The following is a transcript of Episode 81 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi, everyone, welcome to Identity/Crisis: a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer president of Shalom Hartman Institute North America. And we’re recording on Tuesday, December 14th, 2021. So last week in Identity/Crisis, I talked to Mordechai Lightstone of chabad.org, and I found that to be a fun conversation, a really powerful opening to a growing denomination of American Judaism that I would argue has tremendous visibility, but is actually little understood.
The conversation clearly struck a nerve. I think we got more listener feedback about that show than I think any of the other 70 plus episodes that we’ve run. But there was one response in particular that I found quite striking and that I spent a bunch of hours thinking about and which sets the stage for today’s conversation. It was a message from a friend, a female Hillel director who was commenting on some of the implicit gender dynamics around Chabad and Chabad houses on campus. She said to me that when we’re talking about quote, joy and serving the community, there’s a different culture of professionalism in the Hillel world and not always a great feeling among the female Hillel professionals about being expected to cook for their staff. I realized in last week’s show that I didn’t fully address the system, the gendered heteronormative system that makes Chabad hospitality really work on campus, and the centrality of domestic labor to the version of Jewish hospitality that is so often widely embraced by Jewish students on campus or by Jewish travelers around the world when they encounter a Chabad house.
And for a show like ours, on Jewish ideas and Jewish institutions and Jewish trends, this is a really critical conversation to have in public. Now, of course, the questions of partnership and shared responsibilities and domestic labor and gender, none of these are unique or specific to the Jewish community or to the life of the rabbi.
If you track the recent history of our last four First Ladies, you’d see wildly different stories and representations about domestic partnership in the highest office in the land. Closer to home for me when my parents were overseas for seven years when my father worked as an ambassador in Israel and in Egypt, it was really clear that for both of my parents, it was a shared full-time job.
And my father would be the first to say that, even though he was the only one of the two of them who was an actually salaried government employee, my mother’s role in managing the residence and leading their social engagements was equally essential to their shared success. Or maybe that sentence is backward, even though their roles were shared and essential, only one of them was paid for their work. So today in Identity/Crisis, I wanted to explore the invisible labor that often powers the Jewish community and the challenges around shared leadership shouldered by Jewish leaders, and the expectations that we all might be carrying around, not just about who our spiritual leaders are supposed to be, but who their partners are supposed to be and how they’re meant to serve us as well
To do this, I’m going to speak to two friends and colleagues who are also rebbetzins. This means they are indulging this conversation about a key aspect of their lives and identities that is also not necessarily their primary identity as Jewish leaders. And I’m grateful to both of them for being willing to go there as it were.
Before I introduce them, though, two caveats. First, I realized that especially when I think about that comment for my friend, the Hillel director that I mentioned earlier, that there would be a totally different way to have this conversation, not by talking to, or about spouses, but about clergywomen, themselves, and the oftentimes piles of unspoken expectations that sit upon them.
I think that would make for another great show and maybe we’ll do that. And for now, I recommend a short video by Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses on the Jewish Women’s Archive website. And we’ll put it in the show notes about how she navigated this question in rabbinical school. I’ll also acknowledge here at the get-go that the three of us having this conversation are doing so in a still heteronormative framework.
And if you’d like to read more about how this is experienced differently, in the context of queer coupling, I recommend a short piece that actually came out this week on, HeyAlma called, “Notes from a Southern Lesbian.” Still, we’ll do our best today.
I’m here to speak about these issues in ways that might help with some amount of generalities from the particulars of our own experience, knowing that all of us live in bodies and in families that make our navigation of these questions unique to ourselves.
So with that, I’m really excited to welcome you to the show. Avital Chizik-Goldschmidt, who is a writer living in New York City, an award-winning writer who’s had her work published in the Atlantic, the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, many other places. She’s taught journalism at Yeshiva University Stern College for Women and was previously an editor at the Forward.
I’ll say more about her bio in a second. Avital, thanks for being on the show.
And Maital Friedman my colleague here at the Hartman Institute. Who’s a co-director of our Muslim Leadership Initiative. Previously in a senior role at Repair the World, a Wexner fellow and a major leader in the field of Jewish social justice.
So I want to start by introducing both of you and welcoming you here by talking about your bios. So, Avital, I left out a piece of your bio. When I first introduced to you at the end of your bio, it’s on your website, it says Avital does pastoral work alongside her husband, Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Maital you don’t. You say in your bio Maital lives in Westchester, New York with her family.
I’d love to hear you start by introducing yourselves and how you do identify or don’t identify with the role as part of your professional identity. Avital, we’ll start with you. What’s at stake for you and making that choice?
Avital: First of all. Thank you for having me on it’s a pleasure to be back later on in the pandemic and Maital it’s great to see you as well. You know, it’s taken me a few years to understand that the realities of my life as a rabbi’s wife or rebbetzin or whatever we’re going to call it that a vast majority of my waking hours especially these days have been really defined by this work. And the labor is domestic, certainly, but there’s also, I find, and I wrote about this recently for Vogue, how I’m trying to move away from the domestic demands. And still, I find that there’s a lot of social energy demanded, and if you’re an introvert like me and I am naturally an introvert, that’s not easy.
And just emotional labor, certainly during uncertain times. So it’s taken me years to be confident enough to name that. I think for the first years of marriage in this role, I felt like I had to be quiet about it, that this was sort of my – I would always joke I moonlight as rebbetzin. It’s my weekend gig. But it really does seep into my every day.
And certainly, with the pandemic that has become even more true. So it wasn’t an easy decision to make to be so public about it. That this is really a part of my identity. I think precisely because why you’re asking it, right? It’s not an official role.
But it’s so much of my life and it’s so much of my sacrifices and my time. And also because I believe in it. And that’s really why I’m doing it. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t. So, it’s certainly a part of my identity, but it’s, it’s been a journey.
Yehuda: It’s been a journey. Yeah. What about Maital? For you, you list you live in Westchester with your family. You’re also married to a congregational rabbi. It may not be part of your public story, but I’m sure it influences your professional identity and professional choices.
So how do you navigate that story for you?
Maital: Great. First of all, Yehuda, thank you for having me on today and Avital it’s great to see you and be in conversation with you about this. It very much was a deliberate choice not to put it in. And for most of my career, that this is about that my professional bio is about a career that I built and really frame it in the things that I have done and chosen for myself and am and was hesitant to identify with a role that is strictly because of my husband’s career choice.
And that all is to say that reading through the bio and in this conversation, it will be evident that it has strong implications for as Avital said my day-to-day life. What I think about, what I spend a lot of time concerned about, and also that the type of community that I’m hoping to be building in many ways in partnership with him, even if it’s not a formal professional role or one that I’m paid for. So there are definitely implications. And I think some of this conversation has me rethinking that choice.
Yehuda: I’ll start with you a little bit, Maital. I would love to hear a little bit of details on this of what do you think are the explicit or coded expectations for you as the wife of the rabbi? And I think it might be useful even to use the denominational frame because that’s one of the variables here. You’re in a Conservative congregation.
What do you think are that are the explicit expectations of you and what do you think are the implicit ones?
Maital: In terms of the explicit expectations, I think our community has been very careful to set minimal expectations explicitly and really identify the job of rabbi as being one that is for my partner. And I think implicitly there are expectations around us hosting for the community creating much of it pre-pandemic, but creating a space where our community can gather for informal conversations especially in today’s day and age, outside the walls of the synagogue in places that are more informal and over food and build a relationship, not just with my husband, but with our family. And I think more than expectations, there’s a deep appreciation actually, which I’m incredibly grateful for when I do come with my family to synagogue when I show up either to programs or for services. I think that that has not always been the case and that they’re understanding of that, knowing that I’m not a paid member of the staff.
And yet there is such a deep appreciation when I am there and it impacts all of the relationships that I have in the community whether it’s people turning to me in settings that are outside of the synagogue with questions related to the synagogue, expecting that I’ll know about things happening in the Hebrew school, or turning to me in emotional matters, in matters of deep concern sometimes assuming that my husband has shared confidential things with me, which he has not or just seeking out some sort of counseling support, wisdom. And that could be anywhere from bumping into them in the aisles of the supermarket to parents-teacher situations at my kids’ schools.
Yehuda: Great. So you listed a few things here, including food, including knowledge about what’s going on in the school. And then you’ve used the language of like it’s people like seeing your kids show up in shul which is kind of a weird coded thing. It’s not necessarily there, but it does bring a positive feeling about the rabbi and the rabbi’s family.
Avital, I’ll turn to you in your experience. What have been the explicit and implicit? And here, I want to remind you of the denominational difference because in centrist orthodoxy and to the right there’s no scenario in which the rabbi is female. So as a result, the categories around rabbi being male, rabbi’s wife being female are far, far more fixed, and that might engender, in this context, literally a totally different impression of what the rebbetzin is supposed to do. So what’s your experience been like on that?
Avital: Well, I think there is a lot of overlap with what Maital just said. Certainly food, obviously hosting, you just mentioned just knowing what’s going on. And that’s very commonly a question I get. People ask me about details about an event or something with my husband. And I don’t know. I mean, we lead slightly independent lives.
I think a lot of it, especially over the last few years has been a lot of emotional, sort of pastoral work really where amongst the women. And this is probably, I don’t know if this is denomination specific, but here I find that the women really will reach out to me, want to speak with me, meet me for coffee, talk about something they’re going through.
In a professional therapist sort of capacity, but just sort of as someone who’s, I’m a listening ear. I can’t say I do a great job of it, but that is certainly an expectation. Just showing up at events, at lifecycle events has always been a big struggle for me. I have two small children.
Pre-pandemic I was working full-time in an office. It was really hard just to make it to the weddings, the bar mitzvahs, the brises the funerals, shiva calls. Even in Manhattan, there’s like this additional layer where everyone is getting honored at various points at a different charity dinner and they expect the rabbi and rebbetzin to be there to support them.
So you have this really intensive social calendar. That is really almost like a full-time job.
Yehuda: I think you wrote a piece about this, if I’m not mistaken, about changing from cooking to take out. Instead of cooking the full meals, as opposed to being able to buy some amount of the food and doing some, some takeout. And I loved that because it was like a great illustration of, it seems it’s like a subtle thing, of the difference between cooking the food yourself and being able to buy some. It’s such an obvious thing to do when you’re managing a full-time job as well. Was there any fallout, I mean, among your guests? Were people irritated with the food that you were serving?
Avital: I don’t think in Manhattan, there is this expectation that everything be made from scratch with, by blood, sweat, and tears. I think it’s socially sort of normal to order in. But I think sort of my conditioning of what the image of a rebbetzin was from childhood even was that of course you bake the challah and of course, it’s not only homemade but very plentiful to the extreme.
So in terms of fallout when I made this kind of shift. To be honest, I find most people are grateful to have a minimal meal. I think people don’t want to eat. I know you’re a big foodie, sorry,
Yehuda: Is what it is.
Avital: But I do find people are happy to have a healthy meal.
And then the end of the day, they’re really not there for the gourmet experience. They will go to a restaurant on Madison avenue for that. They’re coming for the conversation, which was really the sort of the scope of that essay I wrote. But we did get a text from one congregant who wrote, you’re inviting me over for a meal.
Which menu is it? Is it the pre-Vogue essay menu or the post-Vogue essay?
I’m sorry. I have a child in the background.
Yehuda: No worries. That’s so great.
Maital: I can jump in on this issue actually. It’s helpful. I one of the things that I’m incredibly grateful for in our current synagogue is that they actually provide us with resources to cater the meals when we have. It makes a tremendous difference that the expectation is not that I’m up late Thursday night cooking for our guests, because I also have a full-time job.
But that we are going to be catering it. And the custodian at the synagogue is also a chef. So he’s often the one who will cook our meals. I think that there’s ironically, oftentimes when we had guests, the person they would thank for the food is me first. And then I would attribute it to whoever actually cooked it.
So there’s still in some ways that implicit assumption that the woman in the house or that the rabbi’s wife is cooking the meal, but there are steps that they are taking in order to create the possibility for us to still welcome people into our homes, with minimizing the demands.
Yehuda: Right. So interesting because they’re alleviating the burden. But I’m curious in the context of a Conservative congregation, which is ostensibly egalitarian, is there any assumption that it’s part of Adam’s responsibility to cook and provide for the community? Or is that still coded as no, that’s the job of whoever Adam happens to be married to?
Maital: Right And it alleviates the burden and they’re still the cleanup and they’re still the organizing. And I think what’s been interesting for us is in trying to because we are a heteronormative couple in this space is to attempt to challenge some of those assumptions and for him to respond, to do some of the cooking, for him to assert the ways in which, and he actually does all of the inviting for those meals, in order to really make it a little bit more explicit that this is part of his role and not part of mine.
Yehuda: Incredible. I’ll just put myself into this a little bit in that. Part of my main job is running an organization. I’m also married to a head of school. And so both Stephanie and I, Stephanie sometimes jokes that because my job is president of this organization, she identifies as the first lady of Shalom Hartman Institute North America. And that, by the way, there are real responsibilities that come with that. People’s names, right? It’s like in the summer, especially, it’s like a big responsibility. And I periodically, by being married to a head of school, also have to function in that role.
But it’s precisely because we have weird dynamics of who does what in our house. And because I’m a man with a high-profile job, anything I wind up doing in that capacity is viewed as a bonus. Nobody asks. I cooked dinner once a year for the Beit Rabban staff and faculty, but nobody if you polled them would be like, yes, it’s the expectation of the spouse of the head of school to do that. It’s more like, oh, cool. That’s so nice. Why would you on earth do that? And I think that you can claim that there are egalitarian households, et cetera, but there are just different coded expectations for men and women.
I’d love to go back if you don’t mind speaking personally for a second. Avital, I know you knew you were marrying a rabbi when you married a rabbi because there’s a New York Times article about it. It was a great article on your courtship with your husband.
Avital: Yes, it’s going to haunt us for the rest of our lives.
Yehuda: It’s an amazing, totally amazing article. But I’d love to hear, like, in the process of like meeting your partners and ultimately getting married and knowing that this was going to be a part of your life by being married to someone who was in a public-facing rabbinic role, how did that inform your own thinking about your professional role if at all? And your design and evolution as a family?
So have you tell, since I knew you were marrying a rabbi because I read it in the Times. And Maital I’m not sure when you got married relative to rabbinical school, that might be a different story.
I want to start with you, Avital.
Avital: Sure. I certainly knew as you said. And I think it was a big point of question for us in the process of our courtship, whether it was going to work out. My husband often jokes, he found the last Orthodox girl in Manhattan ready to marry a rabbi. And perhaps partly because I’m coming from a Soviet Jewish background.
My parents became observant as I was growing up. And I wonder if part of my rosy-eyed naivete about the role was because of that. It was because I kind of grew up a little bit in the margins of community. Not with the sort of close-up understanding of what it means to be a rebbetzin
I had many friends growing up who would say, oh my God, I would never marry a rabbi. That it’s really hard. Even early on, I really believed in his work and our work as a couple. And I think he understood that as well though. We came at it from different places and I obviously came in with my career, which was a little bit complicated, but it was very conscious if not a little bit naive.
Yehuda: What about you, Maital?
Maital: Considering that Adam has known that he wanted to be a rabbi since the age of like 14, I definitely knew that this was something I was going to be getting into. It was pre-rabbinical school. He deferred rabbinical school for two years. We were very young. One so that I could graduate college.
And then we actually spent a year in Uganda together. So he indulged some of my passions. And then I spent five years with him going through rabbinical school. I think there was both a naivete, Avital said around what the role actually entailed to an extent. And I think there was also an idealism in thinking about what our future would be and really believing in what the potential is for a couple of what building a community could look like.
I’ll say one additional piece that as I grew up in an observant Conservative home and spent time in the Orthodox community and am now through him in many ways back in the Conservative world. And yet being observant and egalitarian is not incredibly common.
And so it, in some ways, felt like being part of a rabbinic family is one way to pursue that path.
Yehuda: What do you mean by that? Because there are so few that you’re actually building out the movement that you want to build? Is that what you mean by that?
Maital: I think that there are two pieces. I think one is that is we’re building a community and I think the other is in some ways our strange behavior is acceptable because we’re the rabbinic couple. So we keep Shabbat in a community where almost nobody observed Shabbat in the way that we do, but it’s like, that’s what the rabbi does.
And it’s kind of okay because the rabbi does it even though, it’s not the norm among the people who do it. And actually, the community’s incredibly warm and supportive of it. But I think that there’s a way in which they are warm and supportive because we are the rabbinic family. And so in some ways, we’re expected to be different.
Yehuda: In other words, you’re describing like your outliers relative to your community. But because you’re more traditional you’re exhibiting a set of practices that are unusual. But I assume it probably goes to the other direction. Right? Of like, I can’t believe the rabbi is eating that, or I see them on Shabbat wearing something that they shouldn’t be wearing.
I assume that that’s, that’s traveling in both directions, whether you’re Orthodox or Conservative. And Avital how about you? Part of what we’re talking about here is what it means to be watched all the time? What does it mean to be observed or thought of as an exemplar one way or another?
Sometimes of the thing that people expect a rabbi to do. And often sometimes that’s admiring and sometimes it’s a little derisive.
The rabbi can’t be allowed to do this and certainly not the rebbetzin.
Avital: Yeah. You’re catching me in a very personal, slightly vulnerable moment on this. And I think there’s the idealism that rosy-eyed expectation was actually that there’s going to be a lot of meaning in this and dignity in this. There’s going to be kavod, respect given.
But there’s also some abuse too. And certainly scrutiny. There are moments where I definitely felt very suffocated by that. I remember right after our wedding, actually, it was that New York Times article about our wedding in the vow section and a member of a prominent family in the community, posted the article on Facebook with some personal attacks on my husband and me on our choice of marriage.
I don’t even remember exactly what it was, but there was some attack and it was so shocking. It was this 23-year-old, just kind of thrust into this and suddenly like my most personal life decisions are really privy to public discussion.
Yehuda: Can we talk about sacrifice as part of this? It’s so much part of the Chabad conversation on this. I think it’s one of the ethos that is assumed to be like, why Chabad works is because you have this couple who are basically willing to go wherever Chabad Lubovitch sends them. And sometimes, I don’t know.
I guess you get lucky and it’s the south of France, and sometimes you don’t get lucky and it’s somewhere that’s not the south of France and that you’re devoting your whole life to it. And it’s so much more complicated. I mean, both of you are fortunate and three of us here are fortunate to be living in the New York City area where we can pursue our professional destinies.
And so can our professional partners. And yet I think there’s still this lingering sense that to work on behalf of the Jewish people, especially in a rabbinic couple is an act of sacrifice. And I don’t know whether there’s something useful about knowing and remembering that or whether it’s a kind of language and martyrdom that gets in the way of the work.
I’m curious how much that comes up in how you think about this work or how you talk to your partners about it?
Whoever wants to go first, you go first.
Maital: I think that it has evolved. I will say it has evolved over time and at different moments that it has felt very different for our family. We do feel very lucky that we have community that is very close, not only in the New York area where I can pursue my professional passions but also is very close to both of our families.
And we knew going into the rabbinic search process, that there was a real risk that his job would take us too far from our families and be distant from them. And that has been an important part of our work in that it would have felt like a really, really significant sacrifice. We do have that source of support.
And I think sometimes thinking of it as sacrifice is very hard because it really encompasses a kind of loss that we experience in this work and in the professional decisions that my husband has made and also the choices we’ve made as a family. And there is loss. I think part of what we try to do is to reframe it as both to really focus on the things that we gain from the experience and also to remember that these are choices that we have made.
And I think there were a number of years and where I felt a certain level of resentment until I found some firmer footing. And those were difficult moments where I felt like that where certain aspects of his career were inhibiting some aspects of the religious life that I had imagined for myself or my family or other aspects of my life. And it’s useful now to be able to look back and realize that that changes over time, that none of that is permanent, and being more settled in a community really helps and matters.
I would say one other piece is that as settled as I am, there is a feeling that I am always the wife of the rabbi. Even, in many ways, with very close friends, I’m still the wife of the rabbi, and having relationships that I can turn to and people that I can turn to outside of our immediate sphere is very helpful in grounding me.
Yehuda: Avital you acknowledged that this is a pretty ripe issue for you to be talking about because your family’s story has been in the pages of Jewish media. And I think even in the Times in recent weeks in involving your husband’s abrupt termination from his role. And in those stories that talked about the ways in which you were engaged in a pretty significant act of self-sacrifice on behalf of the congregation, how you were giving of your time.
And I’m curious how that language of sacrifice resonates with what you felt you were doing in going into this work and what the experience of actually being in it and oftentimes unacknowledged or even punished for that work has felt like for you?
Avital: Yeah, I agree with Maital actually that I try to avoid thinking too much about that sort of martyrdom, sacrifice narrative. A lot of what has really given me strength and this is actually the story of my in-laws, who went to Moscow in 1989 as emissaries of Rabbi Steinsaltz to build a community there.
And the stories I heard of their early years in Moscow in the 1990s gave me perspective. I think that it’s okay. I can survive in the Upper East Side. It’s not so bad. But certainly, there have been challenges certainly of late. I thought living in a fishbowl was hard until my most personal life was splashed across tabloids in the last month.
There is right now, for me, a feeling of there’s no good deed that goes unpunished in a way. And I spent a lot of time really devoting hours to teaching girls and young women in the community on their requests. Actually, people sort of reached out to me. Could you teach more?
And I did not have the time for it. You find the time for it when you care. And so that’s been painful. That’s been painful with our current situation the amount we threw ourselves in and really gave but at the same time, we’ve been overwhelmed by love and support, and appreciation from our community members.
So that has sort of given me strength to get through this. And I think it was that sacrifice that experience of working with people so closely and so intensely over these years, that really forged that.
Yehuda: Both of you in our exchange before the show talked about how the pandemic has had a significant influence on this whole conversation of balance for the rabbi, the relationship between the rabbi and the rabbi’s family. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
It’s been the case for me as well. I’d love to hear. Avital, why don’t you go first.
Avital: Sure. The pandemic has really blurred the lines between my husband, our community work, and every other aspect of our life. Especially March, April 2020 in New York City there was a decent amount of trauma at the time both for us. And then our community members were traumatized in so many different ways.
And we had to sort of try to be there for them as much as possible, even remotely. And that whole experience just sort of brought me, I felt like I was living in the rabbi’s study for the first time in all these years. Like I heard every single phone call. I heard the widows crying. I heard the negotiations with the morgues and the undertakers and the funerals. The funeral homes in the cemeteries that were all overwhelmed.
And I wonder if my husband was sort of shielding me from that day-to-day work previously. But obviously, during a pandemic, it’s much more intense. So I saw it more up close, more vividly. It was shocking, but at the same time, I think it really inspired awe in me.
Yehuda: Maital, how about you?
Maital: I would say, as Avital described, the months of March and April were very, very challenging at the beginning of the pandemic when there were numerous funerals when there was both as Avital described the access to some of what my husband was doing and also the trauma that he was experiencing firsthand to be the only one at a cemetery burying someone on behalf of a family. And definitely coming home with significant trauma and thinking about not only my access to that but also my kids were accessing that. They saw him leaving in a suit, I remember, pre-pandemic, my husband was going to a gala in a suit and my like four year old looked at him and goes, who died today. Like suit meant funeral. So my kids have been exposed through the pandemic and just generally as children of the rabbi to death. And the circumstances of it in ways that I think other children are not. I would say in terms of the blurring of the lines, there were also some really valuable pieces for our family.
We didn’t have to be in shul and in many ways as we’ve been talking about being seen, but we could hear services and participate from the other room and really hear him leading services. And so in many ways, the tefillot came into our home and sometimes really beautiful and meaningful ways.
And also he was available for meals and present in our lives in a way that was really important. And we’re figuring out as they, as we transitioned back into more and more in-person how to maintain some of that in our lives.
Yehuda: I’m totally fascinated by this of like with all of the trauma you described, and I think that’s quite real, what can and should change around boundaries in life as a result of this time? And whether we as a community are really paying attention. There’s a lot of anxiety I will say, in the philanthropic sector about what we anticipate will be a great Exodus from Jewish education.
The minute that people can leave jobs and Jewish education and the rabbinate because it’s just so taxing and so exhausting over these couple of years. And I think one of the remedies might be to notice, actually enabling people to have dinner with their families might be something good to preserve as part of a long-term vision.
Maital, you mentioned your kids. Your kids, you’re both raising rabbi’s kids, which is like a whole thing, right? Rabbi’s kids, you’re also raising rebbetzin’s kids. I’m curious what you’ve noticed in terms of your children’s noticing in terms of this life and this lifestyle. I’m also curious whether you would encourage your children to marry rabbis?
Maital: Or become rabbis
Yehuda: Or become rabbis.
What do you say, Maital? What have you noticed in terms of your kids noticing?
Maital: It’s been fascinating because we did a long walk from Scarsdale where we lived to White Plains, my parents’ house. And I actually at one point asked them about it. And I thought do you think they notice? And then we spent an hour and a half, like having them just identify all of the pieces of what it means.
My daughter in particular really notices and feels the sense of spotlight of people looking at her people commenting on her behavior, on how she looks even to the extent that I was not aware of. And actually identified some relief in the pandemic. And feels like coming back now that we’re back in shul and is noticing the ways in which that’s coming up for her again is quite for a nine-year old I would say quite articulate some of the challenges that that faces.
Of course, they have like this beautiful comfort in the synagogue they run around, they all in many ways, feel like they own the place and feel comfortable being there and enjoy being there, and sometimes just want to go with my husband when they can.
And so there is that tension for them. I do remember, one week when my son was about four years old and he wanted to wear something, my husband had already left for shul and he wanted to wear something that was not what I would deem appropriate for synagogue. And I was hesitant and wasn’t sure.
And I said, how do you think people will respond? And he said, oh, they’re going to comment on it. And I was like, well, if you understand that and you are confident wearing it, go for it. And he ran into shul and ran right up to the bima. There was no avoiding the fact that all of the congregants were going to see what he was wearing.
But that was a choice that I think it was important for me that he understood the consequences of it, but made confidently and balancing him the space to make those choices and to really live the life that he chooses and not be confined because of our familial choices and understand the ramifications for his life.
Yehuda: What about you Avital? You’re talking to a multi-generational rabbinical family. What do you see in terms of the kids? What are they seeing? And what do you think that they’re internalizing?
Avital: So, my kids are small. My son is five. My daughter is four. So it’s hard to really sort of understand what exactly they get. But they definitely internalize the scrutiny as well. The last few weeks they, actually specifically getting dressed for shul Shabbat morning, it’s interesting. That’s when it comes up, they always, my son specifically will say, is that fancy enough? And what will people say? He said to me, I don’t want to wear that. People are going to laugh at me.
Avital: I don’t know where he gets that from, but he definitely has some sense of being watched.
They happen to behave really, really well in shul. They seem to love being there. They certainly feel like they own the place which is nice to see, but I already see ups and downs in their emotional relationship with it. There are some times that they’ll tell me they don’t want any guests for Shabbat dinner.
There are some times they just want to be with Mama and Papa and sometimes they were so happy when we have guests and they’re happy to tell them about the parsha and really have a conversation with these adults. So it’s up and down. I did notice something. Interestingly, we switched our children’s schools to a school on the West Side, sort of further from our immediate congregation. And I did see a change in their personality, in their attitudes, really towards school. They’re much calmer to sort of feel like this is their own space. They’re not the rabbi’s kids. They can be just kids.
Yehuda: Well, I have a good version of this story. Seven years back when I was on the list of invitees to the White House Hannukah party. This was two administrations ago. So I took my kids one year. That’s what may have taken me off the list, but I took my kids one year and they were little, my boys were little and we had a great time, took some great pictures.
And on the train back on there, I’ll never forget this. I think my son was maybe seven or eight. He said, but Abba, how will I ever go visit the White House again, if I don’t run a Jewish organization. And I was like, you have a really messed up upbringing. Like, this is totally not normal.
Avital: That’s amazing. It’s going to cost you a lot on therapy.
Yehuda: A small question to ask each of you, maybe finish on a high note. You’ve shared very personally and intimately about your challenges. Maybe share a moment in which you kind of sensed that what you were doing together with your partner was just important work for the Jewish people. I think a lot of us see it. A lot of us implicitly know it, but maybe a moment where you felt it happening and you knew that it was not just your work independently or your partner’s work independently, but that together you were doing something that was really contributing valuables to people or to a community.
Avital, you go first.
Avital: You’ve stumped me. I think I’ll share something that happened this past Shabbat that I’m still sort of processing. My husband and I have sort of started building a space, a new space for our community here in the Upper East Side. We’ve had a lot of people reach out to us saying that they feel that they need a place here that suits them in whatever way.
Would we consider creating that space for them? And we have done that somehow for the last eight weeks, sort of gotten off our feet and tried to do build. And this past Shabbat this past week, my husband said, I really want you to speak, I want you to give the dvar Torah this week, not me.
And that was a little bit nerve-wracking for me. I think this is certainly not how I grew up. Or not, I think the norm in many still in many Orthodox congregations for a woman to give a dvar Torah, even after davening. But the amount of absolute enthusiasm and excitement for a woman sharing and teaching Torah was very inspiring.
And that was something I felt was new and something that we as a couple really sort of try to do. I was sort of nervous about it. And my husband said, no, these are our values. And we need to model that. And the response was so beautiful and positive and exciting, and people just wanting to learn and learn from different people. That moment was really like a Eureka moment for me, just this past week.
Yehuda: Maital how about you?
Maital: I wanted to share two pretty different experiences. One is sometimes when we have guests over on Shabbat afternoon and particular in the winter and they have seudah shlishit, the third meal of the day with us, some snacks. And then we do havdala together. Sometimes the children will say like, we’ve never seen havdala. This is a cool ritual.
Those moments and this goes back to the very beginning of the conversation, in our home really feel moving and performing rituals together. I would say in a kind of different way the community has actually invited me a few times over the five years that we’ve been there to speak in my professional capacity.
So we had an alum from the Muslim leadership initiative come to our congregation. And I interviewed her for the congregation. And those moments have also felt really powerful for me to be engaged with the community in terms of my professional expertise and to be bringing into the space conversations that are really important to me and to see the kind of outpouring of support and engagement on those issues has been quite meaningful.
Yehuda: Well, I can’t thank you both enough for this conversation. A little bit of a different style than some of our conversations in the podcast in the past, but really, really valuable. So, thank you both Maital and Avital for coming on the show this week. I’m going to say to the rest of you who are listening. We need good rabbis.
They’re probably some of our most important Jewish communal professionals. They have been for a couple of thousand years. Please love your rabbis and please love the people who love your rabbis.
And thank you for listening to our show. Identity/Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by So-called. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online at shalomhartman.org.
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