Rabbi’s wife or rebbetzin? There has long been debate over how to refer to a woman who is married to a rabbi, and how to define just what her role in the congregation/community should be.
Shuly Rubin Schwartz, an accomplished scholar who holds a Ph.D. in Jewish history from the Jewish Theological Seminary, is also the dean of List College and the Irving Lehrman Associate Professor of American Jewish History at JTS. Her personal life— she is the daughter of a pulpit rabbi and the wife of the late Rabbi Gershon Schwartz, a pulpit rabbi who died two years ago — has enabled Schwartz to do her research from the inside out.
The Rabbi’s Wife is an historical look at the role these women — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — have played in American Jewish history.
In Schwartz’s words: “Because these women worked both as behind-the-scenes helpmates and as partners with their husbands, this study will deepen our understanding of the fluid boundaries between women’s public and private lives…and will reinforce the growing recognition of the centrality of women to American religious history.”
In chapters such as “The Power Behind the Throne,” “Mr, & Mrs. God,” “Two for the Price of One,” “Please [Don’t] Call Me Rebbetzin” and “They Married What They Wanted To Be,” among others, this well-written work chronicles the journey of the rebbetzin from a place of honor in society to a sometimes pejorative fishbowl existence to an acceptance, by both congregants and the rabbis’ wives, of the often bifurcated lives they lead and their ability to define their own roles in today’s world.
The volume details the evolution of the American rabbi’s wife from the early years, when she used her husband’s status to gain entré to the intellectual elite, to a comparison with American ministers’ wives, who were infused with “domestic feminism,” which stated that women were innately religious and therefore “predisposed to serve as society’s moral guardians.” Throughout history, the rabbi’s wife has served as a “symbolic exemplar,” a source of both privilege and responsibility.
Though The Rabbi’s Wife is indeed scholarly, with 45 pages of notes and a 20-page bibliography, it is a quick read and will certainly entertain readers with personal stories about many of the well-known rabbis’ wives (and their husbands) who have graced American Jewish history.
Sharyn Perlman Edelman is a journalist and public relations/communications professional specializing in the Jewish not-for-profit world. Her articles have appeared in numerous Anglo-Jewish publications.