Life & Culture

The women I wish I’d put in my book of Jews

Norman Lebrecht tells of the three notable Jewish women from history he omitted - and why they should have been included


Every author knows the feeling when your new book arrives and you remember the thing you forgot to put in.

In my case, three things or more, as JC readers were not slow to point out. My response to just criticism was that there are some 300 characters in the book, which is far too many and if I were to list any more, Genius and Anxiety would never have made it into the Amazon Top 100, where it bobbed along happily last Chanukah.

Still, there are a handful of omissions I regret and three of them are women. Not that there aren’t plenty of female iconclasts in the book already, from Sarah Bernhardt to Golda Meir, but these three fell between various cracks and I’m keen to save two of them from virtual oblivion.

Starting with Regina Jonas. Rings no bells? She was the first woman rabbi and she performed, by all accounts, far more trenchantly than most men. Now there is nothing in Jewish law that stops a woman being a rabbi, apart from two millennia of tradition and a 19th century fiction that men possessed gravitas, women frivolity. Regina Jonas was determined to uphold the law.

Born in Berlin in 1902, she titled her doctoral thesis “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” Her teacher Leo Baeck turned her down for ordination on the grounds that Jews wouldn’t like it and it was 1935 before she persuaded a Liberal rabbi, Max Dienemann, to give her semichah. By this time countless rabbis had been arrested or exiled and dozens of communities were headless.

Living in Berlin, where she was pastoral rabbi at the Jewish Hospital, she preached every Saturday night, after Shabbat, from the grand pulpit of the New Synagogue. In the week she reached out to small towns and took up preaching in factories, when she was rounded into forced labour. Fiercely committed to halachah, she urged women to adopt modest dress and argued that a woman who was called to become a rabbi should not marry, devoting herself to community rather than family.

In 1942 Regina Jonas was deported with her mother to Theresienstadt, where the psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl enlisted her to work with him on suicide prevention. In the camp museum there are notes for 24 sermons that she prepared or gave before she and her mother were sent to Auschwitz on October 12, 1944 and murdered that same day. “The reward of a good deed,” she once wrote “is recognition by God.” Regina Jonas is the kind of rabbi we always need.

Marietta Blau is someone I came across due to the incongruity of her music-hall name in the deadly serious field of nuclear science. Daughter of a Viennese lawyer and music publisher, she shunned popular waltzes and studied string quartets alongside her work on gamma rays. Brushed aside by male physicists, she made a vital breakthrough in using nuclear emulsions to detect neutrons. Erwin Schrödinger (the one with the cat) twice nominated her for a Nobel Prize, both times in vain.

After the Anschluss in 1938, she fled to Mexico where Albert Einstein pleaded with the minister of education to find her a suitable position. At this critical moment in the development of nuclear fission, she was reduced to teaching in high school. It took three years for Einstein to get her into the US Atomic Energy Commission, by which time she was exhausted and irritable, making it easier for inferior men to ignore her. An Englishman, Cecil Powell, got the Nobel in 1950 for work she had initiated.

Her eyesight failing, uncovered by US health care, Marietta Blau returned to Vienna for an operation in the 1960s and died there in January 1970 of cancer, an illness connected to her field of research. She’s another of those Jewish lost souls who changed the way we perceive the universe and I am riven with regret that I did not recognise her importance any sooner.

The third of my missing characters remains a household name. Rosa Luxemburg is mentioned twice in Genius and Anxiety but the more I keep digging into her character and activities the more I am aware of the distortions she has suffered. In the public imagination, she is the Jewish firebrand who was co-leader with Karl Liebknecht of a communist revolution in Berlin in January 1919, only to be captured, tortured and murdered by right-wing militants who were operating under the direct control of the post-War Social Democratic government.

Ordained by Lenin into the pantheon of communist martyrs, her name endures more as slogan than substance. The real Rosa Luxemburg was a sensitive Jewish woman, disabled by a bad hip but powerfully attractive as a woman, a thinker and a leader. She was, in a word, irresistible.

Always prepared to speak her own mind, she told Lenin where his revolution went wrong, urged Liebknecht to tone down his violence and took as her last lover the son of her best female friend. She was just 47 at the time of her death. Her best-known aphorism is a declaration of extraordinary openness. It translates loosely as “freedom is always the freedom to disagree with us .” She told Lenin specifically that any freedom which is restricted to party members is an affront to human dignity.

Within Rosa Luxemburg beats a mighty Jewish conscience and a soaring set of principles. A century after her state-approved murder it may be too late to overturn all the myths that have accrued to her image, but from my recent researches I am starting to see a different Rosa Luxemburg from the ones on the placards and the plinths, a woman of valour who put her life on the line in the fight for a better world, one who deserves to be bound, as we say, in the bundle of eternal life.

Norman Lebrecht’s book Genius and Anxiety: How Jews changed the world 1847-1947 is out this week in paperback, published by Oneworld

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