The Rab­bi’s Wife: The Reb­bet­zin in Amer­i­can Jew­ish Life

Shu­ly Rubin Schwartz
  • Review
By – June 25, 2012
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.

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