Osnat Barzani: Her Dove, Her Story and Her People

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Many historical figures were reputed to be great beauties, from Helen of Troy and Cleopatra to Marie Antoinette. Many historical figures were reputed to be great scholars, from Plato and Aristotle to Adam Smith.  We know more of the latter because knowledge and wisdom are more easily preserved than appearance.

She should be better known

Osnat was brilliant and beautiful. I wrote about her in an earlier post.  Leading scholars and rabbis addressed her as ‘teacher’, ‘master,’ rabbi’, and more.  She was a  poet and a “Rosh Yeshiva,” head of the rabbinical academy. She fell into deep poverty trying to raise funds for the academy.  All her possessions, even clothes were confiscated by debtors.  A would-be rapist claimed her beauty was irresistible.  She fended him off through the use of holy names.

In addition to being a sage, Asenath was also beautiful.  A Gentile was attracted to her, and tried at night to sneak onto her roof, with evil intentions.  She immediately pronounced the names of holy men, which left the Gentile hanging on the beams of the roof, unable to move.  In the morning, lots of people gathered to see, but no one could remove him.  The governor of the town begged her to release the Gentile, but she refused, saying that “…since he came to me with the intention of corrupting my morals, he shall remain hanging in his place.”  The governor swore that if she set him free, the governor would hang him publicly, upon which she released him, “…and he was hanged from a tree to the amazement of all the people in the town.”

Adam Smith

She had many accomplishments.  The Jews and Muslims of Kurdistan loved and honored her.  A folk tale describes how Osnat walked from Mosul to Amadiya to save a synagogue from fire.  In one version, the flames are extinguished by a flock of Houris, the beautiful maidens who accompany the Muslim faithful in paradise.  Contemporary Muslim Kurds speak proudly of her, offering her as proof that Kurdistan has been a good place for its Jewish population.

Osnat’s story needs to be better known.  She deserves to be one of the great figures of Jewish culture and lore, along with other great scholars and wonder-workers.  Until recently, she was mostly hidden in academic books and journals.  Online searches, if properly phrased, could pull up some information, one source a duplicate of the other.

A children’s book

A 30 hour walk

In 2021 Sigal Samuel, an Iraqi Jewish author published a children’s book Osnat and Her Dove.  Well-written and beautifully illustrated, this book brings Osnat to life.  In doing so, it reveals an important aspect of Jewish heritage, and of women’s accomplishments.  If you have children or grandchildren, nieces or nephews between the ages of four and eight, this is a good book to read with them.  It’s a great way to introduce them to this oft-ignored facet of women in history, and Jewish culture.

Quantum Cannibals is a fantasy novel.  Its violence makes it appropriate for an adult audience.  Osnat and Her Dove is a gentle children’s story. Both honor the historical Osnat Barzani.  I recommend you read them.

What's your take?