Sunday, January 2, 2011

What is a Rebbetzin?

Someone recently asked me. She is a friend of a woman who friended me. A quick look at her profile confirmed what I already knew. She is not Jewish. I have to admit my radar went up. How often is a question not really a question? I didn’t know whether to brace myself for an argument. A religious one. Again.

But first I tried a sensible and levelheaded response: I answered. As best I could anyway. I typed, “A Rebbetzin means literally the wife of a Rabbi. It is a Yiddish word. Generally speaking, a Rebbetzin is very involved in the community and helps her husband serve.” That seemed to sum it up I thought. Although it seems to be a definition of ‘Rebbetzin Light’.

I admit I half expected my questioner to remark that it is not a real position-much like being a mother is discounted as not being a real job. (Yet how many of us would chose this one over another?) And I guess to some degree it is not. There is no pay as a Rebbetzin. I have never seen a help wanted advertisement looking for Rebbetzins. And there is no hard and fast job description, only expectation.

Generally speaking one is always equated with her husband’s job. But besides that our life and by extension our definition of ourselves becomes very much connected to the synagogue, the Hebrew school, and spiritual life. People ask us questions: about Kashrut, about holidays, about weddings, about just about anything that comes up whether in daily living or in Torah study. (Not to suggest that these are mutually exclusive). And we answer them when it is appropriate and other times we call in the big guns-we suggest the person speak to the Rabbi. We visit the sick, we teach, we cook at the Shul and at home, we have guests for holidays, we participate in the sisterhood and other organizations much like other people.

We help the Rabbi remember things…”This Thursday begins a new month,” we might say, in case he might need reminding to bench Rosh Hodesh. We might keep extra kipas in our purse. We might recommend stores or write letters of complaint to companies on questionable kosher or make suggestions to larger chains to carry products we can actually use or write letters to the editor about stupid, anti-Semitic remarks. Some Rebbetzins write advice columns; some have public speaking engagements; some, like me, just keep the occasional blog and live a relatively less public life.

There is a story, a modern Midrash if you will, that one of my acquaintances told me long before I was a Rebbetzin. In a woman’s class someone asks the Rabbi about making egg salad. The woman asks if they put in an egg with a blood spot could they still use the salad. The Rabbi recalling some of the laws about involuntarily mixing meat and milk says a hesitant “yes,” if it is only certain percentage. A woman from the back of the room disagrees. Who is the woman? You guessed. The Rebbetzin.

In conclusion, I have to say it is difficult to define oneself in such concrete terms. I guess the result is that we, like anyone else, are defined by our actions.

1 comment:

  1. I liked your description of a Rebbetzin. I think it's a very important job. You and your Husband are working together as a team. I've seen lot's of Rebbetzins doing a lot of very important work...some of it professional educational. The Orthodox girls' schools in Brooklyn are fully staffed with Rebbitzins. My Bubby (may she be in good health) was a Rebbetzin to a Rabbi (who passed away about 24 years ago). I'd never minimize the job. Maintain your pride in your job. Among other things, our People need a lot of Torah based role models. Today, more than ever. Shavauh Tov !