At the age of 22 I became a Rebbetzin by proxy: I was the Rabbi’s wife.
We had been living in Israel and with my husband finishing his rabbinical training, moved to Buffalo Grove, Ill., to take our first pulpit.
You know how men say, “We’re pregnant?” So it was OUR pulpit. I helped with classes, hosting Purim events and leading Passover Seder. In a sense I realize now we were functioning as co-rabbis. Except a.) he had the training, not me, and b.) we’re Orthodox.
So I’m not a rabbi, nor have I ever aspired to be one. But the question is, “Am I a rebbetzin?”
I’ve grappled with this question for many years and still don’t have it nailed. When we moved from Buffalo Grove back to our shared hometown of Cleveland two years later (I was 24), I had gotten so used to people affectionately calling me “rebbetzin” that the next time I was standing in Unger’s Kosher Bakery & Deli, and someone called across the checkout line, “Rebbetzin,” I casually turned around to respond. Meanwhile, they were addressing my 70-year-old high school principal, Rebbetzin Sorotzkin, who was a REAL rebbetzin complete with a 24 karat gold Lithuanian accent.
Who, me? I was just fixing my hair.
That first year we moved back I decided not to work. I was expecting our fourth child and figured I’d earned the right to chill. After that I taught in high school, and then a couple years after that, we started our congregation and I joined the payroll as an educator.
So now am I a rebbetzin? Do I want to be one?
On the one hand, rebbetzin generally means “rabbi’s wife.” Which I am. But it also means someone who teaches Torah and is knowledgeable and righteous and makes rugelach. Independent of her husband. Which is me, except the rugelach, and the righteous part is under construction. A part of me does NOT want to be called rebbetzin, because somewhere in my mind that means I need to be a.) 80 years old b.) overweight and c.) a good rugelach baker. Which I’m not.
But if rebbetzin means a strong, empowered Jewish woman who is knowledgeable and kind and teaches Torah and tries to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable (thanks MLK Jr.), well that’s me. At least I hope it is.
Rebbetzin, to me, still connotes something you are by virtue of what your spouse is. Something about this doesn’t sit well with me. The last relic we have of this is the office of the first lady. Not all rabbis’ wives are the rebbetzin type and most that I know don’t want to be called that. Some prefer to be called Mrs. or just by their first names. That would be me.
So what of us women who teach Torah for a living, but whose educational background is Jewish education and self-taught psychology, and who don’t have an official title? Are we rebbetzins or not? Do our husbands’ professions really matter? Should they?
I’m in Israel as I write this column and I met a 16-year-old girl, the daughter of a friend. She and I really connected and talked about lots of things over Shabbat. I had my funky/hippie boho chic look going, and on Sunday morning, she said the dreaded thing: “So, are you a rebbetzin?”
I stumbled a bit, then answered honestly, “Yes. I’m a rockin’ rebbetzin.” This moniker I like. I am a new kind of rebbetzin. Rebbetzins can be cute and fun and funky. Rebbetzins can decide if they want the title or not. Rebbetzins should be respected, if not for their formal training (there is none), then for what they give, do and represent. A rebbetzin can decide to be a partner in her husband’s ministering, or carry on as a professional in her own field. There are so many ways to be a good rebbetzin.
Because that is what I am. Independent of my incredible, wise, rabbi husband. Independent of the fact that I had thought I was going into the publishing business. Independent of my midwestern accent. Independent of the fact that I far prefer eating rugelach to making them.
I am a rebbetzin. I love and teach Torah. Hear me roar.