Q&A: Why Ask the Rebbetzin?

We were recently approached by the author of Coin Laundry, to respond to this recent post about the role of the rebbetzin*. I interpreted it slightly differently than Melissa, as this:

Why are they asking the Rebbetzin? Why do they think she’s qualified?

The simple explanation is that there is a cultural expectation that she will either be able to answer your question, be able to find the information you need, or be able to put you in touch with the right person, as well as that she will be discrete and competent.

Why this is the case is more complicated, of course. I’m going to try to focus a little bit on the historical development, since I think it sheds a little light and context on this. I also highly recommend a book, “The Rabbi’s Wife” by Shuly Rubin Schwartz, which is, as far as I know, the only work of it’s kind. It traces the modern development of the rabbi’s wife in the last 150 years or so. It’s not exactly the same as the communities you’re describing, but it does give a lot of useful insight.

The title of rebbetzin developed at a time when there weren’t a lot of educational opportunities for women, and what there was pretty much ended when you got married, which everyone had to do. These women, understandably, often married the men who were in the position they wished to be. Even in the liberal movements, there have only been mainstream female rabbis for just about forty years or so, which is a blink of an eye in Jewish history. So, interestingly enough, women in liberal congregations in the early 20th century were just as likely to be performing the functions described by the others who’ve answered your question as these Orthodox rebbetzins are today. Religiously educated women are becoming more and more common in the Orthodox world, however, and I’m curious what will happen in the future.

That curiosity is really what motivated me, at least, to start this blog. Partly it’s about feeling like I have something to say, but it’s also about the role of the modern rebbetzin, especially in the context of a tradition that is still very much battling over and with gender roles. For those in the communities that are more right-leaning than mine, it’s likely that they’re not facing these same issues just quite yet.

I’ll end with a story. A few weeks ago, I hosted a meeting of the rabbinical school’s wives club at our apartment. As the group of us squished into our small living room to hear the speaker, we all knew it was partially our own interest and partially our knowledge that if our husbands are to be congregational or Hillel rabbis, we will probably be involved in some way. And so, we learned about sexuality and halacha together, with that in the back of our minds. It was partially about us as strong, educated women – and partially about those future congregants, out there, somewhere.

As always, we’re always open to questions, comments and thoughts!


Wives Club

post by Jessica

About a week ago, we had the first meeting of the wives club for the rabbinical school. Clearly the experience of my fellow wives is something that I’m interested in, but I wasn’t sure exactly what the meeting would be. It was a small group, mostly because there are only about 15 wives total, so miss just a few of them and it’s a small group. Still, it was nice to talk about the issues of the day, and especially to talk to the wife of one of the students who is farther along at the yeshiva, and get her perspective on marriage and family while in yeshiva.

It’s part support group and part discussion group, so there were actually a few questions passed around for discussion. They were really interesting, a sort of check-in with where we are and I thought I’d share some of them and my answers now that I’ve had a little while to think about them. The subject was religious differences, which is something that R and I have been navigating since we started dating.

1. Do you anticipate conflict between your own religious beliefs and practices and the expectations of that others (including your spouse) have of you?

Lately, there hasn’t been too much conflict between the two of us about religious practice/belief. Most of the conflict is me being conflicted about my own level of observance. However, my conflict is largely stemming from what I anticipate will be the expectations of me when we are in a community and he is the rabbi and separating that from what I feel committed to. I anticipate that conflict, and I’m not sure how it will play out.

2. Are R & I on the same page religiously? How are we the same/different?

We are probably more similar now than we have been in a while, but there are definitely areas of difference. We consciously strive to make sure that it’s not in areas of communal need (i.e. not interfering with one another’s practice), and in general it’s that I’m more liberal than he is. I do think that we’ve both been consciously getting back into some traditions that we got out of while we were being crazy with Hillel.

3. Are you comfortable having differences in belief and practices?

When our relationship was founded, we knew there were differences, and likely always would be. We’ve gotten closer and farther and closer again over the years, but it’s always been something to be talked about and understood together. I do know that when we have kids it’ll be something that we’ll have to be even more clear about – never mind figuring out what we want to teach them and how.

4. Do you think rabbinical school has had/will have an effect on any of the things mentioned?

I’m not sure yet, clearly. I sort of imagine we might end up incorporating things that he learns in school into our daily practice, or that as he learns things we may have more information to make different decisions in our lives. The thing I do know is that we spend a lot of time talking about both rabbinical school and NYU, trying to share as much as we can. We have really different experiences on a day to day basis, and I think it’s been important to really actively keep those lines of communication open. Hopefully those will help us if any of these issues come up.

On another note, it was really great to meet a few wives and get to talk about these things for a few hours. I’m looking forward to doing it again soon, and I’m grateful that the school supports these kinds of things for us!

Happy Hair-aversary!

First Hair Covering - Post by Melissa

Yesterday* was my second wedding anniversary (hooray!) – so that makes today my two year anniversary of head covering! Clearly an occasion worth noting and celebrating in a blog post!

The first day I covered my hair (as seen to the right), I took a long rectangle scarf and tied a simple bun. That didn’t last very long, so the bun got unwrapped and just hung down my back. Both of these methods required constant adjusting – and I know now I made some key rookie mistakes!

a) nothing holding the scarf on my head: I now know that almost everyone needs something to help hold a scarf in place. My preferred option are some wide bobby pins from Goody with slip resistance on them.  Oh, and behind the ears is better than above them.  Other options include headbands, wig caps, hijab clips, and regular bobby pins.

b) the weight makes it slide – fold it up: Having really long tails at the nape of your neck or dangling down your back can add a lot of weight in the back which only furthers the sliding factor. Folding or twisting the tails over your head helps to disperse the weight – plus it adds depth to the scarf so it looks cooler.

c) layering is your friend: Using multiple scarves is a great way to add color, dimension, and style to a head-covering. Also, putting a thin cotton scarf as a base layer helps to fake or bulk up a bun!

d) you have to be conscious of the thickness of tichels: Thicker scarves are not only heavier, they are often harder to wrap as well. There is definitely a learning curve, and newbies should start out with thin cotton scarves.

e) positioning on the forehead: There is a key spot (which I think is probably different for everyone) of where you need to position your scarf along your hairline to minimize slipping or looking funny. I have to start the tie with it about an inch onto my forehead so that by the time I’m done its just in front of my hairline and then as I move about it comes just a touch behind there

f) not tying too tight: when tying tightly it pulls the fabric and then is more apt to pull and slide. This one I don’t really understand but its the truth – trust me.

I consider myself a bit of a pro scarf tier now, but I still struggle with some things.

a) what length to keep my hair ofr optimal diversity and efficiency in hair covering.

b) the endless battle between head coverings and glasses, with the added trick of all the holes in my ears.

c) color coordination of multiple scarves. to match, compliment or contrast – that is the question.

d) how to replicate other people’s styles with my funny shaped head.

e) if i should invest in a sewing machine and start making my own scarves.

Perhaps next year I’ll have answers to all these too! In the interim, feel free to share your own lessons and questions, respond to my struggles, and check out the wide variety of posts on hair covering from both Jessica and me.

*Ok, so really my anniversary was two days ago and my hair-aversary was a day ago now. But I wrote most of the post on my hair-aversary, so I’m not changing it for factual accuracy 😉

The Gender Debate

Many of you have heard about the family who is refusing to tell their friends/family/the world the gender of their baby, Storm. While I only partially understand their premise, it brought all sorts of gender issues right to the forefront. This Shavuot, I had the pleasure of being around several wonderful small children and their parents (even around here there are little Jews afoot!), the combination of which gave R & I an opening to talk about some of the gender issues surrounding parenting.  As I was thinking about it, I stumbled on two related blog posts from two different blogs:  10 Myths about Gender Neutral Parenting.  And Is it a Boy or a Girl?

As we contemplate the next step in our lives (moving and starting grad school), I keep thinking about that next bend in the road that will take us (hopefully) to parenthood.

It took me a while to realize that my parents attitudes about toys and clothing weren’t the norm. I got barbies, baby dolls, frilly princess dresses, the works – when I asked for them. I also got sporting equipment, a mini-toolbox and a (very, very fake looking) toy ray gun. Maybe it was the fact that there were no male siblings (or any siblings forthcoming at all). More likely, I think it was a conscious choice. My bedroom was painted blue, my bedding not stereotypically girly, even when I moved into a big kid room. I embraced a lot of it – my bedroom at my parents house is still blue, although I chose a flowery border and bedding to go with it when I got older.  I clearly remember embracing all of the girly things (until we moved to Canada, I lived in dresses by my own choice),but  my parents had presented the other opportunities to me – legos came in the regular colors and the pinks and pastels kind, my first “baby doll” was really a stuffed rat that I decided was a boy, and so on.

This kind of upbringing left me with this idea that no one would enforce gender stereotypes on their children. Clearly, since the women I know have some kind of occupation, whether they are currently engaging in it or not, they couldn’t buy into it! Life, however, has a way of surprising you.  Several years ago, a  friend had a baby girl. I am fairly certain every single thing in the child’s wardrobe is pink. As was the play kitchen she received at her second birthday, and the play laundry set as well. Not that this means that this wonderful toddler won’t grow up to be a strong woman – it just hit some kind of nerve in me. Parents are the entire world for their children at the beginning. We model every behavior and attitude, and to limit or categorize experiences from the get-go as “boy” experiences or “girl” experiences when so few of them really, truly are,  seems excessive. Society’s strong gender messages will get through to the child, even if the parents aren’t reinforcing them. My parents allowed me to wear dresses and play barbies, even while encouraging other kinds of play, never labeling things. I learned later, both about the weird stereotypes Barbie plays into and that society expected me to like Barbie and my male cousin not to.

I wonder about all of this in the context of more traditional Judaism. With a bris or simchat bat in our future, our potential baby’s gender wouldn’t be a secret. Still, I don’t think I would go for the little blue or pink room based on gender. Especially given the gendered nature of our religion and lifestyle, I would want our children to be allowed to explore as much as they can so that they understand that so much of what is “feminine” or “masculine” is cultural – a skirt in Scotland could be a kilt, and a dress might be a galabiyya, etc. Not that men and women aren’t different – but that the differences are probably way less than we think they are. Maybe this is too naive a hope in a Rabbinic family, where the pressure to conform might be even stronger. At the same time, if I’m not thinking about this and hopefully setting an example…who else will?

Thoughts? Questions? Things to share? There might be more on this subject, and I’d love feedback. I’m hoping to write more regularly from here on out! 

Eating Disorders and Jews: A personal and communal reaction

There has been a lot of press in the past few months about Eating Disorders and the Orthodox Jewish  community, culminating with an article in the New York Times yesterday which was shared with me by numerous friends: In Orthodox Jewish Enclaves, an Alarm Sounds Over Eating Disorders.

I realized after reading that article, I could not put off this post (which I started in January, edited in March and am now finally finishing) any further.

Before I really say what I need to, I need to make a very important point which the NYT article touched on but many of its predeccsors (including in the Forward and Washington Post) did not: anorexia is the most lethal mental illness.  It has the highest death rate (at least as of the last time I looked at the data) because the disease itself can kill you.  We cannot treat it lightly and discuss it as though it is not a serious problem, not only for the communities which can be affected – but for every individual suffering through this horrible disease.  It is not only prevalent in Orthodox circles and we need to look at how Jewish traditions across the board affect someone who is struggling with anorexia, bulimia, compulsive over eating, disordered eating and/or body image issues.

  • Many Jewish celebrations, including Shabbat, holidays, and life cycle rituals are surrounded by food. We get together as community either eating large meals or fasting (and eating large meals before and after).
  • Jewish outreach events for teens and young adults are always centered around food. “Pizza in the Hut” at Sukkot is common on college campuses across the USA.  What youth group convention would be complete without a late night dessert party, or a young adult event with cocktails?
  • We eat apples and honey at Rosh Hashana, latkes and jelly doughnuts on Chanukah, four types of fruits on Tu B’Shvat, hamentaschen on Purim, and matzah for the entire week on Passover.
  • Not to mention kashrut. An entire set of complex laws about what we, as Jews, can and cannot eat.
  • And of course there are Jewish mothers and grandmothers who usher us to the table telling us to eat while kvelling over how thin we are.

Lets focus on kashrut for a moment because many of the articles published in mainstream media have chosen to. While they have addressed that the rigors of kashrut can be a launching point for some, I am here to tell you that it can also provide a structured way of eating which can actually be a benefit to those with disordered eating.  It can provide a healthy way to control one’s food intake, rather than unhealthy version.  I know this personally, as I am a recovered Anorexic (though I hate that phrase) and kashrut helped to save my life.

I was diagnosed with anorexia in the spring of my senior year of college, though I started my restrictive eating behaviors before I was the age of bat mitzvah. When I began my graduate social work education, I was on the way to recovery and a more observant lifestyle, so as I embraced kashrut it felt good.  I finally had a way to control my eating in a constructive way.  Rather than eating only a powerbar and a bottle of water with lemon all day, I could eat small but balanced meals according to halacha (Jewish law).  While recovery was still a huge battle and one I continue to fight every day of my life (including through the medical issues so many years of malnourishment left me with), having a strong community and a set of laws about food was instrumental in my success.

I think that while it is good to understand some of the nuances in our community which factor into the difficulties women may face, the better portion of our energy on this needs to be on removing the stigma and empowering women to get help to live a healthy life, to see our bodies as the sacred spaces they are, and to have a healthy relationship with food and our bodies. We need more resources and more people willing to open up and step up. I hope this is just the beginning of the conversation, because there is still so much to be said and so much to learn as we struggle to shift our communal response.

Have you struggled with an eating disorder or disordered eating? How can we help you, your loved ones, and/or your community? (Feel free to post anonymously or to email me directly if you aren’t yet ready to speak out publicly but are open to some support.)

Happy Women Day!

Post by Melissa

Today is both “International Women’s Day” (the 100th anniversary which even Google commemorated on its home page) and “Feminist Coming Out Day” and that combination is just too monumental to ignore.

People often have a hard time with a religious women embracing feminism, but there is a totally different level of it in my world. I think that striving for women to make the choice to be egalitarian or not, to dress modestly or not, to stay home with her family or to enter the workforce are what feminism is all about at its core.  So to me, choosing to be a religious working woman who dreams of being able to both work to support her family and to be able to spend the formative years of her (future) children’s lives with them – is embracing feminism.  I will continue to strive for women to have the choice to live their life as they see fit and celebrate those who have come before me.


What are you doing today to celebrate?

I am celebrating by being my awesome working woman self, rising through the ranks, and thanking the woman who have empowered me to make it possible. Oh, and by officially  joining the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (aka: JOFA), an organization I have intended to join for awhile and feel embodies the spirit of this day in my life more than anything else.


In the words of a fabulous female friend of mine: Anything men can do women can do in high heels and while nursing a baby, pumping, and bringing home the beef fry!

A Talit is Not an Accessory

As someone who walks the fine line between the Conservative movement and Modern Orthodoxy while defying labels, egalitarianism is a hot bed topic. *

Post by Melissa

I can understand the rationalle behind egalitarianism, even though I don’t currently buy into it on a broad spectrum personally.  However, I am a part of a traditional Conservative community and at this time, that influences my choice to remain semi-egalitarian.  I will allow myself to be counted in a minyan and accept an aliyah.  As a part of an egalitarian community, I do not want to put them in an awkward or uncomfortable place by limiting their ability to have a minyan (ie at Shabbat mincha where there are often only 10 people) or be rude to the gabbai.  I will no longer be shaliach tzibur or leyn torah/haftorah though as that is an honor and action which is typically planned in advance.  However, if the opportunity arose to lead a woman’s minyan or read megillah in a women’s reading – I would be happy to do so.  I do not think that doing any of these things takes away from a man being able to do them, it is just baby steps on working my way to a different way of life.  Meanwhile, I totally support my sisters who make the choice to be fully egalitarian, and those who do not.

I also fully support a woman’s right to take on additional mitzvot, such as wearing talit and tefilin.  What I don’t support is doing it to make a statement or as an accessory.  It is a mitzvah which by engaging in, you obligate yourself to – so unless you feel ready to take on additional obligations, I do not encourage it.  There are plenty of mitvot for women which are not embraced as widely (*cough* mikvah *cough*) and are somehow “less than” as mitzvot because they are specifically for women.  That is where I see the downfall in egalitarianism.

We drape Bat Mitzvah girls in a talit (with or without any sort of head covering) and teach them that to be a strong Jewish woman is to do these things just like their fathers and brothers.  I recall very precisely  my own experience of becoming a Bat Mitzvah, and feeling like I was on the cusp of Jewish womanhood by leading more of the service and reading more from the Torah.  After my brother left for the US Army, I  took his tefillin and the Talit he had decoarted in USY as my own, and wore them in the synogauge minyan every Sunday before I taught Religious School.  I didn’t know why I was doing these things, just that it felt right to do it because the men did.  Last time I was at my parents home I reread my Bat Mitzvah speech (the content of which I should really post for you all someday as it my parsha was Pinchas and I spoke of women’s rights, D jokes that it will be the intro to my book) and could not help but be amused at how much my understanding of Jewish feminism has changed in the past 17 years.  I am still standing strong on the sentiments of my youth, just with very different actions and a more mature understanding of my place in the religious history, alongsde my modern sensibilites.

I now know that being a woman in Judaism is its own very special thing! We have our own obligations (even to daily prayer!) which are distinctively different because women are different.  We are not men and we do not have to be men to be successful or religiously observant.  If we embrace the power of being Jewish women – we have only the world to gain.

What is your take on egalitarianism, feminism, and being a Jewish woman?

*What I am writing will surely offend some people – that is not my intention.  It is also not meant to be a stance that represents anything or anyone other than myself at this point in time. I reserve the right to change my mind at any point in time.  I could also write endlessly on this, but need to keep blog posts shorter than the whole book in my head.  There will be more to come I’m sure.