In Terezin, the US Commission for the Preservation of American Heritage Abroad sponsored the dedication of a plaque as a memorial. A day before traveling to Terezin, we saw Regina's papers, a small pile that must have been all that survived of a much larger collection. We stared at a photograph of her, the sole image that remained. In the formal portrait, she wore a rabbinic robe and her young face was dignified and serious. I yearned for photographs of her teaching, laughing, and loving, images of a full life. But there were none.
For nearly thirty years I have had the good fortune to carry the title “first woman rabbi ordained in the Conservative Movement.” I have carried the designation with pride, at the same time knowing that I was a relative newcomer to the world of “first women rabbis.” After all, Rabbi Sally Priesand (the first woman Reform rabbi, ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972) and Rabbi Sandy Sasso (the first woman Reconstructionist rabbi, ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1974) had preceded me by many years. Only this week did I come to know my forbear, Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman ever ordained a rabbi.
Just days before leading German newspapers called for an end to hatred against Jews, our group heard from two German dignitaries who were deeply concerned about the new wave of anti-Semitism infusing protests against Israel’s operations in Gaza. Both MP Volker Beck and Sybilla Bendig of the Foreign Office were clearly shocked by slogans and chants they didn’t think possible in postwar Germany.
One of my least favorite things about summer—after bugs, overcrowded parks, and face-sweat—is the serious dearth of decent TV. My TV schedule disappears, and is replaced with an array of below-average reality shows. The only thing I’ve been watching with any regularity is The Bachelorette, a show that alternately bores me, amuses me, and causes me to exclaim to no one in particular, “Oh, come ON!!!!” an average of sixteen times per episode.
The first of the historic events that marked our trip took place on the second evening at Berlin’s Centrum Judaicum. For the first time, the pioneering American women rabbis who were the first to be ordained by their denominations joined with their counterparts in Europe in a public forum to talk about their journeys to the rabbinate and experiences as rabbis. Or that was the plan.
After Bel Kaufman, writer and public school teacher, published Up the Down Staircase in 1965, one assistant principal at a school where she had taught began adding a warning to his memos: “DO NOT SHOW THIS TO BEL KAUFMAN.” The disclaimer is a testament to what a nerve Kaufman hit with her novel, which followed a young teacher through her first year in an urban public school and highlighted the insane bureaucracy that got in the way of actual teaching.
Our trip officially began Tuesday morning with participants sharing key words or phrases that captured the ideas, feelings, or intentions with which they were embarking on the first day. Some focused on Regina Jonas—honoring her, standing on her shoulders. Others spoke more generally about women, noting their interest in the "place of women in different worlds," or "a passion for women." And they came to the day with varied emotions—anticipation, anxiety, optimism, seeking “internal reconciliation” and hoping to “find themselves” here.
A major theme of our shared JWA/AJA journey is the recovery of the lost narrative of Regina Jonas. We are here in the company of America’s pioneering women rabbis to bring Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas back into the story we tell of them and those who followed.
I have never been to Germany before, and this is no accident. My mother, who lost extended family members in the Holocaust, raised me not to buy German products. I do not walk on the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, for it is sacred. I did not go to Germany, because it was the very opposite of sanctity. The sound of the German language made me cringe; it was the sound of the Nazis. But over the decades, I had come to be in relationship with young Germans who were profoundly remorseful about the Holocaust. I was ready to explore a new personal relationship with the German people, and to travel there when the right opportunity presented itself. This trip is that opportunity.
I have often marveled at words like culaccino, which in Italian means "The mark on a table left by a cold glass." Words like this simply can’t be replaced by the sum of their parts. The English language has a wealth of words to choose from—over a million by some estimates—to complete the perfect turn of phrase. But, alas, sometimes one million words are not enough to lovingly tell your boyfriend that he has cream cheese in the corner of his mouth.
At Temple Beth Or’s Erev Shabbat service last Friday my associate Rabbi Ari Margolis offered a blessing for me as I embark on this journey to honor the memory of Rabbi Regina Jonas. Just a few weeks ago, I offered a prayer for Rabbi Margolis and those from the temple traveling to Israel in hopes of spiritual enlightenment and deepening connection to land and heritage. In contrast, Rabbi Margolis’ prayer Friday night had a more urgent feel to it. In those few weeks between these travelers’ prayers, Israel has gone from a period of relative calm to a country searching for the “Protective Edge.” And this past week Malaysian flight MH17, shot down mid-air by rocket missiles designed for warfare, shattered any illusion that one might cling to that the weapons of terror are just another distant chapter in that story of the world’s horrors.
Our knowledge about Rabbi Regina Jonas has been limited. I had heard that she was ordained in Berlin, her thesis was on whether women could be rabbis, and that she had died during the Holocaust. I was intrigued, but there was not much more information to fill in the blank spaces. This trip has opened up a wealth of material about her life, her vision and her contributions.
For many years, I resisted going to Germany or Eastern Europe, but when I learned about this trip to Berlin and Prague, I spoke without thinking: “I’d really like to go on that journey.”
Reflecting now on that immediate response (and the fact that I didn’t have second thoughts afterward), I’ve learned a few things about what has changed and what has crystallized for me, individually and, I think, as a member of my generation.
I decided I wanted to be a rabbi when I was sixteen years old. At that time, I had never heard of Regina Jonas. I was well into my rabbinic training before one of my professors mentioned her to me. He knew her personally, having attended the same academic institution in Germany. I discovered, however, that very little had been written about her and that basically her story had been lost, as was the case for so many other women in the Jewish community whose stories were hidden away.
Walking out the door of my hotel room on the first day of my first trip to Berlin, (a trip I had determinedly avoided for many years), I was on guard and immediately caught off guard. As I entered the Hackescher Market just steps from the hotel, I found myself face to face with a large size portrait of Regina Jonas on a kiosk that also detailed her story. What was Rabbiner Jonas doing here? Why here? Why now?
I don’t do well in humidity. I don’t think rallies have been particularly effective since the 1970s. Still, I stood outside for two hours this Tuesday, gathered at City Hall with a couple hundred of my fellow concerned citizens. We were there to show solidarity against certain recent Supreme Court decisions.
Lupita Nyong’o is an Academy Award winning actress. She has a Master’s Degree from Yale. She speaks four languages. She is the writer, director, and producer of a documentary about Kenya’s albino population. She is also a stunning beauty, and a fashion plate. It’s that last point, that shallow observation, which I’ll write about today.
Since last year, YouTube sensation Postmodern Jukebox has been creating innovative covers of modern pop music by applying contrasting musical stylings to contemporary works—from a smooth jazz cover of the Game of Thrones theme to a 1940s swing adaptation of Madonna's “Like a Prayer.” In recent months, Postmodern Jukebox released a klezmer inspired cover of Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty" accompanied by segments of Yiddish translation. As I watched the video accumulate over a million views on YouTube, I became interested in exploring what went into the production of this inventive and unlikely pairing.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
—Adrienne Rich, from Diving into the Wreck
When I think of Adrienne Rich, I think about the differences between maps and routes, between shortcuts and whole geographies. I think about the difference between following directions that lead you straight from A to B and sitting down with your Atlas of the Difficult World with no destination yet in mind. I think about trying to take in all that maps have to tell you with your heart and eyes open, about looking to learn without knowing what you will find or where this new knowledge will lead you. When I think about Adrienne Rich, I think of the different ways we learn, the different ways we come to know the world, ourselves, and vice versa.
There are many reasons I think the Supreme Court is wrong as a legal matter in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. I think corporations are entitled to certain kinds of basic economic privileges, but I don’t think corporations are “people” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) or the First Amendment.
Have you ever explained the Holocaust to someone who's never heard of it before? I have.
I don't remember a time when the Holocaust wasn't a part of my consciousness. So imagine my surprise when, sitting with co-workers in a gazebo at our school, a girl of no more than 7 years old with a luminous smile ambled by, her shirt emblazoned with a massive swastika.
In Judaism, we take the seventh day of the week to slow down. To separate between the holy and the everyday. As legendary civil rights activist and Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book The Sabbath, “on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” Shabbat in Jackson was indeed a time to germinate and cultivate the ideas that have been spinning around in my head.
You might be sorry to hear it, but I do not miss home yet. Southern hospitality is REAL and amazing. Just came back from an incredible evening of Southern food, music, visiting, and art at the Mississippi Museum of Art, which has an incredible installation of Civil Rights Photographs. I got to meet Doris Derby who you should definitely know about if you don't already.
I think today might best be a day told in quotes from a few key experiences. There is so much more happening than I can fit in these few words.
Back in 2011, as newly minted high schoolers at Gann Academy in Waltham, Kineret Grant-Sasson and Mitali Desai had an idea: during the second half of freshman year, they would start holding meetings for a feminist club, welcoming students with all levels of knowledge and interest. Today, Kineret and Mitali are incoming seniors, and their club, Feminijas, is going strong. Femininjas meets Mondays at lunch for discussions about gender, power, and feminism, topics many students don’t study in earnest until well into college. Recently, they embarked on a photo project, something they’d seen online and thought would be an empowering exercise for Femininjas. The concept was simple: pass around a white dry-erase board, ask participants to write a blurb about why they need feminism, and take a picture. The results are powerful, encouraging, and thought-provoking.
When I exited the airport in Jackson I couldn't help but feel as if I was walking on hallowed ground. The air was thick and the dense grass crunched under my feet—it really feels different here. The song "Strange Fruit" played softly through my mind as we drove through the flat, open land past trees that look different enough from home to make me feel a little out of place. As you well know, I have always been fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement. I feel like this part of our history sheds light on our proudest and darkest moments as a nation. Mississippi was (and continues to be) a battle ground for testing the ideals and laws that supposedly govern the United States, and I sort of feel like I am on a pilgrimage to witness this crucial part of our history.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Blog." (Viewed on October 9, 2015) <http://jwa.org/blog>.