Clémence Boulouque takes a look at Regina Jonas, the first female rabbi and a mother who had no children

REgina Jonas

Regina Jonas

There was no rabbi at my Dad’s funeral. I was eleven when he died. A pious man and a poor salesman. My first teacher.  But we did not have enough to pay for a rabbi. What he got and what we got was a third-class burial, paid for by the community. At the very end of the cemetery. They all forgot what the Talmud says: be mindful of the children of the poor because the Torah comes from them. Maybe all those who blocked me were born into too much money to hear what the Torah really has to say.  Or maybe… But they should not matter. From that day on, I have been that rabbi. That absent rabbi. Of that absent God. Maybe.

I never was a careless child. Never could. And now my only wish is to protect that carelessness for other children – and older children, whatever their age. So that they can have what I have always missed. I wish we were not put to the test, like that. When I said yizkor the other day, it felt that I was saying it for us. The already departed. Things were planted in us. To appeal the life sentence, the death sentence, to appeal all the pain. I just don’t see why people should prevent me from fulfilling this. Especially now. There is nothing, nothing in the Talmud that forbids a woman to be a rabbi.

An excerpt from “The Faith in Her Eyes” a new play by Clémence Boulouque.

Regina Jonas was the first female rabbi. She was ordained in Berlin in 1935, deported to Teresienstadt from 1942 to 1944, and killed in Auschwitz in December 1944, a few weeks before the liberation of the camp. She was erased from history books for decades.

When pressed with questions about her, a couple of famous people she worked with, such as Leo Baeck and Viktor Fraenkl, reluctantly acknowledged her existence. People were not ready to accept a woman as a rabbi, even after she lived and died as one. As a result most leaders, although backing her behind the scenes, would not publicly stand by her, lest they divide a community already fighting for its survival.

Ever since I first encountered her name, in a short biography of Jewish women, Regina has accompanied me. I wrote a novel about an actress going on her footsteps in Berlin, which was published in France in 2007.  The year before, a best-selling novel fictionalizing the life of a perpetrator captured the media’s attention. During the promotion of my book, I was asked why I, too, was obsessed with the Holocaust. I told them I was not. I am obsessed with life, with keeping the memory of righteous people alive – people who, ironically, would have rejected the adjective righteous to describe them. Those who simply followed their calling, a calling of kindness.

Regina’s story is not just a story about the Holocaust – it is a tribute to those whose faith and determination have changed the world, even if it claimed their lives. It is a story of moral courage and of overcoming. She envisioned being a rabbi as a duty for which gender was irrelevant. She wanted to take care of souls. Seelsorgerin is how she described it in German. It is the story of a woman who was the first and often said that she wished she’d been the thousandth. In a way, Regina’s passionate life makes her a mother – in our extended imaginary families.

Although she never had children, Regina became the mother of all those to whom she was a rabbi. One of her students remembers how she changed her life by encouraging her to tell her parents how passionately she wanted to become an actress, pushing her to give birth to her true self. Regina was also the mother to the elderly whose children had been lucky enough to get exit visas. Those elderly had become helpless children themselves in a fatherland that was soon going to devour them.

Empowering people and caring for them, until the end – this is what Regina did. This was her definition of a rabbi; it could also apply to mother.

To a young woman who confessed feeling guilty to be pregnant and asked if it was not irresponsible to bring a child into this world on the brink, Regina expressed her gratitude and enthusiasm. It was a powerful affirmation of life, she congratulated her. And nothing comes before life.  This is what she preached indefatigably. Even at the price of death.

Her ordination memoir shows how she was ready to fight. Can women serve as rabbis? She looks at the Talmud and demolishes, argument by argument, the texts that dismiss women. She knew that the texts had emerged from a patriarchal society. Power is in the text.  Knowledge is power. It had to be conquered.

One passage of the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 62a, reads : “Women are a nation unto themselves” to which Regina adds: “which unfortunately is interpreted to the disadvantage of the woman.” You may call her the midwife or the mother of a new reading of the texts. Way before feminist bible studies.  You may call her all of that.

In the only picture left of her, she stares right in front of her. What Regina left behind is this faith in her eyes, the love from her students and this legacy of courage.

I know, they have made me realize it every day. I am not of the priestly caste. But I can be everyone in this shapeless dress. I can be a mother, a father, a priest, a teacher, a sister. Just a soul healer. Whatever it takes. Whoever it takes. I will be who I will be.