They Called Her Rebbe


While rifling through the bargain bin at your local bookstore for a dime novel to read on the plane, you come across what looks like just the right smut: a classically pulpy woman on the cover, eyes cast down to the text in front of her. Even the title, with its exaggerated cursive font, seems right: They Called Her Rebbe.

Not a bodice-ripper after all, this 1991 release tells the story of Chana Rochel, the 19th-century girl Talmudist known as “the Maiden of Ludomir.” While Jewish boys were spirited from their families to serve the czar and Hasidism swept Jewish practice from Kiev to Chernobyl, Chana Rochel became a controversial but charismatic Jewish leader.

After a solitary girlhood, Chana Rochel argued with her father, rabbis, and yeshiva-bocher fiancée for the right to study the way men do, jettisoning “the noodle board,” in the words of I.B. Singer’s Yentl. The book—written with a slight pop-psychology bent—is part hagiography, part egalitarian soapbox, and seems aimed more for the gender studies classroom than the beach. But with the side story of Chana Rochel’s very long engagement (reader, she moved to Palestine instead), They Called Her Rebbe almost makes good on its pulpy cover.

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