The first time the word "rebbetzin" appeared in The New York Times was in 1931, in a review of a book about Yiddish theater. The term stood untranslated; the reviewer and his editors assumed that readers would understand the meaning.
The word has gone in and out of favor among those whom it describes, but the role itself has been an influential one, albeit not always recognized, over the last century in the American Jewish community. The first book to study the evolution of the role and the women who have filled it, "The Rabbi's Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life," by Shuly Rubin Schwartz (New York University Press), not only honors many unsung heroines but provides a significant contribution to American Jewish history.
Schwartz, a professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and dean of its undergraduate List College, is the daughter, niece, wife and soon-to-be the mother of rabbis. Sadly, since beginning this book, her husband, Rabbi Gershon Schwartz, died suddenly, so she now has an additional role -- that of widow of a rabbi. Although "The Rabbi's Wife" is not at all personal, Schwartz's insider's perspective informs her book. Because of her background, she was able to gain access to rabbis' wives of different generations, who felt comfortable opening up their lives and -- when they had kept them -- their files.
Schwartz began pondering related issues while a graduate student at the Seminary in the 1970s, as she noticed the number of women in her classes hoping to get into rabbinical school should JTS begin ordaining women. "It got me thinking: Here are these bright, motivated religious women, who felt a calling to the rabbinate. My question was where were all these talented women in previous generations? My answer was that a lot of the talented women married rabbis."
These days, professionals do much of the work that once was taken care of by the rebbetzin: synagogues now have executive directors, assistant rabbis, education directors and youth directors. In general the traditional rebbetzin role continues to thrive mostly in the Orthodox community, where women cannot be ordained. One pocket where the role continues most clearly is the Lubavitch community, where rabbis and their wives do outreach work as a team. But among the other denominations, women's roles have changed radically.
"Women don't have to marry rabbis to lead," Schwartz says. "In balance, the Jewish community is richer."