How the Pandemic Helped Me Embrace Being a Rabbi’s Wife

I was 23 years old when I arrived on the Upper East Side as an awkward bride—marrying a young rabbi, and with him, all that came with synagogue life.

The traditional responsibilities of a rabbi’s wife, colloquially in Yiddish the “rebbetzin,” are to visit the sick, attend weddings, funerals and charity dinners at her husband’s side, host refined Shabbat and holiday dinners, teach religious studies and inspire the women in the community—a spiritual First Lady. It is life in a fishbowl: one is expected to smile, nod, hold hands, listen; to be present. She is “always called upon to be hospitable, amiable, friendly, and above all tactful,” one rebbetzin, Ruth Wolf Levi, wrote in 1955. The lofty expectations of the American rebbetzin transcended cultural trends; many women gravitated to the status of being a rabbi’s wife, yet chafed at the high bar set for them. One Orthodox rebbetzin, Libby Klapperman, wrote in a satirical letter in 1969, “She who is required to be the best dressed, most frugal, best cook, most slender, best speaker, most glamorous, and most articulate, charming, talented, relaxed, pleasant, well-adjusted, happy partner.”

Somehow, it sounded both religiously meaningful and socially glamorous to my naive 23-year old self—though it quickly dawned on me that no matter how warmly congregants greeted me, my life would now be in the limelight. Nothing is private, not my waistline, not my dress choices, not my time—and not my home, where we began to host Shabbat and holiday dinners, which became one of my main projects.

But I embraced it. I tried my best to be a gracious hostess; I baked challah and I cooked elaborate Ottolenghi-inspired meals with a side of Ashkenazi delicacies. I ironed table linens and laid out my precious wedding china. Three years into our marriage, I was working full-time as a journalist, and on Friday afternoons, I would race home from the office, pregnant and with a toddler at home, my anxiety peaking as the subway got delayed, my mind racing through all the food that I needed to cook before sunset, before the clock would strike and Shabbat would begin and nothing could be done. These pre-pandemic days come to me now as a blur of sweat, of crippling insecurity, constant self-consciousness, notebooks in which one side of the page have story notes and the other side Shabbat menus.