Rabbis’ Wives: Then and Now

The G’s were a lovely rabbinic pair… On one visit, a very long time ago, my host Rabbi descended to the cellar to take care of the ashes…I heard him say, “Leah, I think I have a wedding today please check my calendar.” Leah promptly did and reported, “No, there is nothing on the calendar.” The Rabbi emerged from the basement, clothes covered with white dust, and decided to look up his own pocket calendar “Heavens, yes, a wedding…” But where? He had neglected to enter the time and place. Rebbetzin to the rescue.

She called the home of the bride and the mother answered. The Rebbetzin said, “This is Western Union. We have a telegram for you. Where is the wedding taking place? ” It will be at the Rabbi s home at 2:00.” Well, the three of us put that house in order fast. The Rabbi got out of his jeans and into his striped pants and black jacket. Nes godol hayo shorn—a great miracle happened there.

Lilly Soloway Routtenberg, wife of Max Routtenberg, rabbi in Reading, Pennsylvania (1932-48) and Rockville Centre, Long Island (1954-72), penned the above story. As the “miracle” demonstrates, Routtenberg believed that rabbis needed the knowledge, dedication and ingenuity of their wives to succeed in their careers The rebbetzin [rabbi’s wife] expertly set up the ritual objects for the wedding, but since her actions fell well within the purview of the homemaking role, they simultaneously reinforced the gendered nature of her position rather than threatening her husband’s. At the same time, performing mundane housekeeping duties in preparation for a wedding imbued such work with a larger, sacred purpose.

Throughout her life, Routtenberg understood the rabbinate as a two-person career. In her words, “without a wife, it’s half a rabbinate.” Serving her husband’s congregation as hostess, educator, writer and speaker, she recalled with great satisfaction that “we had a very happy rabbinate.”

It is not surprising that many rebbetzins of the era felt the same way, given prevailing societal attitudes. Women made up approximately 40 percent of all college students in the 1930s and 1940s. But marriage and family continued to be the primary goal for American women. Frustrated, many educated, ambitious wives continued to search for acceptable ways to combine marriage and career.

During this period, society came to believe that marriages succeeded more fully when women served as wife-companions who shared an interest in their husbands’ work. They also made an effort to learn more about their husbands’ careers, working as nurses or office managers for their doctor or businessman husbands. In this circumscribed way, some women succeeded in maintaining careers after marriage.

In the 1930s and 1940s, women encountered a husbandwife team relationship in the White House. Already in 1930, as a governor’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt had described the significance of this kind of marriage, noting that while women had formerly focused on motherhood, they now increasingly emphasized their roles as partners to their husbands. Roosevelt modeled this shift, for she took on so many activities that reporters described Franklin and Eleanor as a team.

As the First Lady, through her newspaper column “My Day” and public appearances in a variety of venues, Roosevelt influenced policy to a degree unparalleled in the White House. Some rabbis’ wives felt a unique affinity with Roosevelt, for they, too, had a special title which derived from marriage.

During the 1930s and 1940s, marriage to a rabbi continued to be an ideal avenue for Jewish women to combine marriage and career in a way that reinforced rather than challenged societal views.

[Fast forward 30 or 40 years]

Hearing ‘Woman of Valor’ makes me want to throw up.” This rebbetzin’s lament resonated all too often by the mid 1970s.

Even what to call the rabbi’s wife became a “hot button” issue in the 1970s. Debate over the changing role of the rebbetzin spilled out of the seminaries and rabbinical conventions and into the general press in 1975. The debate reached a fevered pitch with the publication in 1978 of Rachel, the Rabbis Wife by Silvia Termenbaum, herself a rebbetzin. This novel opens with a description of rabbi and rebbetzin making love on a cold January morning, their postcoital afterglow rudely interrupted by a call from the synagogue. ‘”Shit!” the rabbi cursed as he hung up the phone, “They want me for the minyan.”