Malka Amalia Moskowitz
I married my rabbi at a wedding of one thousand guests in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And on that day, I married his congregation too. I sat in the bride’s throne as the Ladies Auxiliary flowed past, their president whispering, “How did he land her? Pretty as a cake decoration!” I flashed a smile, and she took a picture.
Raised in a remote community, I had just moved to New York when my rabbi and I met at his parents’ Shabbos table. Three other women were invited by his mother for him to choose from, but he chose me. I liked him too, in the black and white of a Yeshiva boy. He offered me a spiked punch, and I refused, twice. He was cheeky. He was sweet.
We dated for fourteen weeks. In hotel lobbies, he helped me out of my coat, asked how I spent my days, listened to my answer, asked a further question. This was a conversation. With prior dates, I would take off my coat, smile, and ask a question; they spoke for two hours, I smiled again, put on my coat, and we parted.
For fourteen weeks my rabbi and I met in conversation; that was a long courtship in his ultra–Orthodox world. But I wasn’t ultra–Orthodox. I was modern Orthodox, a lawyer and a feminist, falling in love with a Yeshiva boy who also had a Shabbos pulpit. In hotel lobbies we had passionate disputes about our differences, and after all topics were exhausted and there was nothing left to say, we became engaged. I spent nine engaged weeks lengthening my dress sleeves and buying wigs.
I met my husband’s congregants at our wedding. They admired and approved.
The Shabbos following, without entrance exam or interview, I became a Brooklyn Rebbetzin. What was that? I wondered, as I sat on the front pew in a cream silk suit, the eyes of the ladies on my back. Shy and timid, I liked being told what to do; there wasn’t a grain of authority in me.
I leaned back in the pew. The rabbi, my husband, was speaking: a sparkling speech, mellifluous, brilliant. I blushed with pride. What had I found! Better than I could have imagined, in fourteen plus nine weeks.
Being a Rebbetzin was like marrying into royalty. I acquired status not by doing (a job) but rather by being (married). At work, I acquired status by doing (the law), not by being (married), and I said nothing about my change in marital status. But my administrative assistant let the cat out of the bag when he found a draft wedding invitation on my desk. They organized an afternoon tea and presented me with a Tiffany bowl. There will be no honeymoon, I answered when they asked, and they frowned. How could I explain it wasn’t possible to go away for even one Shabbos?
No one could fault my Rebbetzin-ing. Even though I was a practicing lawyer, I cooked and hosted several-course meals on Shabbos and Yom Tov and answered 4:00 a.m. calls (from my clients, or his). And when the men were singing to their women about the rabbi’s extraordinary Talmud classes, the women came clamoring to me for equal rights. They wanted what their men had! I bit my lips.
My foremothers—they ran mighty Jewish homes—didn’t read Jewish texts. One of my Polish grandmothers did arrange her family’s life around her own Talmud study, but the rest of us were illiterate, if literacy were measured by my husband’s yardstick. Everyone was illiterate by his standards. He knew every source in every sefer. Not only was he an encyclopedia, but also he could reason. The women asked again. I thought of my grandmother sitting before her blatt of Talmud and bit my lips again.
My rabbi didn’t want to be married to an old-fashioned Rebbetzin, breadwinner, and cook. He took a sefer with torn bindings from the shelves, put it on the shtender, and read to me; in time, I caught on. We copied pages, and I handed them to the ladies and taught them as my husband taught me, from alef to sof. Together, we climbed out of illiteracy.
And so I acquired the role of Rebbetzin: listening, smiling, questioning, learning, teaching.
The mechitza between the women and men in my husband’s shul was too high for me to see the brawl with the shul president that got my husband fired. Frankly, it was a relief. On Shabbos, we rested in my Manhattan apartment. I could smile less, speak more, ask a question and dispute the answer, be direct, even confrontational. We could have conversations.
But my husband’s genes are imprinted with Rabbi-hood. On both sides of his family, there were rabbis going back to time immemorial. He thrashed and yearned until he found another congregation in Brooklyn. I was pregnant, lawyering, running two homes, and the Rebbetzin of a congregation. The mehitzah in the second shul was made of heavy metal, and we women peeped through the holes to get a glimpse.
When the baby came, I was confined at home on Shabbos and was not witness to the brawls with presidents. There were plenty. They wrangled over everything—anything. People who don’t dare open their mouths at home or at work say outrageous things in shul. Then they come to Shabbos dinner at the Rebbetzin’s table. I smiled, served the soup, smoothed things over.
In the second community, there were many weddings. The Rebbetzin before me taught the brides, and new brides expected the same of me. By then I could teach Talmud and law, with pilpul and commentaries. But teaching the theory of prozbul is not equivalent to counseling a bride on how to become a wife. How to be a wife? In addition to being shy, I am also beset with doubt so that a Talmudic dispute is a joy to discuss, but a formula for a bride, an impossibility. The multitudinous books on niddah were of no help. They have nothing to say to me or the brides about how a good married life is lived.
What could I do? I turned to the words of wise women.
I wanted to talk about the knowledge that every person contains within themselves—what people know but don’t have anyone to tell… These things get buried because what we think and say depends on the time that we live in; what everyone says we too will start saying as well. As a result, we push the most important things deep down within us. We tell ourselves that they’re not important. – Svetlana Alexievich
I told these brides that each of us lives a different kind of Jewish womanhood. I shared with them something about mine, my mother’s, and my grandmothers’ lives, each one a world unto itself. This was a different type of teaching and learning that had gone out of style with the command of printed books.
One Purim, as I was peeping through the holes in the mechitza, a blow-up was brewing that I couldn’t contain, and we were fired again—both of us. It was humiliating—for both of us. Rebbetzin-ing had naturalized for me, the women and I had grown toward one another, and I had raised a cadre of brides. Beginning the role shy, timid, and doubtful, I was leaving with a stronger voice.
I had kept my weekday job, of course, and we moved out of Manhattan and Brooklyn to the suburbs, raising our children as commoners, not rabbi’s children. We became observers, not performers, in shul on Shabbos.
But the yearning for a rabbinate was never quelled in my husband, and we applied for any position that opened. At the interviews, my shy garment was put away, and I put on the Rebbetzin garment, listening, smiling, giving classes, fielding questions, defending my profession as an asset and not a detriment to the new role. Rebbetzins in past times had their livings written into rabbis’ contracts, selling wool, yeast, and havdalah candles, making shrouds, and binding holy books. An earning Rebbetzin was part of our tradition. The Boards nodded and swayed.
As you may have worked out by now, my husband had a temper, and the outbursts were not only with shul presidents. They were even more virulent and frequent at home. When I was young, timid, and doubtful, I swallowed anything my husband threw me. That was my role, my duty, my promise. But by becoming Rebbetzin, I found another self. I put on the Rebbetzin garment, not for any community, but for myself and my children. It was time to separate.
In the years during which I was gathering courage to end the marriage, the rabbi in our shul made aliyah. My husband was the perfect candidate: he had a Ph.D. and was an expert in Jewish law. There were no moving costs; they knew him, and they liked him.
What could I do?
What would the Rebbetzin do?
I led the campaign. Why shouldn’t my husband have his dream? There were many candidates, and each candidate was pitted against every other candidate. Whenever there was a vote, I spoke on a soap box and also wrote in support of my husband’s candidacy, how excellent he would be as a—what? Whatever rabbis are supposed to be, that’s what I said he would be good at. Whatever a community wants from a rabbi (and they want everything), that’s what I argued he did and had. My husband had trained me; could I argue!
Luckily, the outgoing Rebbetzin wasn’t a performer, and so the expectations of the next Rebbetzin were not grand. Still, I was campaigning for my husband to have the job of his dreams as I was inching him out of my front door, urging him to find an office in a building nearby where he could sleep if the mood struck him.
We were living apart, but not officially. Officially, he had an office and lived with us. Isn’t that what husbands do? And in that limbo of our lives, my husband was offered the rabbi job, the one he had been born for, and raised toward, and he took it.
We were separated, and I was still Rebbetzin-ing: Purim feasts and Talmud classes, brides and funerals. But inch by inch, I floated away, leaving him with his congregation and me with my children and career, where my marital status was neither an asset nor a liability; it was invisible.
Well, not quite. After the divorce, a colleague asked me something about my husband. I told him I didn’t have one, and he said, “Oh, but you’re wearing a ring!” I looked down, and I was, but not the one I had been married with. The one I was married with—the wedding ring that belonged to my grandmother, the Talmud scholar—had fallen off and gotten lost that Purim in our second shul, when my husband was on the bima having a brawl with the president. I had been watching the two of them, fiddling with the ring, and it fell to the ground and rolled away.
Divorce is not forbidden in Judaism. It is provided for in the Bible! And it is attested in ancient manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Cairo Genizah. Marriage is indispensable for Jews, and divorce will happen. But among religious Jews, it’s rare. And among rabbis, it’s even rarer. A rabbi’s divorce is as public as his wedding. The entire community is gazing at the couple.
Even so, when a rabbi gets divorced, he doesn’t lose his job any more than a lawyer loses her job because she’s divorcing.
A Rebbetzin, however, acquires her job through marriage and loses it when she loses her marriage. She may campaign for her husband’s job, but unlike in the past when her livelihood was guaranteed in the rabbi’s contract, nowadays she is not on the contract when the rabbi is hired. She accompanies him.
From time to time, I yearn to be Rebbetzin again—not to be rabbi; that is an entirely different job that I have no desire or qualifications for. But I do wonder: if I applied to be Rebbetzin, without an accompanying rabbi, what would my chances be?
There is no job description for a Rebbetzin, but she is indispensable in a shul, like wives in a marriage. She plays complimentary roles to the rabbi; where he is strictly announcing the Law, she is the judge in Equity. In my father’s fervent community in Hungary, when the rabbi declared the chicken treif which meant a family had nothing to eat for Shabbos, the Rebbetzin disputed his ruling and told him, “It’s easy to make a chicken treif. Now you make it kosher!” When congregants are quarrelling and causing mischief, the Rebbetzin is the emissary of peace. She blocks the calls at the wrong hours. She offers figs to those who call at the door for alms. She collects funds—by charm and hard bargain—from those who have too many, and she hands them to those with too few. She forges connections and matches lonely ones up, with gentleness, without rolling her eyes. She teaches brides how to be wives, and she encourages grooms to be menschen. And because she might have endured a marriage’s end, she offers her strong back to carry those whose marriages cannot last.
A Rebbetzin is not an angel, but when she is good, she is as close as we come to them. I don’t know why no shul has advertised for one, but it might be an idea. Considering they cost nothing, what is there to lose?
 “Our Own Memory: A Q&A with Svetlana Alexievich,” Sampsonia Way Magazine (March 13, 2017).
 Shuly Rubin Schwartz, The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life (New York University Press: New York, 2006).