How we got beyond study and sponge cake
You’d think I’d have a snappy answer by now. Whenever I say, “I’m married to a rabbi” or, at his synagogue, “I’m married to the rabbi” I know what’s going to come next.
“So, are you the rebbetzin?”
And then whoever’s asking laughs and laughs. Rebbetzin, you see, is Yiddish for “rabbi’s wife.” But “rebbetzin” also means a whole lot more. Really, what these folks are saying is, “Isn’t it hilarious to think of a spunky young woman like you, with fake red hair and cowboy boots—and didn’t you also play ice hockey?—in the storied role of the congregational first lady and devoted helpmeet who serves as Sisterhood president, hosts delightful onegs in her home, and teaches b’nei mitzva students for free?”
I get the joke. It’s why my friends gave me a custom hoodie that says “REBBETZIN” across the front, right where it might say “NOTRE DAME.”
But the answer to “Are you the rebbetzin?”—and all that it implies—is hardly a simple no. My role at my husband’s temple in Manhattan—a mellow, friendly, heimisch place—is not at all formal. No official duties are expected of me; I go to events because I want to. We don’t have congregants over for dinner, because let me tell you, not even the curious desire to see the rabbi’s apartment will get people to come to Brooklyn. And honestly, my husband’s congregants were just so happy that he got married, I could probably star in a porno about Christmas and they’d still invite me to Rosh Chodesh.
But to say “No” to this question, as in “No, I’m not that kind of lady,” seems disrespectful, dismissive, unsisterly. Especially given what I’ve just learned by reading The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life. Historian Shuly Rubin Schwartz makes it quite clear that my fore-rebbetzins were hardly handmaidens of Congregation Beth Stepford. Rather, many were leaders in their own right, both inside and outside their congregations: teaching, lecturing, starting schools, engaging in philanthropy, founding and helming major national Jewish organizations—and having people over for study and sponge cake.
All of a sudden the term “rebbetzin” doesn’t sound so quaint, and so saying, “No, I’m not the rebbetzin” would be truthful, in that “No, I’m not Eleanor freaking Roosevelt” way. Apart from regular services and occasional shiva calls, I’ve attended exactly one hunger action event at the synagogue and have given a single talk to Sisterhood. I tinker with my husband’s temple newsletter articles (he asks!), but hey, that’s how I make a living. I do take some credit for inspiring my husband to talk more from the bima about reproductive rights. But otherwise I am, by historical comparison, a major rebbetzin slacker. (Though for the record, I am fairly certain I am the only person who completes this trifecta: rebbetzin and card-carrying member of both the Friars Club and the DAR.)
We have come a long way, haven’t we? It stands to reason, of course, that what it means to be a rebbetzin has changed, that I’m not expected to be a lay pillar for the ladies of the congregation or compile their cookbook. After all—as Schwartz documents in detail—over the past century, the role of the rebbetzin has evolved with the role of women in general. Earlier on, when few married women of means worked outside the home, the position offered opportunities they might not have otherwise had. (Amusing old-school anomaly: when we got engaged, the temple newsletter ran a blurb noting that I “intended to continue [my] career after marriage.” My husband was glad to hear this.) Schwartz writes: “Women succeeded in forging consequential lives through the ‘wife of’ role when direct avenues of power remained largely closed to them.” As those avenues began to open up, however, ambitious women no longer needed their rabbi’s-wife status—and they could get paid for their life’s work, not to mention be ordained as rabbis themselves—so the more formal expectations of the role began to fade.
Modern as our times may be, however, I’d argue that “rebbetzin” is still a role. I could choose to be like Howard Dean’s delightfully dorky wife, with her utter and unapologetic lack of interest in public life. But given that I have made myself a presence at the temple in the first place—because I want to—I have to learn names, be friendly, make political decisions. (Can I sell my book at the book fair even though it’s not about a Jewish theme—or is that nepotism? How out should we be about our ongoing fertility drama?) I become a public figure just by showing up.
Here’s the problem: the fact that the rebbetzin’s role is no longer formal makes it that much harder to figure out what its expectations are—and how to define the role for myself.
It might sound like I’m saying “Women’s lib has given us too many choices!” Uh…no. I’m not advocating a return to the 1920s, when, at the first-ever symposium on “the wife of the rabbi,” her duties—maintaining an elegant home, an exemplary family, and a solid presence at the synagogue—were explicitly outlined, and when one prominent rebbetzin pronounced that “a rabbi’s ability to choose a ‘good’ wife took precedence over his expertise as a sermon writer.” (Of course, I think my husband excels at both.)
But I read with envy Schwartz’s section about the 1950s, an era that saw unprecedented rebbetzin bonding, at least within more liberal denominations. There was a broad sense of solidarity among rebbetzins, who were more publicly honest than ever about the best-foot-forward, life-in-fishbowl downsides of the job. Specific groups even formed to train rebbetzins for the demands—both psychological and Martha-Stewartical—of congregational life.
Groups? Training? When we got engaged, I Googled “rebbetzin,” hoping to find some sort of helpful FAQ (“Do you hold your spouse’s hand on temple grounds?” “What do you say when someone tells you they don’t like his tie?”) But most of what I came across were either goofy attempts at satire, odes to frumtastic Lubavitcher wives, or posts about Esther “The Rebbetzin” Jungreis, who is not exactly typical. I’d grown up in a temple with a visible—and craft-loving—rabbi’s wife, but all that suggested was that I was going to have to learn needlepoint. There is an e-mail list for Reform rabbis’ spouses, but it’s infrequently used and often focuses on children or issues at massive suburban temples. (When I once answered an open question saying that I was proud to watch my [new] husband lead services, I basically got the response, “Yeah, that’ll wear off.”) Books? Well, there’s Silvia Tennenbaum’s 1978 novel Rachel, the Rabbi’s Wife,” in which “titties”—Rachel’s—appears on page 1. Her husband’s particulars (page 3), I’ll spare you. There are also the Ruby, the Rabbi’s Wife murder mysteries (Hold the Cream Cheese Kill the Lox, for one). The only guidance they offer is that fat-free, salt-free matzo balls can kill you.
To be fair, other rabbi’s wives—at my parents’ place, my husband’s friends—offered their ears and shoulders. And I keep saying I’m going to get a monthly rabbi-spouse group together in New York, though I don’t necessarily have burning questions to ask them and I don’t need constant support. But it would be nice to have some source of collective guidance, a sense of belonging to a ragtag rebbetzin auxiliary. (Maybe it’s different for rebbetzins in the suburbs, where synagogues may be even more deeply embedded in community life.) In general, though, I do believe that sense of collective purpose—divergent though our individual choices may be—is what’s been lost to rebbetzins amidst the welcome, indispensable societal changes of the last hundred years.
“Though women continue to marry rabbis, it remains to be seen whether the rebbetzin role will survive in the twenty-first century,” writes Schwartz. Right, but it depends what you mean by “role.” As long as women marry rabbis—never mind the matter of men marrying them—there will be a rebbitzin’s role. By definition. But it’s up to us to figure out what it means. And we’re working on it, especially with the help of the Internet.
She wasn’t around when I first Googled, but now there’s Rebbetzin Rachel, educated and with-it, and the “Renegade Rebbetzin” (“I am rebbetzin, hear me roar”), an Orthodox feminist equally conversant with halacha and 24. They’re not complaining about annoying congregants…well, mostly not:
I heard a really funny comment made by Bullhorn Sadie, whose hearing is such that she tends to “whisper” in a tone of voice usually reserved for pep rallies…”OH, I LOVE TO WATCH THE RABBI WITH THE CHILDREN. [insert affirming Gospel-style grunts from other Sadies] IT MAKES HIM HUMAN.” Human, Sadie??? Did you just say human??? Because otherwise my husband seems like what, a canine? A fish? A lump of wood? An extra-terrestrial?…Like most individuals who inhabit my shul, Bullhorn Sadie thinks of my husband as super-human. Because he is the rabbi, after all.
Mainly, though, these rebbetzin are blogging about the role of women in Judaism, the tensions between traditional observance and modern mores. It’s exactly what their predecessors did on paper, or in class, though perhaps with more frequent use of words “femme-licious” and “Oprah.” Seems to me that rebbetzins today demonstrate leadership, carve out their roles, and build community online. I hope the 2026 followup to Schwartz’s book includes a chapter on the Internet, which by then, will no doubt be wired directly into our brains. Know what? I think I’ll e-mail the RenReb right now.