“Pulpit Plus One: The Secret Lives of Rabbis’ Husbands, Partners, and Wives” features the voices and experiences of the partners of pulpit rabbis. In this interview series, takes an honest and lively look into the nuances of a complex role.
Malya is a 34-year-old accountant, married to Daniel, an assistant rabbi at a Reform congregation outside of Philadelphia. They met in college, and have been married for four years.
During Daniel’s job search for a pulpit, did you go on the interviews? What do you remember from that time?
Daniel got call-backs from a congregation in New York and from the congregation here. And I went to both places. I went to both places after Daniel had already been there — a day after he would arrive, I would arrive.
[This was] in part because I was trying to minimize my time off from work! Because I couldn’t exactly tell them. I have a colleague that I used to work with, and he was kind of a mentor to me (he would hate that word — he would think it was way too serious). He knew what was going on. I was like, “What should I tell people?” and he said, “Tell them you have some family matters to take care of, and no one will ask you any questions.”
How were the interviews for you? Any highlights? Or lowlights?
Well…they were both really nice. I’ve repressed some of it. [laughs]
In New York, my stomach had been bothering me, and we went to lunch, and (this is the first time this ever happened to me) I threw up in a trash can on a street corner, in front of the head of the search committee and the other rabbinic couple. And Daniel.
I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole. It was pretty special.
Wow, yeah. And to zoom out for a second — how did you feel about being partnered to a pulpit rabbi, going into it? Have those feelings changed over time?
When we were looking for jobs, I did not want him to interview for a solo [position], because I did not want to be the only rabbinic spouse. What is ironic is that the congregation we are at here, the rabbi’s spouse is not involved at all. Comes to services once or twice a month, tops. Doesn’t generally come to other things.
It appears from the outside that her goal is to focus on her relationship with her husband rather than the congregation; they hired her husband and not her. I don’t think she sees it the same way [that I do]: herself as a partner in helping her husband serve the congregation.
Do you think congregants see or feel — or comment on — the difference?
I have been told by more than one congregant that they really appreciate that I am there, and they appreciate the commitment that we have to the community. So people notice. Does it going to make a difference? We got a really nice [renewal] contract, and they were excited to have us stay.
And there are people who say, “We really like having you guys here. We really like the energy that you guys bring.” They talk about us as a couple! That’s something that’s important to me; my Judaism and being part of a congregation is important to me.
Sometimes it’s stressful. Like Friday night I went to services, but I sat up in the balcony, because I was like “I am just not up for necessarily being on display, so I’m going to sit upstairs, and then when it’s over I’m going to come down and say hi to everyone.”
I’m curious to hear more about that. What are some of the effects that this role has had on your own Jewish identity or observance?
For me, truly spiritual experiences are few and far between; “few and far between” sounds somewhat derisive…but they are! I can’t decide if that is a function of my role as a rabbinic partner, or if that’s what it would be anyway at age 34 and working full time. I can’t determine what is what, but I think [this role] does in some way impact your own spirituality.
I sat in the balcony on Friday night because I knew we were doing the [in vitro fertilization] transfer of the embryo the next day. I knew I might get emotional, and I didn’t want to have to explain to anyone why I was getting emotional, but I still wanted to go to services. So I sat upstairs, where I knew I wasn’t going to run into anyone until I was ready to run into them.
What has it been like going through this while also being in the public eye?
We’re really lucky in that we don’t have congregants asking us if we’re going to have a baby. And I don’t have to do life-cycle events — my husband has to do brises!
[Being in this role] has not added a dimension, though Jews are obsessed with the next generation, and there’s so much emphasis around dor v’ dor [one generation to another]. So that gets a little exhausting.
Do you feel like you have to be “on” all the time? When do you get to be off?
I want to tell you this story [laughs]. We had just moved to town, literally had moved like two days before, and we went to IKEA. And we’re at IKEA, and we don’t keep kosher, and had gotten a piece of pepperoni pizza.
We’re sitting there eating our pizza, and some couple comes up to Daniel and goes “You’re the new rabbi!” — [the Temple] had published a welcome article about him. So I am very subtly trying to unfold a napkin over our piece of pizza so it is not glaringly obvious that: yes, we have just got to town, and yes, this is your new rabbi, and yes, he is sitting at IKEA eating pepperoni pizza.
I have gotten over that, because people know that Daniel doesn’t keep kosher, and that’s not a big deal. But I was like, really, this is the first impression you’re going to have of your rabbi — him eating pepperoni pizza?
I do not feel like I am always, always on — but I don’t feel like I am ever completely off, either. [And] when I’m at temple, I generally assume that someone is watching me. And not even in a malicious way, but just, “Oh, you seem blah — what’s up?”
I heard a story about someone being complimented at a funeral because they had been tearing up during the eulogy.
Yeah, there you go. When you least expect it, someone’s like “So, blah-blah-blah”, and you’re like, “What the hell? I can’t believe you saw that!”
Do you feel like there are any explicitly stated expectations of your role, or implicitly stated expectations?
No. That’s one benefit of coming to a congregation where there had not been a rabbinic spouse who was involved. The fact that I show up to services and come to some bnei mitzvahs, and come to community-wide events — their reaction when I come is so positive, I don’t think there’s any expectation that I would do anything in any particular way. So in that sense, I’m very lucky.
I don’t know if I’m setting myself up for failure if something changes in the future [laughs], but I don’t think so. Because I can’t imagine myself pulling back completely.
How do you feel about the title “rebbetzin” [Yiddish, “rabbi’s wife]? Are there congregants who call you that?
I don’t take it too seriously. There are a couple people that call me “rebbetzin”, but sort of jokingly. I know that there are lots of people who find [the title] offensive or insensitive or degrading or demeaning…it’s part of who I am. It’s not all that I am, like if they called me “rebbetzin” and had no idea that I was an accountant, or called me a rebbetzin and expected me to do nothing but get my husband coffee — that might be a problem.
Are there any ways that this role has affected your career?
It’s funny — when we were in LA and I was at a larger company, I had more events [for work] that I would go to, and he would come. And I’d introduce him as: “This is my husband Daniel, he’s in rabbinical school.”
So we started to switch roles. Now [at my current job] there are not the same avenues for him to come with me to things. It’s much smaller, and the same opportunities aren’t there.
How do you feel about that?
It’s fine. My goal in life is not to be at some huge company. We try to make decisions that balance both of our careers.
What advice would you give to a rabbinic search committee on the role of the spouse or partner?
There are plenty of people who would disagree with me, but I think, regardless of gender, part of [that] role is to support the rabbi within the congregation. Because otherwise it’s lonely, and it’s hard, and it’s exhausting. They can’t do it all themselves.
The search committee should see: Do they seem like a good duo? Do they seem like a good team? Because you’re going to want that rabbi to have good support so that they can be the best rabbi they can be.
This interview has been edited for length, and identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity.