Why we named our daughter ‘Asenath’

9/1/2018 11:08:20 AM

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Benjamin Kweskin
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“Spell it out,” “Say it again.” “Ase…?” “What?”

Sure, I suppose these are typical, reasonable responses from family, friends, coworkers, and strangers when they ask what our daughter’s name is. Only a few weeks ago my wife gave her second natural birth to a baby girl and we couldn’t be happier—even our two year old son is excited—he always asks to see her, kisses her, wants to help feed her, “My turn!” and lets us know that she is crying, “Baby crying, what’s wrong, baby?!”

Even before we had children, my wife and I loved the name Asenath, alternatively spelled Asanath, Asenith, Asnat, and in Hebrew, Osnat. We quickly decided “no” to the latter—we didn’t want to give our child a name in suburban America that ended in “snot.” That would just be cruel.

For my wife and me, most of the important women in our lives have been strong, independent feminists and we wanted a name that would provide a positive female role model and honor her with a unique, esoteric Jewish—and a Kurdish name.

Neither my wife nor I are Kurdish. But for nearly two decades I have been involved academically, professionally—and most importantly—personally with Kurdish-related issues and in 2013, five days after we married, my wife and I spent one year living in Iraqi Kurdistan.  This issue is close to our hearts and we consider it bashert (meant to be) that the first female ‘rabbi’ is from Kurdistan. For us, there is no better way to honor this connection and to pay homage to while simultaneously infusing our values to such a beautiful name and historical figure.

Most people—Kurds and others—are unaware that there is such a strong Jewish history in Kurdistan, from biblical times through the present. It is said that the first Israelites were taken into captivity during the Assyrian exile and taken to the “cities of the Medes.” There was even a Jewish kingdom (Hadyab/Adiabene) for a brief period of time in the 1st century CE led by Queen Heleni that helped their starving brethren in Judea fight against Roman occupation.

Jews lived throughout Kurdistan through the early 1950s, when they were expelled en masse by the central government in Baghdad. One of the last remaining (visible) Jewish sites in northern Iraq is the synagogue of the prophet Nahum, which currently lies in a dilapidated state in the Chaldean village of al-Qosh, though some international NGOs are working to restore this site. I wish them only success and am willing to assist in any way I can to make sure the endeavor is successful.   

The name Asenath first makes an appearance in Genesis as Pharaoh ‘gifts’ the Egyptian daughter of a priest to Joseph, who has gained the ruler’s trust. Soon thereafter, she bears the man known for his flamboyant jacket two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh, which would become two of the twelve tribal leaders of the future people of Israel. Today, Jews the world over repeat the phrase “may you be like Ephraim and Manasseh” during the Shabbat blessing over children.

But we did not name our little girl after Joseph’s pagan-born wife. We also did not want to name a girl after the daughter or mother of so-and-so—in other words, only famous for who they married or birthed.

With great respect to the legion of Jewish women named Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, we traveled down a road far less traveled and ultimately opted for a lesser known woman of valor.

Most people believe the first female rabbi to be the esteemed Regina Jones, given smicha (ordination) in 1935 Germany. While R’ Jones was technically the first female (Reform) rabbi to be given such a title, there were at least a few other women before her that were acting rabbis such as the so-called “Maiden of Ludmir” Hannah Verbermacher, and Lily Montagu. In fact, someone preceded all of these woman—by centuries.

Born circa 1590, Asenath Barzani was the daughter of the highly respected Rabbi Samuel ben Nethanel Ha’Levi Barzani.

(BK: the surname Barzani references the specific region where they lived—Barzan—which lies a couple of hours north of the modern-day capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil. It also connotes the name of the Barzani tribe).

Others contend that Rabbi Samuel was from Mosul while others still maintain that he was from Amedi (Amediya), a picturesque town populated on top of a plateau surrounded by beautiful valleys and streams formerly populated by a sizable Jewish population through the mid-1800s. There were at least two synagogues in Amediya—one in the city itself and one in the valley below.

Asenath Barzani’s narrative begins with the patriarchal sentiment that Rabbi Samuel did not have any sons “because of his sins” and Asenath was merely his smartest, most capable daughter. He taught Asenath how to read and study Torah, Talmud, Mishna, and Kabbalah, “I grew upon the knees of sages, pleasing my late father greatly with my wisdom, he taught me nothing but the holy work of studying the Torah day and night,” she recalled in one of her remaining letters.

Eventually her knowledge became well-known throughout the wider Middle East. When it was time for her to marry, her father chose his brightest pupil, Rabbi Jacob ben Abraham Mizrahi. Radical for perhaps any time period, Rabbi Samuel stipulated in the ketubah (marriage contract) that they would not be betrothed unless his daughter would focus her time as a Torah/Talmud scholar as opposed to typical domestic work.

After Asenath’s father passed away and while her husband was away serving the needs of Kurdistan’s other remote Jewish communities she effectively became the religious leader of Amediya and the surrounding villages, and was acting Rosh Yeshiva (head of the religious school). She was also given the honorific title Tanna’it which references the early Tanna scholars who taught Mishna; however in at least one correspondence with a certain Rabbi Pinhas Hariri, he referred to her as rabbi (teacher), “My rabbi and teacher, we are always willing to serve you with pure faith.”

It is also said that while Rabbi Jacob was away, the Tanna’it wrote several petitionary letters to the Jewish community of Baghdad and elsewhere, asking for financial and religious assistance for her impoverished community. These letters were not only informative but lyrical, stylized, even poetic.

Said to be prolific in Kabbalah in particular, Asenath was perhaps most known for surrounding legends and folktales involving her. One recalls her yelling holy words to fend off an attacker, while the most famous, “Flock of Angels,” recalls that during one Rosh Hodesh (new month) she saved a burning synagogue in Amediya while using Kabbalistic incantations. Indeed, it is said that the community was so grateful to her for saving the synagogue that they renamed it after her. It may be the first time a synagogue was named after a woman.

Asenath’s influence was so powerful that century’s later, Jewish women in Iraqi Kurdistan continued to teach and lead their communities in different capacities. While unconfirmed, some Kurdish locals contend that her grave still exists today in the middle of the town.

Of course, while my wife and I do not literally expect our daughter to use Kabbalist chants to stop burning buildings, and do not necessarily need her to become a rabbi, we did seek to impart the values of this strong, unique proto-feminist woman, the first female ‘rabbi’ in Jewish history. Our expectations remain high nonetheless.