February 20, 2013
In a pile of as-yet-undigitized family photos, I found a gem. It’s from a Purim party, years ago, when my wife and I were newly married. She is dressed as a Chasidic rabbi — black suit, side curls, black hat, mustache and beard. Beside her is the rabbi’s wife — me — in a long proper dress and a blond wig.
If it weren’t for the glaring height discrepancy and my rushed drag queen makeup job, we could pass for a Boro Park couple. She stands about 5-foot-4 — as tall as the Levy men back in the shtetl of her ancestors. But I tower over her, even in my size 13 sensible rebbetzin flats. That blows our cover.
The real Purim story, of course, turns on hidden identities and false fronts. The heroine, Esther the Jewess, passes as a non-Jew. Even God hides, making no appearance in the Purim story. But what strikes me now, years later as I look at our photo, is its honesty. My wife, Naomi, really was a rabbi. And I, her husband, really was a rabbi’s spouse.
And that hasn’t changed. It’s 3 p.m. on Friday as I write these words, and I am racing to finish so I can get home to cook dinner for our guests: chicken in Berber spice, roasted cauliflower with date syrup and tahini, avocado and fennel salad, apple and pomegranate strudel. When the meal starts, it is my wife who will raise the wine glass and recite the blessings, as she always has. She will lead the blessing over our children. If there is a bit of Torah to parse at the table, she’ll do that, too. Our costumes masked nothing.
Since she was a child, my wife dressed as a rabbi on Purim — long before there was such a thing as Conservative women rabbis, through years of people patting the top of her shtreimel and saying how she looked so cute. To them, she had the same chance of becoming what her costume depicted as she would have had she dressed as Richard Nixon or a fish. But the times changed just in time. She wasn’t cute — she was prescient.
As for me, I never aspired to be a rebbetzin — does anyone? But I fell in love, and though it’s not my full-time job, our role reversal is nothing I’ve ever been tempted to hide. She’s a better Jew; I’m a better Jewish cook. You play to your strengths.
This week, a columnist for Mishpocha, the country’s largest Orthodox magazine, called me to complain about an offensive, anti-Charedi blog post that appeared on our site. I could tell from his tone he expected a fight, and I sensed his disappointment when I told him we took the post down as soon as it was brought to our attention, because it didn’t meet our standards for civil discourse. I told him we just as quickly either take down or correct posts that refer to a Conservative or Reform rabbi in quotation marks, as if he or she isn’t truly a “rabbi.”
The columnist told me he doesn’t do that, because he would never refer to them as rabbis in the first place. He always calls Conservative or Reform rabbis “clergy.” He went into a long explanation — ignorant, disrespectful, self-righteous and holy all at the same time — and I just listened.
The truth is it doesn’t matter what one Jew thinks; it matters what most Jews do. And the doors to Jewish inclusion are inexorably opening. It is a matter of time before women lead Orthodox congregations.
In the early years of our marriage, people thought our arrangement was novel and unusual — me shuttling back and forth to the kitchen, Naomi leading prayers.
Guests would say we were cute — the verbal equivalent of patting us on the shtreimel. But in a religion, as in a home, the unusual has a way of becoming the norm.
The mutual embrace of women and Jewish life has, in our lifetimes, injected Judaism with new vitality and sheer numbers that will ensure its relevance for generations. It’s one more reason I can’t seem to join the chorus of krechtsers (look it up) that is forever predicting the imminent doom of Jewish life. Through struggle and persistence, women have pushed the evolution of ancient strictures, freeing up almost 50 percent of Jewish humanity to make a full contribution to the life of their community. Opening Jewish life to women has not, as its critics once argued, ensured its demise. It has secured its survival.
You see this in the non-Orthodox rabbinical schools, whose enrollment is sometimes more than half women. You see this in nascent Jewish organizations, more and more conceived and run by women. You see it in Israel, where Rabbi Miri Gold fought for and won Knesset recognition, alongside the Orthodox. The idea that they can make such contributions to Jewish religious life is just dawning on Israeli women — the effects will be far-reaching. Just this week, we saw a heartening example when Ruth Calderon, the newly elected Knesset member in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, delivered a talmudic lesson from the podium.
Yes, there are obstacles. Just this week, as well, an Israeli woman who refused to ride in the back of a public bus was heckled and threatened by Charedi passengers. But still, she held her ground.
The full inclusion of women is a revolution in modern Jewish life, every bit as momentous as the creation of the State of Israel. A generation of children have grown up in Jewish homes — including my own — where the woman doesn’t have to mask her power, or potential.
Like Esther, the heroes of the Jewish future will be its heroines.