First Woman Rabbi Is Honored in New Graphic Novel, Decades After She Perished in Holocaust

Regina Jonas was ordained in 1935, making history. Almost 80 years after she was murdered, an Israeli art student dedicated her final project to Jonas’ life story

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From Noa Mishkin's Hebrew-language graphic novel, 'Like a Burning Fire: Following Regina Jonas.'
From Noa Mishkin's Hebrew-language graphic novel, 'Like a Burning Fire: Following Regina Jonas.'Credit: Noa Mishkin
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

For several months, Noa Mishkin, a graduate student in the Program in Visual Communication of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, drew historical illustrations for each day of the year.

Last year, on December 27 she entered Wikipedia and searched for an event that suited that day. She was surprised to discover that on that very date in 1935, a woman was ordained as a rabbi for the first time. first woman rabbi was ordained as a rabbi.

A drawing from Noa Mishkin's Hebrew-language graphic novel, 'Like a Burning Fire: Following Regina Jonas.'Credit: Noa Mishkin

“Until then, I had only heard of women of the Reform Judaism denomination who were allowed to be ordained as a rabbi in the 1970s,” says Mishkin, who defines herself as a religious feminist.

Regina Jonas was born in 1902 to a low-income religious family in Berlin. At the age of 22, she began studying at the city’s beit midrash, a prestigious Jewish study hall that certified rabbis and trained teachers in various Torah subjects. Women who attended the college received a certification qualifying them as an “academic teacher of religion,” yet they were not eligible for ordination as rabbis. Jonas sought to set a precedent.

The final thesis she submitted was titled “Can a Woman Serve as a Rabbi?” But the faculty would not grant her a certificate of ordination. Nonetheless, four years after graduation the congregation’s liberal rabbi of gave her an exam on halakhic issues and finally ordained her as a rabbi.

Noa Mishkin holds a copy of her graphic novel.Credit: Daniel Hanoch

From this point on, Jonas insisted to be called a fraulein rabbinerin – the rabbinical maiden – a title meant to distinguish her from the role of the wife of a rabbi, or frau rabbinerin. In her various roles, Jonas always focused on caring for the weak segments of the Jewish community. She was seen as a spiritual guide for many and delivered sermons in nursing homes and hospitals.

Jonas also raised charitable funds and collected clothing and food for the needy. Although she was not appointed as a rabbi ofa congregation as she had dreamed, Jonas visited congregations all throughout Germany and delivered many sermons. On October 12, 1944, she was sent to Auschwitz and was likely murdered that same day.

“When I had to choose a topic for my final project, it was only natural for me to choose her,” says Mishkin, who illustrated a graphic novel about Jonas’ life. The book, "Like a Burning Fire: Following Regina Jonas," created under the supervision of Amit Trayinin, is now on display at the Bezalel Alumni Exhibition.

Regina Jonas. She also raised charitable funds and collected clothing and food for the needy.Credit: Zhomron

“Her story touches on topics that I deal with all the time in my work, and this final project is a kind of a climax of what I was trying to say throughout my studies,” she adds. “Beyond that, I felt I had to tell her story so that people would know she existed and know what she did.”

The book presents illustrations in shades of orange and blue that accompany quotes from Jonas. In a text from 1930, she wrote: “I believe that the question of whether a woman is allowed to make halakhic decisions as a rabbi can be given a clear and positive answer, and that there is no need to dwell on this matter. Just as doctors and teachers have become psychologically necessary over time, so has the role of a woman rabbi.”

Right afterward, Jonas added: “Almost nothing from a halakhic point of view, apart from prejudices and ignorance, stands against women serving as rabbis.”

'When I had to choose a topic for my final project, it was only natural for me to choose her,' says Mishkin.Credit: Noa Mishkin

In an interview from 1938 in the CV-Zeitung, the most widely read Jewish newspaper in Germany at the time, Jonas said: “I hope that a day will come for all of us when there will be no more questions on issues concerning the ‘woman.’ For as long as there are questions, something is not right. To tell the truth, when I think about what motivated me as a woman to become a rabbi, two things come to mind. Belief in the calling of God and my love for human beings”.

During the war, Jonas and her mother were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. There she engaged in organizing mutual aid and assisting the new prisoners in their acclimatization process. She also delivered sermons and gave lectures that helped ease their despair. The Theresienstadt Archive preserves a handwritten list of 23 topics on which she delivered her sermons, entitled “Lectures by the One and Only Woman Rabbi, Regina Jonas.”

Left unmentioned
Jonas’ story was forgotten after she died. Mishkin writes in her book that Viktor Frankl and Leo Baeck, the Jewish spiritual giants who survived the Holocaust, did not mention her in their writings: “They knew Regina personally, but in their description of the Theresienstadt camp the image of the first rabbi woman was not recorded.”

In 1991, Katharina von Kellenbach, a researcher in the philosophy and theology department at the University of St. Mary in Maryland, traveled to Germany to investigate the Protestant and Jewish establishments’ views on women seeking ordination. In an archive in East Germany, which was first opened to visitors from the West following the fall of the Iron Curtain, von Kellenbach found the envelope that Jonas deposited in the hands of the leadership of the Jewish community before being sent to Theresienstadt.

The envelope contained two photos of her, the thesis she wrote, her credentials and teaching certificates, letters she kept, and personal documents. This discovery and the articles published by von Kellenbach in the following years led to a renewed recognition and robust study of Jonas’ life, and her commemoration.

From Noa Mishkin's new graphic novel.Credit: Noa Mishkin

Mishkin’s project joins a wave of illustrated books and graphic novels that deal with the Holocaust. The first and best-known of these is Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” which was published in the 1980s. Recently, the film and the graphic novel by Ari Folman and David Polonsky, “Where is Anne Frank,” came out.

It tells her story through her imaginary friend who appears in her diary, and so manages to convey it to a young audience as well. Unlike these works, Mishkin’s work is not written in the style of a traditional graphic novel or camic book. It does not contain speech bubbles that accompany the plot, but rather texts by Jonas and explanations by Mishkin.

To the question of why she refrained from building an imaginary story around Jonas’ life, Mishkin replies: “I chose to frame Regina’s story through my own encounter with her, and through quotes I gathered from her surviving writings. As the information about her life is limited, it was clear to me that much of what I would illustrate and tell would be based on my assumptions, and therefore I wanted to put as few words in her mouth as possible.

Credit: Noa Mishkin

"I did not know her, and no one who knew her closely survived. So instead of inventing conversations and planting them in bubbles like in a classic comic book, I used only her words as they were preserved. To fill in the gaps in the information, I used my own voice.”

Mishkin has also refrained from the usual color scheme associated with the Holocaust. “This kind of book can turn into a cliché quite quickly,” she says. “Even a colorful cliché with bleak colors such as red, black, and sepia. As far as I am concerned, my book is not about the Holocaust. Jonas was an exceptional woman, and it may downgrade her story to frame it only in accordance with her fate as if it’s the only reason to remember her.

"So, I chose a vivid colorfulness of blue and orange. Let these colors tell the story of her life and her community. The narrow choice of these two colors allowed me to more easily present both light and shadow, brightness and darkness, and this very much eased the process of creation for me.”

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