Asenath Barzani was the daughter of the eminent Rabbi Shmuel B Netanel Ha-Levi of Kurdistan (born 1560– death ca 1635/1670?) and she was a renowned Kurdish Jewish woman who lived in Mosul and died in Amadiya. Her writings demonstrate her mastery of Hebrew, Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalah.
She was considered the first female rabbi of Jewish history by some scholars; additionally, she also were the oldest recorded female Kurdish leader in history. Of other scholars, Barzani was though given the title Tanna’it, a very rare honour for a Jewish woman. The title of Tanna'it, and her role as head of a yeshiva a rabbinical school, is not equivalent to being a rabbi, and hence she is regarded as a rare example of a female Rabbinical Teacher (but not an actual rabbi which equals a judge) in pre-20th century traditional Judaism. Her father, a scholar and mystic with a large following, aimed to rectify the plight of his brethren, namely, the dearth of educated leaders. He built a yeshiva in Mosul where he hoped to train young men who would become community leaders and scholars. Since he had no sons, he trained his daughter to be a learned scholar of the highest order. In the letter she wrote:
"I never left the entrance to my house or went outside;
I was like a princess of Israel...
I grew up on the laps of scholars, anchored to my father of blessed memory.
I was never taught any work but sacred study, to uphold, as it is said:
“And you should recite it day and night (Joshua 1: 8)” (Mann I: 511).
Asenath was married to one of her father’s finest students, Rabbi Jacob Mizrahi. She described the conditions of their marriage in the continuation of the above letter:
“And he (my father) made my partner swear never to allow me to engage in work, and thus he did as he was commanded. From the start, the Rabbi (Mizrahi) was involved in his studies and did not have time to teach the students, so I would teach them in his stead, a helpmate...” Thus Rabbi Mizrahi agreed to conditions whereby Asnat would never have to spend her time on housework, because she was a Torah scholar like himself. After her father died, her husband technically became the head of the Yeshiva, but in fact it was Asenath who taught the students who had come for rabbinic training.
When her husband passed away, the leadership of the yeshiva naturally passed to his widow, and since she already had been the students’ teacher, the transition was natural and painless. Unfortunately, neither her father nor her husband had been successful fundraisers and the yeshiva was always in financial straits. Asenath wrote a number of letters requesting funds in which she described the dire situation that had befallen her and her children. Her home and belongings had been confiscated, as had their clothing and books. She was still teaching Torah, but the debts were adding up and, as a woman, she felt it was inappropriate for her to travel in search of financial support. In letters addressed to her, one can see the respect and admiration of fellow rabbis from far and near.
Few of her writings are extant, but one can perceive in them her complete mastery of Torah, Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah and Hebrew, for her letters are lyrical as well as erudite. A recently discovered manuscript provides additional insight into her life. She successfully ran a yeshiva which continued to produce serious scholars, including her son, whom she sent to Baghdad upon request, where he continued the dynasty of rabbinic scholars.
In addition, there are numerous stories about her, most of which have been found in amulets, which allude to her supernatural powers which should though be taken in the pinch of salt.
My own words: Working about Asenath Barzani was very interesting and I gained much information I hardly even knew about the once a very strong Kurdish-Jewish community in today's Kurdistan, thanks to a long phone conversation I had with Rabbi Isak and everybody in the Swedish group "Rörelse mot antisemitism" who helped me with any information, they could get. Also there were hardly any referense of how she looked like, so I kind of took a liberation giving her the most modest outfit I could, though Kurdish women historically and culturally never hidden their faces regardsless of religions. But if I one day find any trace of referense, I will definitely re-draw it again, if I had to!
Sadly though the yevisha/synagouge no longer exist neither in Mosul nor in Amadiya, not even the trace of ruins, so in the picture, I used reference from the once giant powerful fortress in Amadiya, where Asenath died in arround 1635 or 1670, exact what date she died remains a mystery.