long been waiting to see are now on the screen.
The Women Pioneers (Halutzot) and Regina (about Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas) depict valiant struggles which ended in both triumph and defeat. Secular revolutionary women left Russia and Lithuania and sought freedom and equality in Palestine – which they did not find; Jonas’s incandescent “calling” to the rabbinate did eventually lead to her being ordained as the first Jewish woman rabbi in history – and because she would not leave her flock, she accompanied them to Theresienstadt and ultimately to Auschwitz.
Michal Aviad’s film returns us to a blazing hot agricultural Israel, far away from café life. Aviad focuses mainly on Ein Harod, a kibbutz movement that I supported long ago as a child in Brooklyn. I had been told that Ein Harod was more “radical” than my group, Hashomer Hatzair.
In The Pioneers, we see women clearing stones from the hot, mosquito-ridden fields, walking behind rather ancient ploughs, working in the laundries, kitchens, and inevitably, with the children. We hear their moving, conflicted, anguished and almost modern words read aloud by actresses, based on the diaries that the women kept and the letters they wrote. These high-spirited and idealistic women felt their work was not considered as “productive” as the men’s work.
Aviad’s important and heartbreaking film begins with the photos of Lilia Basevitch, Yocheved Bat-Rachel, Sara Neumann, Eva Tabenkin and Nechamka Avronin. She shows us that at Ein Harod, the women’s self-esteem suffered.
As one woman wrote: “The women feel inferior, the men feel superior;” “the men make all the decisions like in the patriarchal family;” “We need radical solutions.”
The women instituted quotas. Every committee with decision-making power had a one-third female membership.
Still, the men would not do housework, cooking, or child care, which they devalued as “unproductive,” nor would they allow the women to guard the kibbutz. When the women protested, they encountered a “very harsh response.” They were given hunting rifles.
“Suddenly, we are foreign to them.” “It is hell, sad, do we have to keep fighting the men?” I have personally known two commanders of Chen (the IDF women’s corps) and a number of female career IDF officers and I know that women are now an integral part of the Israel Defense Force and excel in certain areas. They are still not equal to men for both obvious and complex reasons.
But such developments cannot change the past.
Aviad’s film teaches us about Israeli, women’s and feminist history.
These are women whose names and deeds should be taught and remembered. They are the modern Foremothers of all Israel.
HISTORICALLY, SOME Jewish women have felt “unequal,” or “lesser,” because they did not receive the same religious education their brothers received; or they did, and were outstanding students, but still could not become rabbis or religious authorities.
Most religious Jewish women did not demand reforms in this area, but some did. The first Jewish woman rabbi, Fraulein Rebbiner Regina Jonas, is a remarkable figure who has haunted and inspired me for many years now – and obviously, she has had a similar effect on Groo.
Groo’s Jonas is remembered as a “mystical medieval figure” on the streets of Berlin. There is only one known photograph of Jonas, taken in 1936. She looks firm, almost fierce, and yet other-worldly, in her rabbinical robes.
Jonas was born into an Orthodox family in Germany in 1902. She announced her intention of becoming a rabbi when she was very young. When she graduated from Berlin’s Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft de Judentums, Jonas graduated at the top of her class. She taught Jewish subjects but wanted semicha, ordination.
At the time, liberal Jews allowed their daughters to have a Bat Mitzvah and some synagogues had mixed-gender choirs – but no synagogue, liberal or Orthodox, allowed a woman to preach a sermon from the bimah, or podium, during prayers. However, Jonas was so respected that rabbis told her she could come down from the women’s section and preach after the prayers were over. She was also advised to do the work of a rabbi without the title. Thus, she visited the elderly, the sick and the dying, and taught children.
On December 27, 1935, at the request of the Union of Liberal Rabbis in Germany, Rabbi Max Dienemann ordained her. Rabbi Leo Baeck congratulated her on her dissertation and its defense but did not formally confirm her ordination until six years later in 1942.
Once male rabbis began escaping Germany or were deported to concentration camps, Fraulein Rebbiner Jonas had a much easier time ascending the pulpit. This was true especially after Kristallnacht in 1938. People stood in long lines and stood outside the synagogue trying to hear her preach. People whom Groo found who had met or studied with Jonas, remain in awe of her.
One woman said that Jonas “persuaded her that there are times you cannot remain an outsider,” saying Jonas “reconverted” her to the Jewish cause. Another woman attended an oneg Shabbat for children that Jonas hosted.
“I found her extraordinary, captivating, I became her zealous listener.”
Jonas told her people that “we are facing an ordeal by fire.” She chose to remain behind with them as they entered ghettos and concentration camps. In early November, of 1942, she was deported to Theresienstadt where she continued working as a rabbi. Victor Frankl, who survived, remembers Jonas. He described her as “loaded with energy and a very impressive personality... a blessed preacher and speaker.”
Jonas delivered her last sermon just before she was deported to be murdered in Auschwitz. The wonderful actress, Rachel Weisz, reads her stirring words for us.
“Our Jewish people is sent from God into history as ‘blessed,’ ‘from God blessed,’ which means, wherever one steps in every life situation, bestow blessing, goodness and faithfulness – humility before God’s selflessness, whose devotion-full love for his creatures maintains the world. To establish these pillars of the world was and is Israel’s task. Men and women, women and men have undertaken this duty with the same Jewish faithfulness. This ideal also serves our testing Theresienstadt work. We are God’s servants and as such we are moving from earthly to eternal spheres. May all our work which we have tried to perform as God’s servants, be a blessing for Israel’s future and humanity.”
Jonas was 42 years old when she was murdered.
As noted above, women now serve in the IDF– and women are now ordained as rabbis and cantors in four Jewish denominations. Among the Orthodox, a handful are called “rabbah,” “rosh kehilla,” “mara d’atra,” “Yoatzot Halacha” in specific areas related to women; they are also “Toanot,” rabbinic lawyer-pleaders for women in a Bet Din.
Both films honor and remember forgotten heroes. If we do not know who our heroes are, it is difficult to stand on their shoulders. I am grateful to both filmmakers who went to great lengths to restore these women to us.
The author is an emerita professor of psychology, has published 15 books, including An American Bride in Kabul, is a Fellow at Middle East Forum, and can be reached through her website www.phyllis-chesler.com.