“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, “Pulpit Plus One” takes an honest and lively look into the nuances of a complex role.
Mark is a financial analyst in his late forties, married to Jessica, a congregational rabbi. They have been married for nineteen years, and have three children. When Mark met Jessica, she was an associate rabbi at a large Reform congregation, and this is her third pulpit since they’ve been together.
First of all, how did you and your partner meet?
I had been what I describe as a “default Jew”, which is: Yom Kippur, junior year of high school, I look at my mom and say, “I am not walking into this building again. I am done. Done.” I spent the better part of a decade being a default Jew. I took no action to maintain my membership, I just rested on the fact that you couldn’t revoke it.
But I felt something was wrong in all of my relationships — they all ended for a variety of reasons, but one common thread is they [the people I was dating] weren’t Jewish. I decided that I either engage with the Jewish community or spend decades in therapy figuring out why this was important to me. It was easier and cheaper to re-engage. I went to one of these events for people in their 20s and 30s and she was there. I didn’t go looking to date, I just went to meet other Jews, and we hit it off.
What was going through your mind, being — as you describe it — a “default Jew” hitting it off with a congregational rabbi and starting to date her?
It’s weird — it didn’t register. She is smart, [has a] master’s degree, has her act together, [is] funny, engaging. You know, somebody asks me, “What it is like to date a rabbi?” and I say “Well, it’s a lot like dating a woman, because she is one [laughs].” That just happened to be her job. She could have been a lawyer or banker or phlebotomist, whatever. The first thing [was], gee whiz, I’m dating anybody!
Very quickly we realized this was a thing. She said, “Look, there’s some ground rules.” Basically we agreed that we would keep it away from the congregation. We wanted to be able to see where it went, to develop it and build up a collective shield so that when we went public it wouldn’t be so abrupt. She had had colleagues who had gotten into relationships with congregants and were very open and very public, “Oh yay, we went on our first date!” and then three weeks later they got dumped and it looked bad for everybody.
I would show up for events, I would show up for services, and she would greet me like anybody else. Then we would secretly meet afterwards. In fact, it was so secret, it eventually came out that she was dating somebody, but I did not self-identify. I was there and nobody knew it was me.
Did you ever hear a congregant gossiping and saying, “She’s dating this guy…”?
People said “She’s dating this guy” and the next thing was “What do we know?”. And people would say, “We don’t know anything. Nobody’s seen him. Nobody knows who he is. She doesn’t say anything about it other than she’s dating somebody and she’s very happy with him.” Her senior rabbi knew, the cantor knew, and literally no laypeople in the congregation had any idea who I was - and I was walking amongst them.
I also knew there was going to be a high level of scrutiny once I was outed. That gave me time to prepare and decide how I wanted to deal with it. Was I going to be like, “Hello! Verily I am your rabbi’s boyfriend!” or “Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Mark and I’m going to go now.”? I made the decision to be courteous and say little.
Was there any transition or was it just one day you got engaged?
About three weeks before we got engaged, we outed me in a very subtle way: I showed up and I was next to her. There was enough body language that as opposed to avoiding her, I was with her. At that point people were like, “That’s him. That’s him.” Suddenly I was introduced as the boyfriend. Then three weeks later we announced our engagement. We had kept this quiet for over five months.
Wow, that’s wild. And since then, I know you’ve been in a few different communities together. When your wife was doing her pulpit searches, what was that like for you?
We went into it with a set of clear, unified goals. Her role was to demonstrate who she was as a rabbi and give them a picture of the type of rabbinate that they would have if they chose to elect her.
For me, I knew what was happening. No matter what, we were always separated. It was always an interview but it’s the worst kind of interview because it’s an interview that isn’t an interview. Some of [the search committee members] were really savvy and some of them were just sloppy.
A lot of it was benign dirt-digging, like “are you guys thinking about kids?” You can’t ask that legally to a job applicant… but you can ask it to the spouse.
Being that I had a patented form of being a mystery, that was my shield. It wasn’t to the point where I came across as aloof or rude - it was friendly. There’s a great story about Frank Sinatra: Dean Martin’s wife hated the fact that he hung out with Sinatra. She would say, “Dean, why do you hang with Sinatra? He hangs with monsters and he’s threatened to kill people. What do you guys even talk about?” Dean Martin said to his wife, “Honey, when I’m with Frank, we keep it light.”
In the interview process, I keep it light. Every time they turn it into “your wife seems to be very liberal about things,” I know where they’re going. “We’ve got a lot of interfaith families here.” Look, if you want to know if she does interfaith weddings, just freaking ask her. I’m sure at one point they did, but the people dealing with me clearly had an agenda every time. I just kept it light: “Oh, that’s a funny park,” as we drive by, “Why’d they name the park that?” It was these quick changes. Also, I have funny stories. I’ll tell a funny story that essentially gives them no insight into anything.
Someone once said to me, “There’s a difference between personal and intimate.”
For me the dichotomy is between shirt and skin. You can take off your shirt - you can’t take off your skin. Whatever I give them, it’s just a shirt. It means nothing. It satisfies their want for something. They don’t walk away empty -handed, but they took nothing from me.
Do you have that same relationship with your congregants?
The number one piece of advice which I have heard [is]: congregants are not your friends. I sound overly harsh, but this is the life. [But] there’s lots of good stuff — I don’t want to say it’s all been a giant pile of suck. Congregants have done fantastic things for us. When my children were born, when my wife miscarried, people came out in waves of support that I cannot begin to express my gratitude for. From that perspective, it’s lovely.
I’m curious to hear more — what are some of the positive aspects for you in terms of being married to a pulpit rabbi?
I take great pride in the fact that what my wife does changes people’s lives. It sounds very dramatic and Hallmark-card-like, but she is the current generation of leadership for a tradition that goes back six thousand years. That’s actually kind of bad-ass. When the power goes out, my job doesn’t work. There is no permanence to what I do. I’ve made peace with that because it’s a fine paycheck. [But] there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people whose lives are demonstrably better because of something she did.
Regarding your role, how did you feel going into it? Have your feelings changed over time?
I often wonder: had I not married her, what would Passover look like? Would I take responsibility for running a Jewish home? Outside of the personal appeal of who she is, marrying a rabbi basically got me off the hook for Jewish responsibility because she would be Number-One-Jew. I don’t have to even think about it. If you marry a rabbi, it’s like the kill shot for racquetball: you can’t beat it. You have an in-house expert. You have completely abdicated responsibility by marrying this person.
There is a sense of relief in doing that. The benefit is I have Jewish kids, we have a Jewish household, I lead a Jewish life, and I don’t have to be responsible for it — but there’s a price: my own spirituality. I’m not able to explore that like another person because I’m always under the spotlight. I can’t struggle with things, I can’t engage in that same way, I can’t take a class because if say something stupid, it reflects on her. The price is I will never have the freedom to truly answer my own Judaism.
[But] at this point, this is good. We’ve made peace with the things we needed to make peace with and we’re enjoying the things that we need to enjoy. As my father likes to say: it’s all part of the package.
This interview has been edited for length, and identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity.