LONDON — The first ordained woman rabbi did not consider herself to be a pioneer, an icon or a feminist. According to Hungarian filmmaker Diana Groó, she simply believed she was born to be a rabbi.
The hitherto untold story of Regina Jonas (1902-1944) is brought to life onscreenin Groó’s sensitive poetic documentary, “Regina.” It pays tribute to an inspiring individual whose short but influential life has been beautifully constructed out of scant visual material — there is only one surviving photograph of the Berlin born Jonas.
Actor Rachel Weisz, who provides the voiceover for Regina in the English version of the film, describes her as the most significant female figure in 20th century Judaism. And yet making the documentary was an immense challenge for Groó: there was no longer anyone alive who had known Jonas. The project was also affected by financial problems until George Weisz, Rachel’s father, and a friend and admirer of Groó’s work, decided to lend his support as executive producer.
Speaking to the Times of Israel from Berlin, where she was working on the German version before attending a London screening later in the week, Groó explains that she first came across Regina Jonas’s story in 2005 when she met Reform Rabbi Elisa Klapheck at the Amsterdam Jewish Film Festival.
Klapheck recommended a biography she had authored, “Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi,” but it would take Groó a few years to read it. She was captivated and decided to make a film about Jonas.
“I was amazed, not because she was the first woman rabbi, I was amazed by her personality and extraordinary humanity,” says Groó.
Although the book was obviously formative background research, Groó had to work out how to use the written interview material that Klapheck had managed to acquire in person, on screen.
Visually, Groó was clear what she wanted and what she did not want.
“I didn’t want talking heads,” she says. Instead she chose to focus on Jonas’s story with no contemporary interviews or commentators. The result is a finely crafted, combination of black and white stills and images that evoke both Jonas’s Jewish life and times as well as that of early 20th century Berlin.
Groó explains she tried to recreate Jonas’s life from unknown sources, acquiring footage from private collections, accessed from international archives. She then played with some of the material, “Because I knew that I couldn’t show her, it was a slow process. But I realized that if I show women characters it doesn’t matter if it’s her or not. I may only have that one photo of her [in her rabbinical robes] but I want the audience to have the feeling that she might have been there [in the footage] as one of the characters that I show.”
Groó says the sound design took almost as long as the visual part of the film. Considering the footage was silent, Groó and her sound designer had to work out what sounds were worth hearing, in order to create atmosphere. The correct blend of voiceovers was also essential and Groó has used both professional and non-professional voiceovers to achieve this.
Non-professional voices include that of her own grandmother, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor, who had the experience in her voice that Groó was after, a friend of her grandmother’s, and George Weisz, who voices Leo Baeck, the rabbi, scholar and leader of Progressive Judaism to whom Jonas appealed for ordination.
In 1942, prior to her deportation to Theresienstadt, Jonas collected all her documents including letters, articles, her writings and the official documents of her 1935 Liberal ordination from the Liberal Rabbis Association and took them to the Neue Synagogue for preservation. Miraculously, Groó says, they survived and were later discovered by American Reform Jewish researchers, before Berlin’s unification in 1989.
Jonas died in Auschwitz in 1944. “She was brave,” believes Groó. “She had the possibility to leave Germany yet she chose to stay with her people, with those who needed her help. Although I could read her ordination, I don’t think it was the document that made her a rabbi; it was the letters that were written to her, in the main by ordinary people, which testify or prove that she really was a very good religious leader.”
“Regina” is Weisz’s first foray into film production and he has been overwhelmed by its critical reception at film festivals worldwide. Last year it won the Lia Award (Jewish Experience Award) at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Versions are currently available in Hungarian and English, Hebrew subtitles are being planned, and it will be premiered in Germany in the autumn.
Regina Jonas wrote, “My faith and my calling from God, my love for people” were what prompted her to become a rabbi. Groó says Jonas did not want to be famous, but simply wanted to fulfill her mission in life.
One could speculate this is why her story is largely unknown, because she chose not to champion her own cause.
“That’s the point, that’s why she is exceptional. I think she was modest and I really admire her. Her story maybe be important now for feminists, for Jewish women but I think that her devotion, her belief in humanity has a wider universal message beyond just that of religion,” says Groó.
“Regina” is screened in London through May 28 at JW3.