Why Do Rebbetzins Still Exist?

“See that lady over there? That’s the rebbetzin.”

“Ohhh.” I leaned forward to get a better glimpse at the woman with silver hair sitting in the front row of shul. “What’s a rebbetzin?”

I was about eleven years old, and we had just started going to a Conservative shul. My mother pointed out the rebbetzin at our new shul the way one might point out a movie star or head of state or renowned scholar, but I had never heard of one before.

“A rebbetzin is the rabbi’s wife. She’s a very important person.”

“Why?”

“Well…” my feminist mother, with her short cropped hair and her kippah, struggled to find words to explain. “A long time ago women couldn’t be rabbis, so instead there were rebbetzins. They were very knowledgeable and respected, and people went to them with their problems, and they would advise people in the community. Sometimes people went to rebbetzins with problems they didn’t want to talk to the rabbi about.”

At the time, my mom’s answer was good enough for me. I sat through the service and then ran off with my friends. I didn’t stop to wonder why my mother’s definition revolved around what a rebbetzin used to be, in some vague and distant past (which I now know to be about 1971). I didn’t stop to question what kind of politics were involved around my mother’s hesitation, why this was the only time my mother had defined a woman by her husband’s occupation. I didn’t question what kind of lingering shtetl memories passed down through the generations had fostered my mother’s residual respect for an anachronistic (and possibly sexist) role. I didn’t stop to think about why a rebbetzin is important now.

Then I married a rabbinical student.

Suddenly I find myself much more interested in these questions regarding the modern rebbetzin role.

My own experience of the role involves getting invited to Shabbat dinners and finding myself amidst a social minefield.  Small transgressions like mentioning a moment when I texted my sister on the second day of Passover are met with raised eyebrows, and I often wonder whether I’ve inadvertently jeopardized my spouse’s future career. For the past three years, every time I’ve gone to shul I’ve wondered exactly how much my hemline matters and how many congregants would judge me for wearing the wrong thing. (You wouldn’t. I know. But maybe your aunt would.) I clearly have no idea what I’m doing as a rebbetzin—but I feel like I ought to.

I try to research what to do as a rebbetzin, but everything I read about them references the past, either with reverence or righteous indignation, and nothing is fully in present tense.

Yes, there is something archaic and sexist about the role of the rebbetzin. The idea that someone’s identity, their title in the world, can be defined by his or her partner’s occupation in this day and age is absurd. It’s outrageous. One would think that in our progressive circles we would be finished with such an idea.

However, the rebbetzin still exists.

The rebbetzin role exists when we force it to, by insisting that families of rabbinical students spend a year in Israel/Palestine (as if all spousal careers are nothing important or could magically occur on whatever continent is needed at the time).

The rebbetzin role also exists in our subconscious, when we feel disappointed if a rebbetzin isn’t friendly enough with congregants.

The rebbetzin role exists when shul board members would prefer to hire a rabbi who is already married, when rabbinical students feel more comfortable if they’re partnered, because somehow the partner of the rabbi means something special and important, but we’re not exactly sure what.

If the rebbetzin role still exists, then we need to pay attention to it. Just because something is ignored does not mean it goes away. If we don’t pay attention to roles we rely upon—yet feel vaguely guilty about—we end up doing tweaky things like disrupting careers with Israel/Palestine sabbaticals.

I want to know why we still need rebbetzins. I want to figure out what kind of psychological and economic and gender relationship stuff is going on such that there is still a role out there which is defined by partnership. I want a better answer for my eleven year old self who asked “why” so many years ago—I want an answer that doesn’t start with “a long time ago”; I want an answer that starts with here and now.

Tired of Choosing Sides

by Leah Solomon

I am so tired of sides. I am so tired of one-sidedness. Of being expected to have empathy only for my own.

There is so much pain today. So much suffering.

More and more of our soliders dying. Teenagers just beginning their lives, who will never grow into the amazing people they would have become. Devoted fathers with children and wives waiting for them at home.

Hundreds of dead in Gaza. Thousands wounded. So many people who have lost their homes and everything they own. Parents who have had to bear the unthinkable task of burying their children. Terrified children who will suffer the rest of their lives without limbs, without parents, in pain. More »

The Circles We Sit In

Rachel is a middle school teacher in the East Bay and current New Israel Fund Facilitation Fellow.  She is connected to the local Jewish community through work with NIF, Hazon bike rides, and Wilderness Torah, and will soon be a farmer at Adamah: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship.

A recently published self-help book called The Chairs Are Where the People Go (Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti) describes the authors’ life lessons learned about everyday social encounters, including the seemingly simple notion that people will go, move, and interact wherever and however the chairs in a room are arranged.  Such was certainly the case several weeks ago at New Israel Fund’s “Love, Hate, and the Jewish State.” On a Wednesday night in the spunky San Francisco Public Works building, chairs were lovingly arranged in several small circles, waiting to be filled with the hopeful voices of members of the Bay Area young adult Jewish community drawn together by a desire to have meaningful, open conversations about Israel.

“Love, Hate, and the Jewish State” was an evening of conversation that drew together over 80 young adults from across the Bay Area to talk about what matters to them in relation to Israel.  Crowd-sourced topics ranging from “This Land is Whose Land?” to “Occupation / Anti-occupation:  Framing the Issue” or “Minority Rights in Israel” were on the table, as were the widely diverse perspectives and opinions in the room. More »

Throw Back Thursday: The Knesset is Full of Ladies (Kind of) Edition

While it appears that the seams are splitting in Israel, here’s Kung Fu Jew‘s piece from March 2013 on women in the Knesset, and at least to me, things felt like they might be moving in different direction.

A Newly Feminist Knesset — Sort Of (Updated)

Updated: New ministerial positions were appointed since time of publishing, including two more women.

There are 53 new faces in the 19th Knesset — 16 of them women. With the 11 women who retained their seats, this is one of the highest women’s representation in Israel’s parliament at 27 MKs. But it’s not just because four more women got elected than last time. Former lawmaker Naomi Chazan was wont to lament last Knesset that barely a tenth of MKs were female and even fewer were feminist. Not the case any longer. Just a week ago, all but one banded together in a new women’s lobbyMore »

Clarification: I Do Not Think Palestinians are More Moral than Israelis

by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Cross-posted from his blog, The Leftern Wall

A story: Jerusalem Day, 2012. I am standing at the Damascus Gate, before the Israeli parade has made its way from West Jerusalem into the occupied parts of the city to celebrate “reunification.” I am watching two small demonstrations, separated by a small police barrier. On one side, there is a group of young Israelis, mostly teenagers. They are waving Israeli flags, and their veins are bulging as they scream “Mavet LaAravim! Mavet LaAravim!” Death to Arabs! Death to Arabs! On the other side, there is a group of young Palestinian men, and they are also chanting and waving Palestinian flags, their fists clenched and their shouts filled with testosterone, “Khaybar Khaybar ya Yehud!” A reference to an incident in the 7th century in which Muslims forcibly expelled the Jews of Khaybar. And I think: they are so similar. We are so similar. We are all swept up in self-righteousness, we are all afraid and violent and capable of wishing expulsion and death on the other side. More »

Facing the Massacre with Eyes Shut Tight (by Idan Landau)

Translated and introduced by Moriel Rothman-Zecher, cross-posted from his blog, The Leftern Wall.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher: My own process, in which I began to shift from a liberal to a leftist, from a Zionist to a non-Zionist, from someone who generally believed Official State narratives to someone who generally rejects them, and from someone who wanted to join the IDF and be a “good soldier” to someone who ultimately refused to enlist, began during “Operation Cast Lead,” almost six years ago. This was, in part, because of stories, including the story of the two brothers of one of my classmates at Middlebury College who were shot “by accident” by Israeli soldiers as they left their farm in the Gaza Strip, and then left to bleed to deathas the army forbid an ambulance from getting to them. But in addition to the stories, it was also the numbers: Israel had killed so many people- many of them children- in such a short period of time. I did not want to believe that the Israeli government and army acted with blatant, callous, cruel disregard towards Palestinian civilians, but that it is ultimately what I came to believe, in part thanks to Israeli journalists and writers who were brave enough to speak out against what was happening. And if I am honest with myself: It’s not that these Israelis were saying things that Palestinian journalists and writers were not saying. It’s that they were Israeli Jews. I am not proud of this, but I acknowledge it, and it is with this in mind that I decided to translate a piece on the first four days of this recent Gaza “war” by Israeli blogger Idan Landau, a Professor of Linguistics at Ben Gurion University. The Hebrew original can be found on his blog, לא למות טיפש, or, Don’t Die Dumb, which I cannot recommend highly enough for those of you who speak Hebrew. For those who do not, here is my translation of one of Idan’s pieces on the recent situation in Gaza. 

***

Facing the Massacre with Eyes Shut Tight

Idan Landau. July 11th, 2014.

A riddle: If we are so right, if every one of the air strikes on Gaza is a solid rock of morality, if the residents of Gaza deserve all that they are getting- then why are the facts being concealed from us in the Israeli media? Why don’t they tell us what the entire world can find out with the click of a button?

Seemingly democratic, actually Pravda. More »

Tuesday Night 17 b’Tammuz / Ramadan Break-the-Fast Event at Masjid Malcolm Shabazz

NYC-area Jewschoolers,

We hope you can join us tomorrow night (Tuesday, July 15) at 7:30pm for a special break-the-fast communal gathering in Harlem at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque (Malcolm X’s mosque, located near the corner of W 116th St and Lenox Ave.).  Especially in light of the tragic violence besetting the Middle East, we want to come together as a community in the spirit of peace and unity.

This event is part of the broader בוחרים בחיים – اختيار الحياة – Choose Life Ramadan-17 b’Tammuz fast to support a message of peace and coexistence.

Everyone is welcome to join in for prayer, food, and reflection. We hope you can join us for what we know will be a meaningful conversation.

If you can make it, please BYOS (bring your own siddur) and bring some nosh along to share.

Tzom Qal and let us pray for peace.

Bourbon Tasting as Jewish Community

It has been a very dark time for Jewish news over the past few weeks. War and war crimes, chants calling for our death, us calling for others’ deaths, and overall nastiness.  Often times, even on the storied pages of Jewschool, we simply ignore the rest of the Jewish world during the perennial security operations taking place in the name of the Jewish people.

Yet there are other things happening in the Jewish world and some of them are good.  In fact some are even fun.  While this post deviates from some of the hard hitting topics we often discuss in this forum, it is an important one for more than the obvious reasons. More »

Netanyahu Never Supported a Palestinian State, but Now it’s Official

Perhaps file this under “there’s nothing to see here”, but I suspect that David Horovitz, over at The Times of Israel, gets it right when he insists that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments about the game plan for the Palestinians and the occupied territories at his  press conference are significant and demand our attention, though they were under-reported by the media.   For those of us who always thought that Netanyahu was engaging in Orwellian chicanery when he spoke of a Palestinian state, it is useful for him to be on record in such an unusually candid way, that he does not mean it, and for those who (naively?) took him at his word, it is useful, though depressing, to have that balloon popped.  ”Earlier this spring, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sparked a storm in Israel-US ties when he told a private gathering that the US-Kerry-Allen security proposals weren’t worth the paper they were written on. Netanyahu on Friday said the same, and more, in public.”   Kudos to Horowitz for calling our attention to these remarks; shame on other media outlets for overlooking the story.  Though they were understandably more focused on the immediate military crisis, perhaps they were also completely out of practice for how to cover a PM press conference since no one can easily remember when Netanyahu last conducted one.  Here’s the full story at TOI.

1:52am: Hearing Sirens, Live and Phantom

by Leah Solomon

Sat. night, 1:52am:  Jerusalem

I was shaking a bit when the siren went off early this evening but I am shaking much more now.

When we heard the siren, we were all standing in our living room just a few feet outside the reinforced safe room. Siren went off, all five of us walked more or less calmly inside, closed the heavy metal shutters. Sat on the floor, heard a quiet, muffled boom. Waited ten minutes per instructions, came out and continued with our evening. The kids seemed a little agitated but mostly fine.

Bedtime was delayed a bit. All asleep by 9:00. Around 12:00, out of the quiet night, I hear my eight year old yelling, confusedly, from his top bunk: “we have to — we have to go to the…” I get out of bed and run to him. He is sitting up with a bloody nose. I reassure him that he doesn’t need to run anywhere, get him more tissues, go back to bed. More »

“But Korach’s Children Did Not Die” — On Collective Punishment and Spiritual Creativity

As increased attention is being paid to the problematic incarceration complex in the United States, especially in light of Michelle Alexander’s sobering book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, policy makers, social service providers, educators, and law enforcement officials are also considering the vertical effects of criminal stigmatization on the children of the incarcerated.  Last year, Sesame Street even saw fit to release a segment on its web site about children with incarcerated parents, which aroused ire from some observers appalled that this normalized criminality.  Though it is unclear that children of incarcerated parents engage in any higher levels of criminality than their peers, stigmas often cling to such children from the outside.  In that context, it is instructive to consider a brief, four-word aside in this week’s Torah portion.  In the context of a  census taken after two brutal acts of Divine carnage, the Torah matter-of-factly claims  (Numbers 26:11),  ”And the children of Korach did not die.  וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ.  Why didn’t they die, why might that surprise us, and why does the Torah bother to mention it?  More »

Pinchas and “Connected Criticism”

by Raphael Magarik

Raphael Magarik is a graduate student in English at the University of California, Berkeley.

This week we read Parshat Pinchas, which opens with God’s approval of Pinchas’s vigilante killing of Zimri, an Israelite prince, who is sleeping with Cosbi, a Midianite princess (Numbers, 21:1-15). Liberal Jews are used to being alienated from Pinchas or condemning him, but this week, some of us uncomfortably find ourselves in Pinchas’s position.

The people of Israel have sinned. The blood of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, the innocent Palestinian teenager brutally killed by Israeli Jews, is on our hands, and we know it. Our centrist and right-wing friends are sending letters to the parents and posting outraged Facebook statuses. As the Torah says, Zimri was sinning, “while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.”

And we lefties find ourselves with the unwelcome, and frankly despicable task of reminding everyone that, if you have been paying attention, you know the occupation regularly takes Palestinian lives. That the latest futile escalation with Hamas will not bring safety to the besieged South, but it has killed eighty Palestinians, including children, and it will kill more (though to be sure, much of that blood is on Hamas’s hands). That Prime Minister Netanyahu has cynically resurrected house demolition—an immoral, failed deterrence policy discarded by the Israeli military, and that his cabinet will use recent calamities to build more settlements. More »

Losing Our Grip on Our Humanity

by Leah Solomon

Leah Solomon, an L.A. native who has lived in Jerusalem for 15 years, has worked since 1997 in the field of experiential and pluralistic Jewish education, most recently at the Nesiya Institute.  She has studied at Harvard, the Conservative Yeshiva, and Pardes, and is the editor and publisher of the Anim Zemirot bencher. 

My eight year old came home from camp today and told me his best friend said we should kill all the Arabs if that’s what we need to do to protect ourselves.

A friend of a friend was arguing on facebook that the children of terrorists are not innocent because they are happy that their fathers have killed Jews and therefore it’s legitimate to destroy their homes. She wasn’t even talking about a specific “guilty” child – she made clear that ALL Palestinian children are happy when Jews are killed, and therefore it’s simply wrong to treat them as innocent.

How did we come to this?! Why are so many of us convinced that we really are more human than they are, more deserving of life and liberty and happiness?  More »

A Still, Small Voice for Suicide Prevention: Elijah’s Journey

by Gabe Kretzmer Seed

Gabe Kretzmer Seed is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and graduate fellow at Elijah’s Journey.

I’ve had the honor of serving as the inaugural graduate fellow for Elijah’s Journey, a wonderful organization which helps to serve as a voice regarding suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community.  This Shabbat we will read the haftarah (prophetic portion) from which the organization gets its name.  Though read rarely, due to quirks in the Jewish calendar related to 17th of Tammuz fast day, it is considered the “regular” addition to Parashat Pinchas.

There, in I Kings 18:46-19:20, Elijah has just performed a miracle and proved God’s power over the prophets of Baal. Yet he is pursued by the evil, idolatrous Queen Jezebel, and dejected, asks God to take his life. God instructs Elijah to eat and drink and take a 40 day journey in order to re-assess the situation. Elijah eventually hears God’s voice in a still, small voice, and decides to continue his calling and mission. Elijah’s desire to stop living, lonely period of reconsideration, and reception of a line of hope from a barely audible source, can strike a strong chord with those who have considered ending their lives.  In the United States alone, over one million contemplate suicide each year and over 40,000 do take their own lives. We can all walk in God’s ways and serve as a listening ear and source of encouragement for those around of us who may feel down, dejected or unsupported. More »

Honoring God, Who Gives Life to All Flesh

by Rabbi Ari Hart

Rabbi Ari Hart is a founder of the Jewish-Muslim Volunteer Alliance and of Uri L’Tzedek.

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), God is called “Elohei haruchot l’chol basar,” the one who gives spirit to all flesh (Numbers 27:16).

In that spirit of a God who gives life to all beings, I ask that those who, like me, support Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas’s civilian targeted missiles, stop and read the names below of the children who have died in Gaza since the fighting began. Know that the same God that breathed spirit into you breathed spirit into them.

Seraj Ayad Abed al-A’al, 8
Mohammed Ayman Ashour, 15
Hussein Yousef Kawareh, 13
Bassim Salim Kawareh, 10
Mousa Habib, 16
Ahmad Na’el Mehdi, 16
Dunia Mehdi Hamad, 16
Amir Areef, 13
Mohammed Malkiyeh, 1½ years old
Ibrahim Masri, 14
Mohammed Khalaf al-Nawasra, 4
Nidal Khalaf al-Nawasra, unreported age
Ranim Jawde Abdel Ghafour, a young girl

Though I hold Hamas responsible for this war and for the tremendous suffering they have inflicted on innocent Israelis and Palestinians, I also acknowledge that no matter how precise Israel’s strikes are, innocents will be killed as a result. Including children. Children who have the same goofy smiles, the same dreams, and the same fears as our children. Israel’s right to self defense is not free. It comes with a profound human cost that we, as a people who strive for moral grandeur, must face.

What does it feel like to be a Jew in America?

What does it feel like
To be a Jew in America
Hearing the news of the Israeli army’s assaults on Gaza

Like a cancer, one part of my body attacking another
The cells do not listen to my cries:
You’ve got it all wrong
This body is one organism
Why can’t I cease this inside of my own skin?

Friends, colleagues, newspapers describe how “we” are attacking “them”
Since when am I this “we” you speak of?
Is it because I face occupied Jerusalem when I pray?
Because I say blessings over my food in the language of the oppressor?

I yearn to protect my edges
I long to strike a balance
How to stay safe while remaining open?
It’s actually a question I ask myself every day

And today, as a Jew in America, my voice is muffled
My opportunity to question is denied
Prayers for peace are welcome
And yet
Calls for justice
Perhaps equal access
…to electricity
…to medicine
…to healing

I ask my body again
It pauses for a moment
As if it somehow remembers that it is one body
And then returns to its task
Destroying the cells one by one

Shamir writes poetry in the Berkshire mountains and also on trains

7 Tammuz, 5774

 
Simplicity
Violence is bad.
Racism is always wrong.
Israel, wake up.

 
Strange
Thrown in a car. Burned.
Occupation and vengeance.
Strangers in strange land.

 
The Name
Not any design,
this profitable power.
Flags and flames throughout.

 

 

A. Daniel Roth is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter @adanielroth 

Reb Zalman zt”l

Shaul Magid, who has studied and written about Reb Zalman’s teachings and impact, wrote this obituary for the Forward.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the important Jewish innovators in postwar America, inspiration to a generation and ecumenical spiritualist, died on July 3 aged 89.

A tireless organizer and spiritual architect, Schachter-Shalomi single-handedly created a new form of Jewish practice and spirituality known as Jewish Renewal, founded on the idea of Gaia consciousness: the notion that the earth is a living organism and that human civilization needs to construct religion to frame its responsibility to the planet. He developed a theory of eco-kashrut that incorporates environmentalism and animal rights as an integral part of Jewish dietary practice.

At times he found himself at the nexus of influence and at times he put himself there, but Schachter-Shalomi used his friendship with two Lubavitcher rabbis, a number of Sufi sheikhs, the leaders of the 1960s counter-culture and a clutch of colleagues in university professorships to bring the intensity and passion of the fervently religious, the insights of spirituality and the openness of the counter-culture to the practice of progressive religion.

Continue reading here, then come back and comment or add your memories, reminiscences, appreciations…