Osnat and Her Dove: The True Sto­ry of the World’s First Female Rabbi

Sigal Samuel; Vali Mintzi, illus.

By – April 2, 2021

In six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Mosul (in today’s Iraq), there lived a Jew­ish girl who longed to be a Torah schol­ar. Fac­ing dis­cour­ag­ing obsta­cles, but gift­ed and per­sis­tent, she would not sur­ren­der her dreams to a life of enclosed domes­tic­i­ty. That girl was Osnat Barzani (15901670), and a new pic­ture book writ­ten by Sigal Samuel and illus­trat­ed by Vali Mintzi relates the true sto­ry of the extra­or­di­nary woman’s life. Osnat and Her Dove is a rare work, one whose lit­er­ary and artis­tic elo­quence are as out­stand­ing as its inspir­ing les­son that study­ing, teach­ing, and lead­ing are not the exclu­sive province of men in the Jew­ish sphere.

There are no extra­ne­ous words or images in Osnat and her Dove; each page adds a lay­er to the reader’s insight into Osnat’s jour­ney. The pro­tag­o­nist first appears on the title page as a young girl with long black braids hold­ing a mas­sive vol­ume and look­ing upwards, an indi­ca­tor that she will find ways to use her intel­lect. A visu­al clue of her cur­rent envi­ron­ment appears when she looks out a win­dow at the busy street: a man walks with books while a woman head­ed in the oppo­site direc­tion car­ries a baby on her back and anoth­er child clings to her dress. To rein­force this mes­sage about the community’s hier­ar­chy, Mintzi shows a moth­er bird fol­lowed by her chicks. Will Osnat be able to alter her own path, giv­en the inflex­i­ble expec­ta­tions that sur­round her?

Osnat refus­es to mar­ry any­one who will not accom­mo­date her desire to study. Despite some ini­tial resis­tance, her father, Rab­bi Samuel Barzani, ulti­mate­ly sup­ports her in this demand. Jacob, Osnat’s hus­band, becomes a true part­ner, enabling her to both raise a fam­i­ly with him and con­tin­ue her Torah study. Samuel does not offer an unre­al­is­tic pic­ture of Osnat’s suc­cess, which is clear­ly only pos­si­ble because her father and then her hus­band are unusu­al­ly sup­port­ive. Osnat her­self is aware of her own excep­tion­al­ism. When Jacob dies, even while she grieves, Osnat aspires to take con­trol of her­self and of her husband’s lega­cy. Her male stu­dents accept her author­i­ty and the yeshi­va, found­ed by her father and then led by her hus­band, con­tin­ues to thrive. No one had ever heard of a woman lead­ing a yeshi­va any­where in the world.” To Osnat, those words are only a chal­lenge to be con­front­ed with her own inter­nal strength and under­stand­ing of the Torah.

Osnat’s father is a con­stant pres­ence, even after his death. When she dreams of him, his word­less smile encour­ages her to pur­sue her goals. When she enacts her des­tiny by teach­ing her male stu­dents, speak­ing Hebrew words to them, “[s]he felt com­fort­ed, as if her father were close by.” Scenes com­bin­ing the intel­lec­tu­al and mys­ti­cal sides of Osnat inte­grate these aspects of her char­ac­ter, mak­ing it clear to read­ers that learn­ing Torah comes from both her heart and her mind. The dove of the book’s title becomes a recur­rent motif, perched on Osnat’s arm at her wed­ding and posed on the car­pet of the yeshi­va where she teach­es. When it appears that a hunter has killed the dove, Osnat mirac­u­lous­ly heals the bird, adding to the respect and awe sur­round­ing her: Rab­bis from near and far began send­ing her let­ters. One called her, my moth­er, my rab­bi.’” As incred­i­ble as her heal­ing pow­ers is Osnat’s abil­i­ty to dis­solve entrenched oppo­si­tion to her gender.

Mintzi’s illus­tra­tions have an aston­ish­ing beau­ty. Dark blue back­grounds and white stars give a feel­ing of illu­mi­nat­ed mys­tery, while inte­ri­or scenes con­vey domes­tic activ­i­ty and intense Torah study in col­ors as bright as a medieval man­u­script. In addi­tion to being a rab­bi and a schol­ar, Osnat is a daugh­ter, wife, and moth­er; her young chil­dren accom­pa­ny her as she teach­es and learns. This remark­able book con­veys both Osnat’s unusu­al life, full of con­tra­dic­tion, and the truth about women’s poten­tial. When encour­aged to flour­ish, Osnat and oth­ers like her can heal the world.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes an author’s note with addi­tion­al his­tor­i­cal context.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

Osnat and her Dove: The True Sto­ry of the World’s First Female Rab­bi is a cap­ti­vat­ing, beau­ti­ful, children’s book writ­ten by Sigal Samuels and illus­trat­ed by Vali Mintzi. This delight­ful and at times whim­si­cal tale is based on the real-life fig­ure of Osnat Barzani (15901670), a Kur­dish Torah sage, who served as a promi­nent com­mu­nal leader and the head of a Yeshi­va, and who lived an extra­or­di­nary life that defies expec­ta­tions and lim­i­ta­tions placed on women through­out most of Jew­ish his­to­ry. The tale takes us into Osnat’s life sto­ry, her schol­ar­ship, her rela­tion­ships, and her report­ed mirac­u­lous abil­i­ties. Along the way, chil­dren get to read about Kur­dish Jew­ish life, its busy mar­kets, and halls of study. Osnat’s resilience, courage, and wis­dom offer chil­dren a remark­able por­trait of Jew­ish lead­er­ship and a won­drous tale of Sephardic Jew­ish life.