Regina -- a Review

Across the United States, and spanning the countries, wherever Jews live today, there are now thousands of female rabbis. Most are serving under Reform or Conservative rubrics.

But until relatively recently, the concept of a female rabbi was anathema and, for vast numbers of congregations, close to unthinkable. Regina, a stellar documentary/narrative tale created after some 16 years of research by Budapest filmmaker Diana Groo, tells the true story of Regina Yonas, who became the first female rabbi after dogged effort and endless appeals to congregations in Europe.

The filmmaker was touched by hearing about Regina, but she was faced with a significant problem in her efforts to create a tribute to this amazingly determined girl, whose desire to become a rabbi began in 1907 when she was but 5 years old. Her family did not discourage her, but the school years and formative time she spent was not kind to this attractive, smart young girl.

Among the problems Groo faced in crafting this fascinating piece of biography was that, because Regina 'disappeared' in Auschwitz in the thick of waning WWII, after a short stay in Theresienstadt, only one photograph of the woman survived the Nazi deportations, concentration camps, village exterminations, and book-scorchings in the near-total onslaught against European Jewry 1938-1945. After the Nuremberg Laws, Jews were forbidden to be involved in photography.

Following her passionate belief that the story of this pioneering woman had to be told, Groo did years of research in country after country, library after library, speaking with eyewitnesses (many now dead since her endeavor first began) and elderly one-time schoolmates or colleagues in whatever place she could locate them. Groo used authentic papers, letters, diplomas and documents; these proved easier to find than witnesses and film clips that might communicate the entirety of the life of a private warrior for truth and teaching. Film footage is authentic, and it too, according to the filmmaker, presented difficulty in obtaining the needed permissions. Not all libraries and archives were delighted with the effort to redredge memories of their still-echoing, shameful past.

The mournful, accented voiceovers are done by producer George Weisz's actor daughter, the luminous Rachel Weisz (now gracing Broadway in the Pinter drama, Betrayal, with her actor-husband, Daniel Craig). Elderly Jewish grandmothers -- including the filmmaker's own -- supply the bridging voiceovers of the various characters that peopled Regina's life, to exceptional effect. Groo, in person, is also modest yet forthcoming about her heroic efforts to memorialize this woman.

It emerges throughout the film, which takes the form of a real-life story cum documentary, that Regina became a rabbi, eventually, as a partial result of not only her vast scholarship and her ordination at the hand of Leo Baeck, but owing to the successive deportations and murders of waves of male rabbis as the 1930s wore on. More important, perhaps, was the gracious modesty of this brave woman, whose commitment was not to being a first of anything, but wanted only to teach, enlighten and comfort her people.

As the community leaders and their rabbis were successively depleted, eventually Regina was permitted to lead and encourage congregational Jews, her lectures being remarkable and solidly based in Torahnic teachings, contemporary scholarship, and her own hard-won wisdom.

One of the most affecting scenes shows hundreds of frightened, bedraggled Jewish deportees as they shuffle out of hated cattle cars into concentration camps. The voiceover tells us that Regina would seek out those most forlorn and hopeless looking, in order to boost their optimism and confidence that "This will soon end. We will have a better future."

One of the most upsetting elements of the story of this remarkable woman is the fact that before this filmmaker undertook the vast research necessary to bring Regina to life so brilliantly, the world, and particularly the Jewish world, had forgotten her entirely. It was only a chance exposure to the picture of the serious-faced Regina, and some reminiscences by old WWII Survivors, that ignited the investigation, and eventually, this touching, important, searing document on one of the multitudes who were extinguished by the remorseless Reich.

Shown at the current Lincoln Center Jewish Film Festival, historians, Jews, film buffs and the larger community should make tracks to find this lucid exposition when it next appears, in the theatre or on the small screen. Groo has accomplished a worthy and instant treasure of documentation.

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