June 3

1900, 1924, 1972


There are the theorists of Women's Lib, who write books, or sit in academic ivory towers. There are the activists of Women's Lib, who throw themselves under royal horses, or chain themselves to railings. And then there are the Liberated Women, who simply live their lives, and deal with whatever comes along the human path in human terms.

Such a human being (who happened to be female [though being female at that epoch made what she did even more remarkable]) was Mary Henrietta Kingsley, born in Cambridge on October 13th 1862. Her father was the novelist and war correspondent George Henry Kingsley, the brother of the better-known author and clergyman Charles Kingsley - so her growing up an intellectual should not be surprising. But it was. She received no formal education at all, beyond basic literacy and numeracy - girls didn't, in those days, while her brother did. And why did she need an education, when her frail mother needed caring for, and this was a daughter's role?

But her mother died in 1892, when Mary was just thirty; and her father too, in the same year, leaving behind his unfinished chef d'oeuvre, a detailed study of the "fetishes" of the African tribes. Mary decided to finish it for him, and set off for the Canary Islands, diarising everything she saw and heard, teaching herself to write beyond mere literacy. In 1893 she went to Cabinda, on the Angolan coast, and from there through Old Calabar in southeast Nigeria to the island of Fernando Po. The following year, after a brief visit home, found her roaming along the lower parts of the Congo River, now appointed the official collector of specimens (beetles and freshwater fishes especially) for the British Museum. By December she was in the French Congo, and in early 1895 Gabon, bark-canoeing along the Ogowé River (her spelling), through the country of the Fang, a tribe with a reputation for cannibalism, but apparently no taste for English women, though her book recounts the sorts of adventures that would be turned into a movie if she had been Indiana Jones. But she endured, and survived, and loved every minute of getting to know these fellow-humans, and continued on to Corisco Island, and climbed Mount Cameroon (the tallest mountain in West Africa at 14,435 feet), and paid her way by trading British cloth for ivory and rubber.

In 1896 she returned to England, to publish a highly contraversial as well as controversial book, "Travels in West Africa" (how can anyone speak about those blacks as though they were proper human beings? they are barely more than apes and have only just descended from the trees? they have fetishes, not proper religion like we Christians... and a woman, too, going to those places...), and to travel the rather less civilised England to lecture on what was now her specialism, until she could stand the place no longer.

I think MK would have hated this illustration!
It says everything that she lived and wrote against
So, in 1899, she went back for what would be the last time, a journalist now, with an editor and a salary, dispatched to Simon's Town in South Africa to report on the progress of the Boer War. What exactly she was doing, working as a volunteer nurse, and in a Boer rather than an English military hospital, was not something that her editor was able to explain; and anyway, he was having enough difficulty trying to explain why he had hired the author of that disgraceful new attack on European attitudes and policies in Africa, "West African Studies", published the same year. He would probably have sacked her, but news came back to England that she had contracted typhoid, which was rampant in the military hospitals. She died on June 3rd 1900, aged 38, and was buried at sea, as she had requested.

You can read the full text of "Travels in West Africa" by clicking here; "West African studies " by clicking here.


K, Joseph K and Karl Roßmann, simultaneously went missing, disappeared without trial or process, or became lost, possibly in a nearby castle, possibly in America (you can look up all those literary allusions for yourself); today in 1924.

The request to destroy (burn?) his manuscripts, and Max Brod's "betrayal" was it (that was the word I used when Nemo did the same for Tomas Dudando in "A Singular Shade of Grey")? What lay behind Kafka's request? Genuine humility? Fake humility? A sense of being so superior to the rest of humanity that he wouldn't have his great works soiled by being left with them to ignore, misunderstand, mis-represent (all of which has happened)? A contempt for those works, failures every one? Primo Levi threw himself down his stairwell (on April 11th 1987, as it happens; not today) because, three decades after the Holocaust, and his personal testimony at the trial of the Human Race, he couldn't accept that there were still no properly appointed judges, still no verdict, still no likelihood of any verdict ever being carried out, and only the endless repetition of the same crime all around him - he could see no point continuing, had no wish to inhabit a universal Auschwitz, and brought his own life to an end. But his life, not his works, which have outlived him, or should I say survived him?

They give away copies of "Jewish News" at Stanmore Library on Fridays, and I usually notice the headline, because they are stacked by the door, but equally usually walk on by - the only time I have ever taken one was when they announced the Aliyah 100 last year, and my cousin Mike Prashker was among the named.

On May 11th 2018 I took home a copy, because the headline announced the UK's first "female Orthodox Rabbi" (which may be slightly different from an "orthodox female Rabbi" but I leave that to you to determine for yourself).

Dina Brawer is her name, and she wants to be known as a Rabba rather than a Rabbi, which is entirely correct Hebrew as well as being entirely correct feminism (and todah rabbah for leaving off the final Hey, which would only cause phonetic confusion. Her husband is Naftali Brawer, who used to run the Northwood shul apparently, but is now at Elstree and Borehamwood, that cute little stibl-shul on the hill-slope before Allum Lane.

Dina may be the first in the UK, but she is not the first of all. Lila Kagedan achieved that in 2016, likewise smicha'd with Avi Weiss at Yeshivat Maharat in New York.

I should add that the Rabbinical Council of America responded to Lila's ordination in the approved manner, albeit without fire-pans or almond-rods: ordination and hiring of women Rabbis officially prohibited. Go tell that to the folks at Mount Freedom in New Jersey who went ahead and hired her!

But all of this is only the orthodox world, and Judaism is a much broader synagogue. It was today, in 1972, that the first woman Rabbi of any denomination was ordained in the United States, Sally Preisand by name, in Cincinnati - an important date no doubt for Americans, but there had already been a woman Rabbi in Europe. And no, not Beruriah (see January 12), as long ago as the 2nd century CE, because she was never officially a Rabbi, because the orthodox will never give smicha to a woman, even though she gets quoted in the orthodox anthologies; no, I am referring to Regina Jonas, who was ordained in Germany and served as pulpit Rabbi in Theresienstadt 
(see December 27)

The photo was taken outside Hebrew Union College. Sally is at front centre, but all the women surrounding her were Rabbinical students, who would go on to obtain smichah soon afterwards, and serve in varying capacities in the Reform, Renewalist or Reconstructionist movements of America (only one man in the picture, you may have noticed)

The fire-pans and almond-rods are an allusion to the rebellion of Korach and his followers against the "Rabbinic authority" of Moses. In those days a cherem meant a cherem; you didn't just get a press statement, like Lila Kagedan, nor even excomunicated, like Baruch Spinoza (see February 21), you got... but you can read it for yourself, in Numbers 16

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