A couple days ago I was alerted to this short article by Rabbi Laura Geller. Geller showcases Regina Jonas (1902–1944). Jonas studied at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin until 1930 in prelude to her ordination (conducted in a private ceremony). Until very recently Regina Jonas was all but unknown to historians. She is now commemorated as the first female rabbi. While her story began to surface in the 1970s, Katharina von Kellenbach (author of this amazing and devastating book) discovered documents that confirmed Jonas' ordination in 1991. For more on Regina Jonas, see here. But Rabbi Geller's article should be read in full too for a unique window into social memory.
Here are just a few aspects of this story that interest me:
1. Social Memory theorists tell us that memory is constructed and reconstructed within social frames. Certainly gender and gender privilege operate as social frames. The vast majority of history is framed socially by masculine remembrancers. Or as Rachel Adler told me earlier this year, "Those with the 'members' get to do the remembering." Do we witness in the story of Regina Jonas a case of repressed memory due to mnemonic power dynamics?
2. Rabbi Geller writes: "in my years as a rabbinical student at HUC-JIR, from 1971 to 1976, not once did I hear her name. It would have been helpful to me, the only woman in my class, to have known her story." Could it be that the memory of Regina Jonas has found a more advantageous mnemonic frame? I.e. are the social conditions now more conducive for her commemoration?
3. If the answer to 1 is yes and the answer to 2 is yes, are we not in a better position to remember her now than we were 80 years ago? Sometimes our memories improve over the course of two generations and with the help of new social constructs.
4. Regina Jonas' story is swallowed up by the Shoah. There are times when a significant historical event eclipses all other stories that orbit it. One would be hard pressed to find a more significant event within Jewish social memory. Geller writes, "Though her thesis—“Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?”—received praise from her teachers, none of them agreed to ordain her, including Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of the Jews in Germany, who wasn’t willing to jeopardize the unity of the Jewish community as the Nazi threat was intensifying." Perhaps then, Jonas' story was in the process of eclipse even before the Shoah but already within its force of gravity.
5. Finally, it would be counterproductive to create an either/or with the mnemonic frameworks discussed above. We should not think that the framework of gendered commemorative practice will entirely explain the form and function of Jonas' story. Nor should we think that the framework of Shoah commemoration tells the whole story. Mnemonic frames overlap. Indeed whenever a historical figure occupies a monolithic frame in collective memory, you can almost always be sure that the memory of that figure has been unhelpfully reduced.
I am grateful to Rabbi Geller for her short but impressive article. I will be considering this fascinating story for a long while.