How the Pandemic Helped Me Embrace Being a Rabbi's Wife

·8 min read

I was 23 years old when I arrived on the Upper East Side as an awkward bride—marrying a young rabbi, and with him, all that came with synagogue life.

The traditional responsibilities of a rabbi’s wife, colloquially in Yiddish the “rebbetzin,” are to visit the sick, attend weddings, funerals and charity dinners at her husband’s side, host refined Shabbat and holiday dinners, teach religious studies and inspire the women in the community—a spiritual First Lady. It is life in a fishbowl: one is expected to smile, nod, hold hands, listen; to be present. She is “always called upon to be hospitable, amiable, friendly, and above all tactful,” one rebbetzin, Ruth Wolf Levi, wrote in 1955. The lofty expectations of the American rebbetzin transcended cultural trends; many women gravitated to the status of being a rabbi’s wife, yet chafed at the high bar set for them. One Orthodox rebbetzin, Libby Klapperman, wrote in a satirical letter in 1969, “She who is required to be the best dressed, most frugal, best cook, most slender, best speaker, most glamorous, and most articulate, charming, talented, relaxed, pleasant, well-adjusted, happy partner.”

Somehow, it sounded both religiously meaningful and socially glamorous to my naive 23-year old self—though it quickly dawned on me that no matter how warmly congregants greeted me, my life would now be in the limelight. Nothing is private, not my waistline, not my dress choices, not my time—and not my home, where we began to host Shabbat and holiday dinners, which became one of my main projects.

But I embraced it. I tried my best to be a gracious hostess; I baked challah and I cooked elaborate Ottolenghi-inspired meals with a side of Ashkenazi delicacies. I ironed table linens and laid out my precious wedding china. Three years into our marriage, I was working full-time as a journalist, and on Friday afternoons, I would race home from the office, pregnant and with a toddler at home, my anxiety peaking as the subway got delayed, my mind racing through all the food that I needed to cook before sunset, before the clock would strike and Shabbat would begin and nothing could be done. These pre-pandemic days come to me now as a blur of sweat, of crippling insecurity, constant self-consciousness, notebooks in which one side of the page have story notes and the other side Shabbat menus.

And it was strange because while my writing often focused on women’s issues and gender discrimination, I wondered why, in my personal life, I was bowing to a parochial role prescribed for me: a demanding volunteer role, one that was largely defined by marriage and less by merit. As described in a 1832 Christian minister’s manual: a clergy wife ought to view herself above all as “wedded to her husband’s parish, and to the best interests of his flock.”

Oh, but I failed at it. I never managed to do it all, the superwoman act, the ability to work several shifts: to go to my office daily and be a mother and to make every bereavement visit and to call people when they’re sick; to go to every wedding and to teach the Torah to women and to always look just-so. I tried my best to multitask, but found myself overworked, run ragged. I slowly learned how to grit my teeth and smile, no matter what we were enduring. I understood that the real challenge of being a clergy wife was less in social obligations and more in the silent emotional labor.

Before marriage, I had a rather rosy idea of what it meant to be a rebbetzin—conjuring images of an elegant hostess, warm homemade challahs, an effortlessly dressed table—and through these props, the promise of a spiritual high. But the reality was much closer to me in a headscarf standing barefoot in my tiny kitchen, juggling aluminum pans, red-faced from the oven heat, stressing that we did not, in fact, have enough table settings for all the guests expected and that the meat burnt and that a child was crying.

I grew to resent it. All I wanted on Shabbat was to turn off my brain, to sleep. Quiet. A real Sabbath. Then, the pandemic granted me my secret wish. That sparkling and exhausting life stopped. The heart-stopping pace of social events, hosting people around my table, rushing between subway trips from the office to my apartment to kiss my children before once again heading out to a social function.

Suddenly, there was an eerie silence. And amid the terror of those first days of the pandemic, of learning to live in a new reality, of waiting at home for my husband Benjamin to return from officiating funerals alone, of listening to the emergency calls late into the night, it was quiet. “You must be enjoying the break from hosting,” a friend texted me during the lockdown in New York City.

“Yes, actually,” I wrote back. But after a year of online conversations in lieu of communal gatherings, I wanted—desperately—to take that wish back. Something shifted in me. I realized the utter futility of so much of what we call “online conversation,” which is rarely dialogue and more often opportunistic screaming into the wind, the whoosh that our newsfeeds make as we refresh them.

And so, to cope with isolation, I found myself starting to make guest lists. Numerous colorful menus. We ordered a new extendable dining room table, despite not knowing when we would have guests again to sit around it. I gazed at Pinterest tablescapes and tried to figure out how to replicate them myself on a budget.

As vaccines became available in New York, as we flirted with the promise of normalcy—the call of the rebbetzin beckoned, in all its vintage glory. I spent less time on Twitter and more time writing invitations. “Will you join us for Shabbat dinner?” “Come over for cocktails! Anytime!” “Let’s do a text study class.”

“What’s gotten into you?” Benjamin asked a month ago, watching as I pored over our social calendar and my inbox—he was pleasantly surprised, not used to seeing me so invested in the dream he's had for all these years.. “We need to bring people back together,” I said, typing away furiously.

But this time around, I’m not trying to be Martha Stewart. Benjamin and I have re-negotiated what communal hosting means: We buy challah from a local bakery, order food when we need to, use disposable dishes, and serve one pared-down course, buffet-style. All the pretenses of hosting, which we had previously felt compelled to offer—the multi-courses and Bloomingdales’ china—have faded; now the focus is less on the show and more about the guests themselves. And unlike in past years, when I fussed over an elaborate menu, shuffling back and forth from the kitchen with endless platters—I now sit back, Benjamin and I at opposite heads of the table, he pours the wine; we talk, ask, sing, listen.

It’s still hard, it’s still a sacrifice in time and energy, but a year of isolation has made me realize that it’s necessary. The very role that I had chafed at now seems like the most important thing I could be doing; it is about being a community organizer, gathering people around ideas, and doing it on one’s own terms.

The religious obligation of hospitality, according to the Talmud, is tantamount to welcoming the divine presence itself. The latter is something we traditionally do in a public setting, in a house of worship; but the former is something much more intimate. At our table last week, one newcomer-guest turned to another with a question that young American Jews seem to engage in as a sort of sport: “At what point does criticism of Israel become antisemitic?” 

His words hovered. My husband and I glanced at the reactions of our guests, all total strangers to one another, unsure of others’ politics. Then, the other guest responded, carefully. His view, it turned out, did not align with that of the inquirer—and so it was. The two exchanged their claims for their respective arguments, with restraint, nodding, hmm-ing, listening, and then, it was time for dessert, time for Birkat Hamazon, the long prayer we intone after meals.

On social media, many try to describe the post-pandemic “return to normal”—but I find that many writers define this thaw, this emergence from the cocoon of our homes, in rather superficial terms. Returning to normal is not just squeezing yourself back into formal clothing and relearning how to apply mascara and how to small talk again.

It's also about making unlikely connections, sitting next to people in the pews and at a dining table, no matter how heated and divisive the world around us. It’s about learning how to exchange ideas respectfully, how to bond with others with meaning, with kindness, and instead of a screen between us—just a silver cup filled to the brim with wine, a bouquet of flowers, flickering candles, a table—an altar of its own.

Originally Appeared on Vogue