What Happens When the Myth of the Obedient, Docile Jewish Husband Gets Busted
The Tattler: TV chef Nigella Lawson, tabloid fodder after a public dust-up with art-mogul ad-man hubby Charles Saatchi, is not alone
In case you find yourself less drawn to British tabloid click bait than the rest of the planet (“Katie Holmes Seen With No Makeup!” “Gwyneth Paltrow Is Wearing Shoes and Also a Dress That Is a Colour!”), allow me to describe its latest offering. A middle-aged couple, well groomed and obviously affluent, sits at one of the outdoor tables of a chichi London restaurant. Glasses of wine and water are before them, although no sign of food—they are either at the very beginning or very end of an undoubtedly lovely meal.
But then things get not so lovely. The man roughly grabs the woman’s nose, at one point bizarrely thrusting his finger into her nostril. He’s leaning in aggressively, she is near tears. He grabs her throat with one hand, then both, appearing to squeeze. She looks terrified, unable in several shots to meet his eye. Bystanders at the restaurant later claimed that the altercation lasted approximately 27 minutes, an almost unbelievable length for an argument in a public place. Apart from snapping a few surreptitious photos, none of the other diners attempted to intervene. (A few days later, she had moved out.)
The man is advertising legend and Patron Saint of Brit Art Charles Saatchi. The woman is his wife, famed chef and media superstar Nigella Lawson.
It’s the incongruity of these characters playing out this particular domestic drama that seems to have British op-ed columnists and section editors of women’s-interest pages in such a tizzy. Here in the United States, but especially in the U.K., Nigella Lawson is widely heralded as the perfect woman: gorgeous, brilliant, accomplished, funny. She grew up in a rich and powerful family (her father is Nigel Lawson, chancellor of the exchequer under Margaret Thatcher; her mother the heiress socialite Vanessa Salmon) and managed to become richer and more powerful in her own right by doing something faultlessly, almost absurdly feminine: looking sexy while whipping up incredibly delicious food. She seems like every man’s dream woman, and that’s precisely why this incident is so unsettling; if this sort of thing can happen to the divine Nigella, what about the rest of us lesser mortals?
But there’s another level of discordance and discomfort at work here: Saatchi and Lawson may be a famous power couple, but they are also a famously Jewish one. For some of us, that’s a whole other ball of wax.
There’s a line we like to tell ourselves about Jewish men: that they are docile, humble, utterly in thrall to their wives, whose every whim they obey as if it had been handed down from Sinai itself. We grow up hearing jokes about how the role of the Jewish father is a traditionally a silent one, and how our culture, despite the vestiges of patriarchy inherent in its traditional religious rituals, is essentially a matriarchal one; the man may be the boss at work, but the woman is the boss at home. “Go ahead and date the gentiles,” my female relatives would tell me laughingly, “but make sure you marry a Jewish man, because they make the best husbands.”
Except, of course, that some of them don’t. Not every Jewish man sees it as his mission in life to smilingly (or kvetchingly) obey, let alone to inhabit a role best described as a cross between Alan Alda and a never-empty ATM machine. Some Jewish men drink, some gamble, some are addicted to drugs. Some of them cheat and steal. Some of them are emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive to their partners. To pretend otherwise is a textbook example of how even the most positive stereotypes—who wouldn’t want to be married to a sensitive pussycat who gives you whatever you want and never drinks his salary away?—can be incredibly damaging. Domestic violence is isolating by definition, but for a Jewish woman, raised to believe that this is the sort of thing that only happens to other people, it can feel downright anomalous; not “what’s the matter with him?” but “what’s the matter with me? What can every girl I went to Hebrew School with do that I can’t?”
Which is why it’s so important, as a community, to unpick this stereotype from our psyche once and for all. Most Jewish men make wonderful husbands; many do not. We may cherish our culture and our vision of marriage, but not at the expense of turning a blind eye to what may be in our midst, happening to our daughters and sisters and nieces and aunts. A Jewish woman who finds herself trapped in an abusive relationship needs to know the same thing as anyone else in a similar situation, be she old or young, rich or poor, famous or obscure: She is not alone. She has us.
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