Queen Esther and 6 Other Extraordinary Jewish Women
Jewish history abounds with strong Jewish women who ensured the survival of the Jewish people.
Here are 7 remarkable Jewish women whose legacies continue to shape us today.
Queen Esther, the famous heroine of the Purim story, was a Jewish orphan selected by King Achashveirosh to be his wife as he ruled over a mighty empire centered in ancient Persia. When the king’s wicked minister Haman proposed murdering the Jews, it was Esther who intervened, at great risk to her life, begging the king for mercy on her people.
There’s a lot that people didn’t know about Queen Esther. For one, her name wasn’t Esther. It was Hadassah, but she took the more Persian-sounding name as her public face. When Esther was chosen to be queen, she thought it prudent to reveal as little about herself as possible. Her new husband was brutal and had recently murdered his first wife, Vashti. Yet Esther, alone in the palace, never forgot who she was.
Jewish tradition teaches that Esther ate only seeds and legumes, cooked in her own private kitchen, so she would never violate the laws of kosher food. She secretly counted the days, keeping track of when it was Shabbat each week.
Perhaps it was this steely determination that gave Esther the courage to confront King Achashveirosh after he signed an order to murder all the kingdom’s Jews. Turning to her Jewish community outside the palace walls, Esther asked that every Jew fast and pray for her success. Then, she gathered up her courage and risked the king’s wrath and certain death by entering his chamber unbidden. Avaditi, avaditi she told her cousin Mordechai: if I perish, I perish. Esther knew that some things are worth risking all.
Sarah Schenirer was born in 1883 in Krakow, Poland, into a Chassidic Jewish family. At that time, the expectation was that Jewish boys would learn about their religion in special Jewish schools, and that Jewish girls would attend publich schools and be instructed in Jewish thought at home by their parents. This model may have worked in previous generations, but Sara Schenirer saw firsthand how Jewish girls were becoming woefully ignorant of Jewish topics and starting to assimilate. She saw a crisis arising.
Sarah herself left school at 13 and became a seamstress. Unlike many of her peers, she continued to read Jewish books and educate herself about Judaism and Jewish thought. As girls went to her to commission new clothes and for fittings, Sarah began to wish she had a way to show her clients the beauty of their heritage. Older girls merely mocked her, so Sarah decided to start educating young children and dreamed of opening a Jewish girls school.
She went to visit the Belzer Rebbe, the spiritual leader of Sarah’s community, to seek his blessing. Many thought she would fail: she was divorced and had no children of her own, and she was proposing something radical that even the greatest Jewish leaders of her time had failed to enact. The Rebbe, however, offered her two powerful words: Beracha v’hatzlacha - Blessings and success. In 1917, Sarah Schenirer opened a school with 25 pupils called Beis Yaakov.
Soon, other towns were contacting Sarah asking for help in opening their own Beis Yaakov schools for girls. By 1937, two years after Sara Schenirer’s death, there were 248 Beis Yaakov schools educating 35,000 girls. Today, Beis Yaakov schools continue to thrive the world over. In Israel alone, there are over 100 Beis Yaakov schools, educating over 15,000 girls and Sarah Schenirer is universally recognized as a visionary educator who saved the Jewish people.
Born into an assimilated Jewish family in Budapest in 1921, as a child Hannah Senesh was drawn to Zionism and local Zionist youth group activities. When she was 18 she made aliyah (moved to what would soon be the state of Israel), settling in Kibbutz Sdot Yam, where she wrote poetry and a play about kibbutz life.
In 1943, with World War II raging, Hannah volunteered for the British Army, which presented her with a grave proposal: would she be willing to parachute into Nazi-occupied Europe in order to help Allied efforts to organize local anti-Nazi resistance movements? Hannah agreed and became one of 33 soldiers chosen for this top-secret, dangerous mission. In March 1944, she was dropped into Nazi-controlled Yugoslavia, where she fought with Tito’s resistance troops for three months. She then crossed the border into her native Hungary, where she was caught almost at once.
Viciously tortured over a period of months by the Hungarian police, Hannah refused to give any details about her mission. On November 7, 1944, at the age of 23, Hannah was executed by firing squad. She refused an offer to be blindfolded, staring clear-eyed at her murderers instead.
After her death, the following poem was found in her prison cell:
One, two, three… Eight feet long
Two strides across, the rest is dark…
Life is a fleeting question mark
One, two, three… Maybe another week
Or the next month may still find me here,
But death, I feel, is very near.
I could have been 23 next July
I gambled on what mattered most, the dice were cast. I lost.
In 1950, Hannah Senesh’s remains were returned to Israel and buried on Mount Herzl in Israel. Many of her poems, as well as the diary she kept, are classics in Hebrew literature today.
Dulcea of Worms
Much of what we know about Dulcea, a Jewish woman who lived during the Middle Ages in the German city of Worms, comes from the poetry of her husband, Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah of Worms (1165-1230). Her accomplishments and character traits convey a picture of a remarkably active community leader, leading a thriving Jewish community against the background of the reign of terror of the Crusades.
Dulcea supported her family and community in one of the only means of business open to Jews at the time: moneylending. Dulcea managed her community’s resources, taking charge of neighbors’ funds and investing them jointly at the most profitable rates. It wasn’t her unusual business acumen that impressed others, however, as much as her intense spiritual life.
Following the devastation of the First Crusade of 1096, which saw the brutal murder of thousands of Europe’s Jews, Dulcea and her husband became members of an intellectual group that studied and penned Jewish texts. Dulcea taught women and helped them express their spirituality.
As well as business enterprises, Dulcea was an accomplished craftswoman and embroiderer. She sewed books and did the needlework required to join panels of vellum to create forty Torah scrolls. She was also a matchmaker and helped Jewish brides prepare for their weddings, and performed tahara, bathing the dead and preparing the deceased for burial.
Dulcea was murdered, along with her daughters Bellette and Hanna, in November 1196, when two armed men broke into their home, attacking the family, as well as a teacher and a number of students who were staying with the family at the time. Dulcea’s husband survived the attack and wrote about it for posterity. Though he didn’t write that the attackers were Crusaders, many historians have posited that it might have been errant Crusaders who attacked Dulcea, perhaps because they knew of her money lending activities and hoped to find treasure in her home.
In the time of Judges in ancient Israel, Deborah was a prophet and a leader, a military strategist who helped Israel fight and prevail against the repressive Canaanite king Yavin. While there are seven female prophets in the Torah, Deborah stands alone as a female military leader in ancient Israel. The Torah describes her in impressive terms: “Deborah was a prophetess, a fiery woman; she was the judge of Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4).
The Torah records that Deborah sat in judgment under a palm tree, and everyone who had disputes would bring them to her to adjudicate. Jewish tradition gives some clue as to why Deborah was seen as such a remarkable judge. She was a learned woman, yet her husband, Lapidot, was an unlearned, simple laborer. Deborah longed to elevate her husband, and she did so in an unusual way. Seeing that he was skilled at making wicks for oil lamps, Deborah encouraged Lapidot to bring some of his wicks to a place of worship in the town of Shiloh and donate them for holy use there. She didn’t urge him to do anything very different or make radical changes in himself. Instead she identified what his strengths were and encouraged him to make the most of them.
Under her guidance, Lapidot began to make innovation in his wicks, boosting the light at the sanctuary in Shiloh. Deborah skillfully encouraged her husband to maximize his best qualities, and put them to ever higher use. This was the wisdom of her judgment: discerning the strength inside people and encouraging them to use them for good.
Shlomtzion, Queen Salome Alexandra
The fact that Queen Salome Alexandra was called “Queen” at all was controversial: her husband, Judah Aristobulus I, led the Jewish people during a tumultuous period of internecine fighting and strife in the First Century BCE. He was the first leader of Israel since the destruction of the First Temple to claim the title “King” for himself. When Judah Aristobulus died, Salome married his brother, Alexander Jannai, a cruel and wicked ruler.
For years, Alexander Jannai was absent, off fighting in foreign wars, and Queen Salome ruled in Israel alone, a wise and judicious ruler. She removed blasphemers from positions in her government, replacing them with the greatest rabbis and scholars of the day, including her brother, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach. Rabbi Shimon, along with Rabbi Joshua ben Gamla, instituted a rule that became a model of Jewish life for thousands of years, mandating that each town and city set up Jewish schools to educate all the local children, educating poor children for free if they could not afford tuition. So popular was Salome that she soon became known as “Shlomtzion”, or “Peace of Zion”.
Alexander Jannai did return to Israel and took power from his wife. He used his time in power to reverse many of her progressive decrees and put hundreds of Jewish scholars to death. After Alexander Jannai died at the age of 76 BCE, Queen Salome regained power and ruled for a further nine years until her death in 67 BCE. She strengthened Israel’s military, built fortresses, and Jewish tradition recalls her reign as a time of peace and prosperity, when the crops were miraculously abundant and prosperity reigned.
Sarah Aaronsohn was part of a large family that escaped anti-Semitic persecution in Romania by moving to the land of Israel, settling in and helping to build the nascent Jewish town of Zichron Yaakov in Israel’s north. Sarah was born there in 1890, and grew up cultured and educated, fluent in several languages; she was also an accomplished rider and a skilled shooter. Her older brother Aaron became one of the world’s foremost agronomists, and Sarah often accompanied him on trips to gather plant samples and help him with his research.
During her childhood, the Ottoman Empire ruled over what is present-day Israel, and the local authorities were ill-disposed towards Jews, making life as difficult and possible for the Jewish community there. As an adult, Sarah got an even more visceral insight into the cruelties of the Ottoman Empire. Travelling by train from Istanbul to Zichron Yaakov in 1915, she saw first-hand the violence in what would soon become the Armenian Genocide, in which one million men, women and children were murdered by Ottoman forces.
By then World War I was in full force, with Turkey fighting on the side of Germany. Sarah Aaronsohn was convinced that if they won the war, Turkey would kill the regions Jews, just as they had murdered their Armenian minority. Sarah, her brother Aaron, their siblings and some friends decided to form a secret espionage network to spy on Turkish military movements and relay information to Britain. They named their group NILI, an acronym for Netzach Yisrael Lo Yeshaker, “The Glory of Israel Does Not Deceive” (I SAmuel 15:29). Soon, NILI was the largest pro-British spy ring in the entire Middle East.
Unsuspected by Turkish authorities, NILI’s young members took note of troop and ordinance information and sent encoded messages to British forces. When her brother Aaron left to aid the British in Egypt, Sarah took over NILI, running the spy ring from her family’s home. In 1917, one of NILI’s secret messages was intercepted by Ottoman authorities. Sarah refused British advice to leave and save herself, and remained in Zichron Yaakov. She was arrested on October 1, 1917, and brutally tortured for five days. She refused to divulge the identities of other NILI members.
Finally, on October 6, 1917, Sarah was told she was to be transferred to Damascus for yet worse torture. Fearing she might break down and betray her fellow spies, Sarah asked for permission to return home one last time. As she was led down Zichron Yaakov’s main street, she sang a song about a little bird flying away: a secret message to her fellow NILI spies that their ring was broken. Once in her house, she secretly removed a hidden pistol from its hiding place in the wall, locked herself in the bathroom, and shot herself.
Following Britain’s victory in World War I, Britain formally thanked NILI, saying that without their activities, Britain would not have been able to win the war.