One of the People
For many people, thinking of women in Jewish history most readily summons to mind the likes of Hadassah/Esther, Bruryah, Henrietta Szold, Hannah Szenes, Anne Frank, and Golda Meir. Yet many additional worthies, some better known than others, merit as much attention and recollection.
Spanning 4,000 years, Jewish history features numerous noteworthy women, from Matriarchs and prophetesses and queens regnant or consort in the ancient and classical eras, to diasporic warrior-queens in the medieval era, to courtiers and political Zionists and even sages in the modern era.
The following précis highlights 18 of Jewry’s outstanding female personages and their most notable and memorable achievements.
- The prophetess Huldah (c. 640 BCE) was the wife of Shallum, the royal wardrobe-keeper of King Josiah of Judah. As mutual descendants of Joshua and Rahav, Huldah was a kinswoman of Jeremiah, and she prophesied to the women while Jeremiah prophesied in the marketplace and streets. Rather than Jeremiah, Huldah was consulted by Josiah upon the rediscovery of Deuteronomy in the Temple by Hilkiyahu the high priest. The reason for this is thought to have been because the monarch sought the greater compassion of a woman who would intercede with God on the royal’s behalf. She averred that evil would befall Jerusalem, but that the pious Josiah would not live to see it. Huldah dwelt in the second quarter of Jerusalem near the courts of learning, and conducted an academy in the capital, where she taught publicly, specializing in the Oral Torah; Huldah Gate at the southern end of Temple Mount was once the entrance leading to her schoolhouse.
- Shlomtzion (Salome Alexandra) (r. 76–67 BCE) was married consecutively to two royal Hasmonean brothers, Judah Aristoboulos I then his half-brother Yannai Alexander. She was possibly involved in the demise of her brother-in-law Antigonus for his alleged plot against the life of her first husband. Still, the Pharisees were enamored with her and praised her peaceful rule as queen regnant, which commenced after 28 years as queen consort. Hundreds of political prisoners languishing in dungeons and thousands of political exiles seeking refuge in foreign countries were granted liberty and welcomed back into Judean society by the queen. Under the leadership of her brother, Shimon ben Shetah, the Pharisees rose to prominence. The queen placed her several fortresses—except for Hyrkania, Alexandrion (Alexandrium), and Machaerus (Mikhvar)—at the disposal of the Sadducees to protect them from reprisals by the resurgent Pharisees in Jerusalem. She substantially increased the size of the army and provisioned border citadels. She also installed her oldest son Hyrkanos II as high priest, and sent her younger son Aristoboulos II to relieve the siege of Damascus by King Ptolemy (son of Mennaeus) of Chalcis. Shlomtzion possessed extensive foreign connections and was respected by neighboring monarchs. Around 70, the advancing King Tigranes II the Great of Armenia was prevented from occupying Judea by means of the queen’s peace treaties and gifts. Shortly thereafter the queen fell ill. Toward the end of her reign, civil war broke out anew when Aristoboulos, who patronized the Sadducees, gathered a large mercenary force and sought to usurp his mother’s rule. Shlomtzion died before she could counter this uprising, leaving her sons to contend for power in a fateful civil war.
- Sister and wife of King Monobaz I of Adiabene, Helena of Adiabene (d. 56 CE) became the mother of Izates and Monobaz II. Although likely of Hellenistic origin, Queen Helena was influenced by a Jewish merchant named Hanan (Ananias) and converted to Judaism around 30, spending the latter part of her life in Jerusalem, where she built herself a palace. She also had her sons educated in Jerusalem. Helena earned a reputation for munificence by purchasing grain and dried figs from Alexandria, Egypt and Cyprus to alleviate the famine afflicting the capital in 45, and by endowing gifts to the Temple, including a golden candlestick and an engraved golden plate. According to the Talmud, Helena vowed to become a Nazirite for seven years if her son Izates returned safely from war, and when this occurred she dutifully fulfilled her oath. Helena died in Adiabene—a district in northern Mesopotamia—but her remains and those of Izates were conveyed by Monobaz II to Jerusalem for burial in the pyramidal mausoleum, now known as the royal tombs, that Helena had erected in the northern area of the city. An inscribed sarcophagus discovered there in the 19th century was identified as that of Helena.
- Shushandukht (Gasyandukht) (c. 400s CE) was the daughter of a Jewish exilarch and became the wife of Emperor Yazdegerd I of Persia and the mother of Bahram V (Bahram Gur) and Shapur IV. In some ways a second Esther, Queen Shushandukht enhanced the position of Jews in the Sassanid imperial court. She founded the sizable Jewish district of Yahudiya in Isfahan, as well as Jewish colonies in Susa (Shushan) and Shushtar. She is further associated with the Jewish communities of Hamadan (Ecbatana) and Khwarezm. Her husband and her son Shapur were both murdered by Sassanian noblemen before her son Bahram, a Jewish shah, ascended to the throne. It has been conjectured that her tomb is that of Esther and Mordekhai in Hamadan.
- Queen of the Jerawa (Jarua) and Aures tribes of Berbers, who were converts to Judaism, Dahiya (Dihya) Kahina (r. 690s?–702 CE) ruled an area in North Africa then known as Numidia (southeast Algeria), and led the indigenous resistance against the invading Umayyad Muslim army of Hasan ibn al-Numan, forcing them to retreat to Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (Libya). She ruled for at least five years between the Aures Mountains and the Gadames oasis, and earned a reputation as a harsh monarch, especially after implementing a counterproductive scorched-earth policy. She wielded both political and religious power (“Kahina” is a title akin to the name “Cohen”, indicating her role as a priestess and soothsayer), and is credited with an interest in ornithology. When the strengthened Arabs under Musa bin Nusayr invaded anew in the early 700s, she fell in battle near Tbarga (Tabarka, Tunisia). Her sons Bagay and Khanchla were converted to Islam and joined the Muslim army in its conquest of Iberia (Spain and Portugal). The Kahina was buried in Khenchela (Algeria), formerly the Roman colony of Mascula.
- Benvenida (Bienvenida) Abravanel (c. 1473–1560 CE), a native of Spain, was compelled as a result of the 1492 expulsion of Spanish Jewry to emigrate with her family, and eventually settled in the Kingdom of Naples (Naples, Italy). She married her first cousin Samuel Abravanel, youngest son of her uncle Isaac, bringing to the marriage a large dowry. She earned a reputation for her chastity, piety, prudence, and valor. She befriended, tutored, and helped raise the second daughter of Don Pedro Alvarez of Toledo (who became viceroy of Naples), Eleonora (Leonora) de Toledo, the future grand duchess of Tuscany, who considered Benvenida a second mother. From 1524, she became a devotee of the charismatic adventurer David Reuveni, whom she gifted funds, a golden Turkish gown, and an ancient silk banner with the Ten Statements (Decalogue) embroidered in gold on both sides, which Reuveni bore to great theatrical effect. In 1533, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V issued an edict of expulsion against the Jews of Naples, Benvenida and her royal allies in Naples, perhaps including the youthful Eleonora, petitioned the emperor; their intervention suspended the decree, resulting in a reprieve lasting seven years. In 1540, a new edict required Jews to don a distinctive badge. In 1541, she departed Naples and sojourned in neighboring Venice, later settling in neighboring Ferrara, where her husband Samuel died in 1547. Thereafter she assumed the management of the family banking business on a grand scale and continued her husband’s patronage activities, including sponsoring Jewish scholarship and redeeming Jewish captives. In 1555, she opposed the boycott of the port of neighboring Ancona (in which she had commercial interests) that had been proposed by her rival Gracia Mendes Nasi after 25 conversos who had reverted to Judaism were burnt at the stake. She died in Ferrara.
- A disciple of her father Samuel ben Netanel HaLevi of Kurdistan, Osnat Barzani (Osnat Mizrahi) (1590–1670 CE) was reared as a learned scholar by her father, a sage and a mystic who had no sons and who established the academy of Mosul (Iraq). She was married off to one of her father’s brightest disciples, her cousin Jacob Mizrahi, who promised her father that she would be exempted from domestic duties so that she might continue to thrive as a scholar. Upon the decease of her father, her husband Jacob headed the academy. While her husband immersed himself in his own studies, Osnat delivered most of the instruction to the academy’s rabbinical students. When her husband died, she headed the academy herself, but was beset by ongoing financial difficulties and became heavily indebted; her home and belongings, including books and clothing, were confiscated. Her extant epistles evince her erudition in Hebrew, Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and kabbalah. Attested in amulets (kammeiot), miraculous legends arose about her abilities to limit her childbearing so as to focus on her scholarly pursuits and to paralyze would-be sexual predators by exclaiming holy names. Further lore featured Osnat saving her fellow Jews, whom she had directed to sanctify the new moon outdoors, from their burning synagogue; she then summoned a flock of angels to beat out the flames with their wings, sparing the sacred Torah scrolls. Her son was sent to neighboring Baghdad to continue his rabbinical studies. She is remembered today as the original female rabbi, though in life she bore the title “Tanna’it” (a feminine version of the Talmudic Aramaic title for Mishnaic sages). She was buried in neighboring Amadiya (Amêdî), a picturesque town perched atop a tiny plateau, near her father, and her grave became a pilgrimage site.
- Esther Schulhoff Aaron Liebmann (c. 1645–1714 CE), a native of Prague (Czech Republic), married Israel Aaron, court purveyor to Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg and founder of the Jewish community of Berlin, Germany. In 1673, her husband died; in 1676, she remarried Jost Liebmann. From 1676–1701, she and her new husband prospered as jewelers first to Frederick William then to his successor, Frederick III (King Frederick I of Prussia), and thus achieved a dominant influence over the Berlin Jewish community. Together the couple annually attended the Leipzig Fair. In 1701/1702, her second husband died and Esther was widowed anew. Undaunted, she carried on her business dealings and obtained a license to mint and issue copious amounts of coinage, as well as other royal privileges. In 1713, she was put under house arrest by the new ruler, King Frederick William I of Prussia, until he exacted a heavy fine from her. Thereafter her affluence diminished and her influence waned. She had six children with Jost, including two sons, Isaac Liebmann and Liebmann Jost, who also became court jewelers.
- A native of Ludmir (Volodymyr-Volynskyi, Ukraine), Hannah Rahel Verbermacher (Maiden of Ludmir/Ludmirer Moid) (1805/1806–1888 CE) studied Torah, Talmud, and kabbalah as part of her extensive education. At 12, upon the decease of her mother, she became a traumatized recluse and only ventured out of her room to visit her mother’s grave; at 13, during a visit to the cemetery, she fainted and lapsed into a coma, subsequently suffering from a prolonged illness. Her unexpected recovery was attended by her sense of having been reinvigorated by a heavenly tribunal with a novel and elevated soul. Late in adolescence, having bloomed into a red-headed beauty, she refused to marry her betrothed, a beloved childhood playmate, and instead devoted herself to religious studies and to the fulfillment of the divine commandments, including those not incumbent upon women. She wore a prayer shawl (tallit) and donned phylacteries (tfilin), and earned a reputation as a scholar and as a thaumaturge. As her popularity increased, so did the number of her followers, comprising mostly women and working-class men, and in time she assumed the role of a Hasidic righteous saint (tzadik). At 19, upon the decease of her father, she was bequeathed a substantial inheritance with which she established her own study house (beit midrash) or small synagogue (shtiebel) in Ludmir, which functioned as her Hasidic court (hoif/hatzeir). Like her male counterparts, she received audiences, hosted on the Sabbath gatherings of Hasidim (tishen), bestowed blessings, and accepted paper slips listing problems (kvitlakh), though without any need for the accompanying considerations known as redemptive ransoms (pidyonot). She also became an itinerant preacher (maggid), touring neighboring Jewish villages and towns (shtetlekh), where she addressed groups of women. Unsurprisingly, her unconventional activities as a pious woman elicited opposition from the broader Hasidic community, and she was even accused of being possessed by a malevolent spirit (dybuk). The scandal prompted the intervention of the region’s leading Rebbe, Mordekhai Twersky of Chernobyl, who exhorted Hannah to desist from her conduct and to marry instead. Consequently, she abnegated her role and abstained from her activities, and reluctantly married the beadle (gabbai) of her study house (according to one account), though the marriage was unconsummated and eventuated in divorce. Thereafter she married and divorced a second time. Around 1859/1860, she immigrated to the Land of Israel, where she settled first in the Old City of Jerusalem then in the Mei’ah She’arim neighborhood in Jerusalem. Although a childless divorcée, she retained her piety and charisma and once again attracted adherents, Hasidic and Sephardic, who came on Sabbath afternoons to hear her preach and who accompanied her on the first of every month to Rachel’s Tomb for prayer. She died in Jerusalem and was buried on the Mount of Olives, and her grave became a pilgrimage site. Her original tombstone was apparently destroyed under Jordanian Arab rule, but a new tombstone was erected at her presumed gravesite in 2004. Her life story has been repeatedly depicted in drama and fiction, including in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Shosha. She is remembered today as the sole female Hasidic Rebbe.
- Manya Wilbushewitch Shochat (1880–1961 CE), a native of Lososna (Belarus), moved as an adolescent to neighboring Minsk, where she worked in a factory owned by her brother Gidalyah. In 1899, she was arrested for revolutionary activities. In 1901, she helped establish the Jewish Independent Labor Party, a licit trade union which lasted two years. In 1903, in the wake of the Kishinev (Chişinău, Moldova) pogroms, she decided that defending Jewry took priority over leading a social revolution. In 1904, at the invitation of her brother Nahum (founder of the Shemen oil and soap factory in Haifa), she sojourned for a year in the Land of Israel, where she studied residency conditions. In 1907, she traveled to Europe and America to study communist settlements and garner support for Jews in the Land of Israel and in the Russian Empire. That same year, she returned to the ancestral homeland and became involved with the Bar Giora self-defense group, whose members she persuaded to settle on a Lower Galilean farm near Sejera (the moshav Ilaniyah), the first socialist commune in the collective Jewish community (yishuv) in the Land of Israel. The experiment at Sejera was short-lived, but served as an important precursor to the kibbutz movement that ensued. In 1908, she married Israel Shochat, leader of the Bar Giora group. In 1909, she cofounded (with her husband Israel, Rahel Yanait, Alexander Zaïd, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and David Ben-Gurion) the HaShomer self-defense association that guarded Jewish agricultural communities. In 1914, after being arrested and briefly imprisoned for Zionist activities, she and Israel were banished to Bursa (Turkey). In 1919, they attended the World Po’alei Zion Conference in Stockholm, Sweden, before returning to the Land of Israel, where they joined the Ahdut HaAvodah labor party. In 1921, she was dispatched to America on behalf of the trade union Histadrut (General Federation of Jewish Labor) to elicit support for the Workers’ Bank (Bank HaPo’alim). There she also clandestinely fundraised for the Haganah paramilitary, turning to Henrietta Szold and Judah Magnes for help in this regard. Thereafter she became actively involved with the Joseph Trumpeldor Labor Legion (Gedud HaAvodah), then with Kibbutz Kfar Giladi. In 1930, she cofounded the League for Jewish-Arab Friendship. During WWII, she focused on social work, providing relief to Jewish refugees living in transit camps. In 1948, she joined the Mapam party and moved to Tel Aviv. She indited memoirs that appeared in Divrei Po’alot, an anthology of the women’s movement, in the Po’alei Zion newspaper Die Zeit, and in Kovetz HaShomer and Seifer HaShomer. She died in Tel Aviv and was buried in Kibbutz Kfar Giladi.
- A native of Rostov-on-Don (Russia), Vera Weizmann (Vera Chatzman) (1881–1966 CE) attended Marinskaya Imperial secondary school and Rostov Conservatoire of Music. In 1899, she moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where she studied medicine at University of Geneva and met her future husband, Chaim Weizmann, in 1900. In 1906, she married Weizmann in Zoppot (Sopot, Poland). She then moved to Manchester, England, where she studied medicine at University of Manchester. In 1913, she received her medical license as a pediatrician and worked in clinics for schoolchildren when she became a medical officer for the City of Manchester, a position in which she served for three years. In 1916, she moved to neighboring London, where her husband led the Zionist movement and she assisted him as a political hostess. In 1919, she traveled with Rebecca Sieff to investigate directly the situation of the collective Jewish community (yishuv) in the Land of Israel, a trip she later recalled as “the beginning of my own journey back to my own people.” In 1920, she cofounded (with Rebecca Sieff, Hannah Maisel-Shohat, and others) and cochaired the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), a position in which she served for 20 years. In 1925, she revisited the Land of Israel for the inauguration of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. From 1935–1937, she and her husband wintered in Rehovot, where at the same time a special residence was being built for them by renowned Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn. Vera became president of Jewish Child’s Day, of the Israel and British Commonwealth Association, and of the Israel and Sweden Association. During WWII, she became chair of Youth Aliyah. In 1949, her husband became the first president of the State of Israel; as the initial first lady, she volunteered to help rehabilitate those injured in Israel’s War of Independence (1947–1949) and fundraised to establish Tel HaShomer Hospital. In 1952, her husband died. As a widow, she continued devoting herself to social work and became president of the Israeli emergency response service Magen David Adom and headed the Disabled Soldiers Fund. In 1954, she fundraised in South America on behalf of Israel Bonds and the Weizmann Institute. She indited her posthumously published memoirs, The Impossible Takes Longer. She died of a heart attack in London and was buried beside her husband in Rehovot. Their Rehovot residence, Beit Weizmann, became a national site and featured on an Israeli postage stamp in 1991.
- Hannah Maisel-Shohat (1883/1890–1972 CE), a native of Grodno (Hrodna, Belarus), was raised in an affluent family and had 11 siblings. She joined as a youth the Po’alei Zion movement of socialist Zionists. Thereafter she was briefly imprisoned by the Russian imperial authorities and forced to emigrate, settling in Odessa, Ukraine. In 1905, she attended the Seventh Zionist Congress in Basel (Switzerland) as a Po’alei Zion delegate. She remained in Switzerland, where she studied natural sciences in Bern then gardening in Niederlenz. From 1907–1909, she studied agriculture at Besançon University in France, where she earned her doctorate. In 1909, she immigrated to the Land of Israel, where she toured Jewish agricultural communities and began working on a Lower Galilean farm near Sejera (the moshav Ilaniyah), the first socialist commune in the collective Jewish community (yishuv) in the Land of Israel. In 1911, she founded Havat HaAlamot, a women’s agricultural training program, at Kibbutz Kinneret on the shores of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee); the program had 14 students, including the poetess Rahel Bluwstein, and lasted until 1917. In 1912, she married Eliezer Shohat. In 1917, she was compelled to leave the Land of Israel and moved to London, England, where she met Vera Weizmann and Rebecca Sieff, with whom she would soon cofound the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO). In 1919, she returned to the Land of Israel. In 1920, she was elected to the first WIZO Executive. In 1921, she attended the Twelfth Zionist Congress in Carlsbad (Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic) and the WIZO conference that ensued, and implored the new organization Hadassah Canada to fundraise for a large and modern women’s agricultural school in the ancestral homeland. That same year, she and her husband helped found the first moshav, Nahalal. In 1922, she established the WIZO’s School for Home Economics in Tel Aviv. She helped establish women’s farms (Mishkei HaPo’alot) in Petah Tikvah and Nahalat Yehudah. In 1926, she founded and managed the women’s agricultural school in Nahalal, a position in which she served for 34 years. The school was later transformed into an agricultural and regional secondary school for youth of the Jezreel Valley. Hannah was a leading figure within the Mo’etzet HaPo’alot (Women Workers’ Council), and in this capacity helped organize the labor movement’s first conference in the country. In 1960, she retired and moved with her husband to Tel Aviv. She was buried in Nahalal beside her husband.
- A native of Malin (Malyn, Ukraine), Rahel Yanait-Ben-Zvi (Golda Lishansky) (1886–1979 CE) attended secondary school in neighboring Zhitomir (Zhytomyr). In 1905, she attended the Seventh Zionist Congress in Basel (Switzerland). In 1906, she cofounded with Dov Borochov and her future husband Yitzhak Ben-Zvi in Poltava the Russian Po’alei Zion movement of socialist Zionists. In 1908, she participated in the Second Aliyah (1904–1914) and immigrated to the Land of Israel, where she settled in Jerusalem. That same year, she cofounded and became a teacher at the Hebrew secondary school in Jerusalem’s Bukharan quarter (Gymnasia Rehaviah), the second modern high school in the country. At this time she Hebraized her name to evoke that of Hasmonean ruler King Yannai Alexander and to honor her father Yonah. In 1909, she cofounded (with Ben-Zvi, David Ben-Gurion, Manya Shochat, Israel Shochat, and Alexander Zaïd) the HaShomer self-defense association that guarded Jewish agricultural communities. In 1910, she cofounded and edited (with Ben-Zvi, Ben-Gurion, and novelist Joseph Hayyim Brenner) the first Hebrew socialist publication in the Land of Israel, Ahdut. From 1911–1914, she studied agronomy at University of Nancy in Nancy (France). During WWI, she returned to the Land of Israel, where she specialized at the Atlit experimental agricultural station under the direction of Aaron Aaronsohn, recruited volunteers for the British army, coordinated communications between HaShomer and the NILI espionage network, and was a Haganah paramilitary leader in Jerusalem. She also became a leader of the Women Workers’ Movement (T’nuat HaPo’alot). In 1918, she married Ben-Zvi. In 1919, she helped establish the Ahdut HaAvodah labor party. In 1920, she established and became principal of an agricultural secondary school for girls near the Talpiot neighborhood in Jerusalem. In 1925, she helped establish the Zionist Pioneer Women of America and Canada (Na’amat). In 1948, she helped establish the Ein Kerem agricultural youth village. In 1952, her husband became president of the State of Israel; as first lady, she assisted him in his official duties and ensured the presidential residence became a welcoming and accessible meeting place for all Israelis. In 1958, she was awarded the Henrietta Szold Prize. In 1963, she played an active part in the research institute Yad Ben-Zvi, named after her late husband. She also helped renew Jewish residency in the ancient Galilean town of Peki’in. Rahel maintained: “Our position, mine and that of Ben-Zvi, persisting from the times of HaShomer and the Haganah, was that it is essential to include the girls, and even to expand their roles in the army.” She indited Eli (with her husband), a tribute to their deceased son; Anu Olim (Coming Home) and Drakhai Siparti, memoirs; and Before Golda, a biography of Manya Shochat. In 1978, she was awarded the Israel Prize for special contributions to the society and state of Israel.
- Sarah Aaronsohn (1890–1917 CE), a native of Zikhron Ya’akov, was raised in a family of Zionist pioneers and farmers, and her parents had cofounded her birthplace. In 1913, her brother Alexander founded the Gidonim self-defense organization. Sarah’s formal education was incomplete, but she studied languages and became proficient in Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, English, and French. In 1914, her father arranged her marriage to Hayyim Abraham, an affluent and older Bulgarian Jewish merchant, and the couple moved to Istanbul (Turkey), though their union soon foundered. In 1915, after witnessing the Ottoman persecution and massacres of Armenians in Anatolia (Turkey) and Syria, she returned home and was recruited by her brother Aaron into the clandestine activities of the NILI (an acronym of the biblical verse “Netzah Yisrael Lo Yishaker”) espionage network, which supplied the British with military intelligence to help overthrow Ottoman rule in the Land of Israel. In his absence, she oversaw the underground group’s 40 agents and relayed in person sensitive and encoded information to the British warship Managam anchored off the coast of Atlit, later doing likewise via carrier pigeon to British intelligence operatives in Cairo, Egypt. She received financial aid from American Jewry—converted into gold coins—to assist the destitute collective Jewish community (yishuv) in the Land of Israel. In 1917, she embarked upon a secret mission to Egypt, where she visited her brother, consulted with British intelligence officers, and likely encountered T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). She was urged to remain in Egypt for her safety, but insisted on returning home. That same year, after Ottoman military authorities had uncovered the NILI spy ring upon intercepting a carrier pigeon, she was arrested and tortured for four days with the bastinado method wherein the soles of her feet were beaten; she was also tied to a gatepost of her home and whipped mercilessly by her interrogators. She disclosed no secrets. To avoid further torture at the Khan al-Pasha prison in Damascus, Syria, she shot herself to death with a pistol concealed in a secret panel in her bathroom. In 1991, her portrait appeared on an Israeli postage stamp. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom might have been dedicated to her. Annual pilgrimages to her grave in Zikhron Ya’akov are made on the anniversary of her decease. She is remembered today as a selfless heroine, a Jewish Joan of Arc.
- The daughter of Michael Marks, cofounder of Marks and Spencer, and a native of Leeds, England, Rebecca Sieff (1890–1966 CE) moved as a child with her family to neighboring Manchester, where she studied at Manchester High School for Girls. She later studied English literature at University of Manchester. In 1910, she married Israel Sieff, a close friend of her brother Simon Marks and of Chaim Weizmann. Rebecca joined the women’s Zionist group B’not Zion and helped lay the groundwork for the Balfour Declaration of 1917. In 1918, she became president of the Federation of Women Zionists of Great Britain and Ireland (FWZ). In 1919, she traveled with Vera Weizmann to investigate directly the situation of the collective Jewish community (yishuv) in the Land of Israel. In 1920, she cofounded (with Vera Weizmann, Hannah Maisel-Shohat, and others) the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO). In 1924, she became president of the WIZO, a position in which she served for 42 years. In 1926, she moved with her family to London, England. In response to the advent of Nazi Germany, she founded the FWZ’s Women’s Appeal Committee of the Central British Fund for German Jewry, which helped rescue thousands of women and children from Nazi-occupied Europe. She partnered with Recha Freier in advancing Youth Aliyah, helping Jewish youth immigrate to the Land of Israel. In 1934, she and her husband inaugurated the Daniel Sieff Research Institute in Rehovot in memory of their deceased son (the institution was renamed the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1949). In the postwar era, she was an active advocate on behalf of Holocaust survivors and against British occupation of the Land of Israel. In 1947, she joined Rahel Katznelson-Shazar in testifying before a United Nations special committee in the Land of Israel. In 1948, she immigrated to the Land of Israel, where she settled in Tel Mond. In 1957, Arab terrorists attacked her home, murdering her gardener. Rebecca traveled widely on behalf of the WIZO and helped organize its chapters worldwide. In 1950, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire. She was buried in Tel Mond. Sieff Hospital in Tzfat is named in her honor.
- Recha Schweitzer-Freier (1892–1984 CE), a native of Norden (Germany), attended secondary school first in Glogau (Głogów, Poland) then in neighboring Breslau (Wrocław). She studied philology at University of Breslau then in Munich, Germany. In 1919, she married Moritz Freier, a rabbi. Thereafter she followed her husband to a series of European locales: Eschwege (Germany); Sofia, Bulgaria; and Berlin, Germany. Recha became a teacher, poetess, and folklorist. Upon the advent of the Nazi brownshirts in Germany, she became disillusioned with the passive, complacent attitude of the assimilated majority of German Jewry and determined to act decisively. In 1932, she founded the Youth Aliyah (Jugend-Aliyah), an organization for the resettlement and agricultural training of Jewish youth in the Land of Israel. In 1933, she visited the Land of Israel, where she sought and received the assistance of Henrietta Szold, who set aside her reservations and agreed to direct the local bureau of the Youth Aliyah agency. That same year, the Zionist Congress endorsed her initiative, which became a large-scale operation. In 1934, the first organized group of young Jews departed Germany aboard the S.S. Martha Washington and arrived in Haifa harbor. In 1940, she fled Nazi Germany with her young daughter and more than 100 children and managed to reach Zagreb (Croatia). In 1941, she immigrated to the Land of Israel, where she founded the Agricultural Training Center for Israeli Children to educate disadvantaged children in kibbutz boarding schools. She had been able to secure passage for a majority of the Jewish children she had escaped with, and eventually received word that those she had been compelled to leave behind had all survived the war as well. From 1934–1948, she helped rescue 30,353 Jewish youths from Europe. In 1958, she founded the Israel Composers’ Fund to support original musical compositions. In 1961, she indited a children’s book, Let the Children Come: The Early History of Youth Aliyah. She also composed the librettos for two oratorios, Masada and Yirushalayim. In 1966, she founded the Testimonium Scheme to record in words and music seminal events in Jewish history, based on authentic textual sources; in 1968, the Testimonium debuted Jerusalem: A Pageant of Three Thousand Years of History at David’s Citadel in the Old City of Jerusalem. In 1975, she received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1981, she was awarded the Israel Prize for her special services to the society and state of Israel. She died in Jerusalem. In 2018, her portrait appeared on an Israeli postage stamp. The Recha Freier Educational Center at Kibbutz Yakum near Herzliyah and Recha Freier Square in the Katamon neighborhood in Jerusalem are named in her honor.
- The younger sister of Judah Leib Maimon, a rabbi and a Knesset member, and a native of Mărculeşti (Moldova), Ada Maimon (Ada Fishman) (1893–1973 CE) joined as an adolescent a youth group affiliated with the HaPo’el HaTza’ir labor party. In 1912, she participated in the Second Aliyah (1904–1914) and immigrated to the Land of Israel (joined by her older brother the following year), where she earned her livelihood as a teacher in a series of locales: Petah Tikvah, Rehovot, Nes Tziona, and Ben Shemen. From 1913–1920, she was a member of the HaPo’el HaTza’ir Central Committee. In 1914, she was dispatched by the Teachers’ Association to open a Hebrew girls’ secondary school in Tzfat. That same year, she and two friends visited on Lag BaOmer the tomb of Shimon bar Yohai on Mount Meiron, violating the ban on female attendance, which was soon nullified. She also became a leader of the Women Workers’ Movement (T’nuat HaPo’alot). In 1920, she attended the conference in Prague (Czech Republic), wherein the HaPo’el HaTza’ir and Tzi’irei Tzion parties merged, and was elected to the municipal council of the Jewish residents of Jaffa (the first woman elected to any municipality in the country). That same year, she participated in the founding conference in Haifa of the trade union Histadrut (General Federation of Jewish Labor). In 1921, at Givat HaMoreh in the Jezreel Valley, she founded the Mo’etzet HaPo’alot (Women Workers’ Council) and became its secretary-general, a position in which she served for five years. In 1930, she became a member of the Histadrut’s Executive Committee, a position in which she served for three years. In 1931, she was elected to the Executive of the Women’s International Zionist Organization. In 1932, she established the Ayanot Agricultural Secondary School for Girls (which later became coeducational) just west of Nes Tziona on land previously purchased and donated by the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF). In 1946, she became head of the Histadrut’s immigration department, a position in which she served for a year; during her brief tenure she visited Holocaust survivors in displaced persons camps in Germany and in British internment camps in Cyprus. In 1949, she was elected to the Knesset as a member of the Mapai (Mifleget Po’alei Eretz Yisrael) labor party, and served on the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. That same year, she and her brother changed their surname to Maimon to reflect their descent from the eminent sage Moses ben Maimon. In 1950, she spearheaded the Age of Marriage Law, defining the marriageable age as 17; in 1951, she helped pass a law proscribing bigamy. Ada was profoundly influenced by the religious Zionism of Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook and the Labor Zionism of Aaron David Gordon. She indited T’nuat HaPo’alot B’Eretz Yisrael; HaHalutzah B’Eretz Yisrael; Ayanot: MiMeshek Po’alot L’Beit Seifer Hakla’i Tikhon; Hamishim Shnot T’nuat HaPo’alot, 1904–1954; and L’Orekh HaDerekh: Mivhar Dvarim V’Igrot. She remained unmarried and childless. She is remembered today as a feminist pioneer and an indefatigable advocate for women’s economic, civil, and religious equality throughout Israeli society.
- Nehamah Leibowitz (1905–1997 CE), a native of Riga, Latvia, moved with her family to Berlin, Germany in 1919. She studied at University of Berlin then at University of Marburg. In 1929, she married her uncle Yedidyah Lipman Leibowitz. In 1930, she earned her doctorate upon completing her dissertation, “Techniques of Judeo-German Bible Translation in the 15th and 16th Centuries, as Exemplified by Translations of the Book of Psalms”. That same year, she and her husband immigrated to the Land of Israel, where they settled in Jerusalem. After her husband became blind and unable to work, she embarked upon a lifelong career as a professor of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and taught at the Mizrachi Women Teachers Seminary in Jerusalem, a position in which she served for 25 years. She also became a frequent radio commentator on the Israel Broadcasting Service. In 1941, she was invited to teach a six-month course in Tanakh for observant women from kibbutzim who would travel weekly to Jerusalem; in 1942, to meet the demand for ongoing instruction following the course’s conclusion, she began mailing her students stenciled study sheets (gilyonot) on the weekly Torah reading, a practice that endured for 29 years (thus comprising more than 1,500 study sheets) and that expanded to include thousands of recipients, effectively becoming a correspondence course and thereby making Nehamah a pioneer in distance education. Nehamah revised her study sheets into essays that were published as pamphlets in Hebrew and in English and distributed by the World Zionist Organization’s department of education and culture in the Diaspora. In 1956, she was awarded the Israel Prize for education. In 1957, she became lecturer of Tanakh at Tel Aviv University, achieving tenure as a full professor in 1968. She also taught at Bar-Ilan University, in Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s overseas program, at the orthodox Jewish girls seminary Machon Gold, and at Yeshiva University’s men’s religious college (kollel) in Jerusalem, Gruss Kollel. In the mid-1960s, she compiled her pamphlets and indited her quinquepartite masterwork Iyunim Hadashim, collected essays on the weekly Torah reading. The work was translated from Hebrew into English, French, Spanish, and Dutch, and still remained in print many decades later. She also composed Leader’s Guide to the Book of Psalms, published by Hadassah’s education department; Gilyonot L’Iyun B’Seifer Yirmiyahu, on Jeremiah; and Lilmod U’L’Lammed Tanakh, collected essays on teaching Tanakh. In 1980, she was awarded the Liebman Prize for disseminating Torah knowledge. In 1983, she was a corecipient (with Ephraim Urbach) of the Bialik Prize for Jewish Thought from the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality. In 1990, she coproduced (with Moshe Ahrend) for the Open University a bipartite course on Solomon Yitzhaki’s Torah commentary, Peirush Rashi LaTorah: Iyunim B’Shitato. She further wrote teachers’ guides and essays, and her commentary on the Passover Haggadah was posthumously published as Haggadat Nehamah – Studies on the Haggadah from the Teachings of Nechama Leibowitz. She accented active learning and earned a reputation for her humility (always dispensing with her own formal titles), love of storytelling, and participatory classroom. Her pupils comprised Jews from across the religious spectrum and from all walks of life. Even in her retirement she continued to instruct clusters of students at her modest, one-bedroom apartment, wherein her library of books in Hebrew, Yiddish, German, and English attested to her broader interests in Jewish studies, philosophy, and world literature. She opposed modern academics’ biblical criticism but was receptive to literary analysis of the Tanakh; a notable shortcoming of her exegesis was her discounting of the potential insights into Scripture afforded by the fields of history, geography, and archaeology. Nehamah was a fervent Zionist and refused to leave the Land of Israel despite being offered lucrative teaching appointments abroad. She staunchly rejected feminism as such, but favored equal rights and remuneration for women in society generally while upholding traditional gender roles within Jewish practice specifically. She died in Jerusalem and was buried on Har HaMenuhot; per her request, the epitaph on her tombstone summarizes her succinctly: “Teacher”.
To engage with Jewish history in its totality means to reckon with the lives and accomplishments of its countless women, whose stories have often been neglected. Thankfully, and rightfully, this has changed in contemporary times, allowing students and teachers to fill lacunae in knowledge and facilitate comprehension of significant events, movements, trends, and tendencies throughout Jewish history. Contemplating the role of salient Jewish women enriches our understanding of Jewish civilization across time and space, and restores to prominence leading historical figures from the formerly overlooked half of the Jewish people.