Reading Jonah with Israel’s Leading Female Religious Educator

September 25, 2020 | Sarah Rindner
About the author: Sarah Rindner is a writer and educator. She lives in Israel.

While few in America may have heard of her, the religious educator Yemima Mizrachi has a large and diverse following in Israel, with thousands (in pre-coronavirus times) attending or watching online her weekly sermons and reading her newsletters. Thanks to the recently published translation of her writings about Yom Kippur, titled Yearning to Return, some of her output is now available to an English-speaking audience. In her review, Sarah Rindner delves into Mizrachi’s analysis of the book of Jonah, which is read in its entirety during the holiday’s afternoon service.

Several chapters of Yearning to Return analyze the prophet Jonah and his reluctance to speak to the people of Nineveh. For Mizrachi, Jonah is an elitist intellectual whose response to finding himself in the belly of a whale is to construct an exquisite prayer-poem. The people of Nineveh are deeply flawed, yet their simplicity and human vulnerability redeem them.

Although Mizrachi herself has a more sophisticated intellectual background than might meet the eye (in addition to her Jewish learning, her father, a Rothschild scion, taught her Latin, French, and Arabic as a child, and she is a Hebrew University-trained attorney), she is on the side of the people. As she writes, “God tells Jonah that even beasts and even people who do not know their right hand from their left are great in His eyes,” which is one reason the story is read on Yom Kippur.

Yearning to Return is ultimately a tribute to ordinary Jews whose religious commitments may or may not be motivated by the loftiest religious principles, but who nevertheless seek God during the High Holy Days.

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