My Year in Berlin with Regina Jonas

Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi by Elisa Klapheck has just been published in English (Jossey- Bass, 2004, $24.95) in a translation by Toby Axelrod. Here is the story of how that translation came about.

I first encountered the dark-haired, robed figure of Regina Jonas in 1997, at the “New Synagogue” in former East Berlin. In a glass display case in what had been the synagogue’s main sanctuary stands a postcard photo of Jonas, ordained in 1935. I stopped. It was a shocking introduction, in black and white, to the first woman ever ordained as a rabbi. Young. Stern looking. Exuding an aura of spirituality. Her expression gentle yet direct, she seems to look out into the large room, daring passersby to stop and engage.

I was surprised to learn that the first woman to wear rabbinical robes was German, not American. I knew of Sally Priesand’s groundbreaking ordination by the American Reform movement in 1972. But Jonas’ story was new to me. I read the flyer announcing a Havdalah service she was to lead, in this very space, in 1938. And T read that this young pioneer in Jewish education for women had been murdered, together with the promise of her generation, in Auschwitz.

I encountered Regina Jonas’ spirit again in 1999 at the first conference in Europe for female rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators. Now, in a new wing of the synagogue where Jonas once spoke, another generation of ordained women prayed together and shared ideas for rituals marking milestones in women’s lives. Whether they knew it or not, these women were guided, inspired and applauded by Regina Jonas.

Conference co-founder Elisa Klapheck was by then already working on her biography of Jonas, digging through the archives of the Jewish community. I understood that she was following her own spiritual path, somehow in Jonas’ footsteps. Ultimately, the stories of Klapheck and Jonas would braid together, and I would become the third strand. In 1999, Klapheck’s biography of Jonas, together with Jonas’ 1930 treatise, “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?” was published in Berlin. Four years later, Klapheck asked me to translate the book into English.

Translating Klapheck’s writing—and the introduction by Hermann Simon, director of the Centrum Judaicum, New Synagogue Berlin—was a relative breeze. If I had any questions, answers were a phone call away. But Jonas’ text was another story entirely. Naturally, she had written in the florid style of the 1930s; not always direct, with obscure word usage, and sentences that were long even by German standards. I often had to confer with Klapheck. Together, we deciphered many convoluted passages, consulting a photocopy of Jonas’ typed manuscript, often while consuming quantities of black coffee or red wine and freshly baked baklava.

Gradually it began to feel as if Regina Jonas herself was in the room with us. We found ourselves discussing her halakhic points, marveling over her complex, occasionally witty arguments and enjoying the self-assured tone with which she would conclude a section of her treatise.

“I love it when she says, ‘Enough with examples!'” Klapheck would laugh. Jonas must have been getting tired toward the end of her writing, we thought.

Jonas included numerous quotations in Hebrew and lengthy Talmudic citations in German. Toward the end of the year, I often found myself in the Jewish Community Library on Fasanenstrasse in former West Berlin, poring over the Artscroll and Steinsaltz English translations of the Talmud, checking the accuracy of my translations.

Sometimes I would read way beyond the passages that Jonas had cited, exploring the richness of the Talmud for the first time. As a child, I had watched my paternal grandfather, a rabbi, reading his Vilna Talmud, peering down at the yellowing pages through clear-framed glasses. Now, I understood better what those blocks of text represented.

Seldom when working together were we overcome by the facts of Jonas’ fate. But once, Klapheck handed me a copy of the last known letter to Jonas from her lover, Rabbi Joseph Norden, who was about to be deported from Hamburg to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp in Prague. I translated the words, written on July 13, 1942: “The time has come to say goodbye… Maybe Berliners will be sent, too. hi that case perhaps there will be a chance for us to see each other again…”

The copy of the letter was like lead in my hand. There is no evidence that the two were reunited. Norden died in Theresienstadt, and though Jonas was deported there with her mother, they later were sent to Auschwitz and murdered.

But for us, Jonas was somehow alive again through her work.

I began to understand more deeply Klapheck’s insistence that Jonas’ tragic death was not the story. Klapheck felt sure—and I agreed—that Jonas would have loved meeting those Jewish women who, whether they knew it or not, had followed in her footsteps.