Ask the Rebbetzin: What Exactly is a Rebbetzin?

Dear Rebbetzin,

What is a Rebbetzin?

Genuinely Curious

Dear Curious,

There are two answers to your question: The simple one is that Rebbetzin is a term for Rabbi’s wife. But the second answer feels, to me, as complicated as if you had asked “What is a wife?”

I hadn’t heard the term Rebbetzin until near the moment I became one. (I was raised a Reform Jew in a community where this word wasn’t in use.) As my wedding approached, I was excited to learn that my partnership with Dan would bestow a title, and one with roots to the Yiddish mother tongue. It sounded retro, even cool.

However, I soon became aware that several friends - mostly women - whose vernacular had included the word Rebbetzin had trouble with this moniker.

They expressed concern over my embrace of a word which they felt marred by an old worldliness, an obligatory role defined by one’s husband (one that often included sitting on many committees, running religious school, entertaining and presenting a certain type of image to the community). This bucked up against egalitarian sensibilities.

Still, a word that conjured up so much reaction felt powerful, and as someone who loves language, it peaked my interest to think about what this title could mean in context of the community that Dan and I were creating.

Early on, when someone told me “You don’t look like a Rebbetzin,” I responded, “You should see the Rabbi.”

Isn’t this part of the beauty of the tradition? How different we can look while turning to the same text, towards the same prayers and rituals? In spite of the different ways in which we grapple with the words, we are all reading, reimaging from this very same book — what a powerful and connecting act.

I will also just come out and tell you, Curious, that I might be less horrified by traditional titles than some. The fact is, I am married to a rabbi. And similar to The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Pilot’s Wife, being the wife of a rabbi is a pivotal component to my identity. Dan serves the needs of many people, and I know that my role is essential in this; that feels not like a submission but more like a claiming.

In our family, the most important tenants of egalitarianism aren’t who did more dishes or woke up more times with the kids or who makes more money. But it is a deep respect, a knowledge that we are in a partnership, that what the other person thinks and feels matter - crucially - to each other and will alter the decisions we make - big and small - and the very course of how we spend our lives.

It is this type of marital equality that I like to think makes any discrepancies in division of household labor more bearable. And, well, everything else too.

Thank you for this question. I am not sure, Curious, if you were inquiring about the basic translation of the word Rebbetzin or the inter workings of this role. Your asking made me probe both. It is something that I have wrestled with and, at one point, had considered changing the header of this column to “Ask Alana,” but I decided, nah, I’m going to keep the title. I earned it.


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This story "What is a Rebbetzin?" was written by Alana Joblin Ain.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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