A photo of the author. (Dara Feinberg)

Confessions of a rabbi’s wife: “I wanted to hide behind a husband and a wig”

As a writer and the wife of an Orthodox rabbi , I stand out as a strange, misfit creature in a world of rules


follow us in feedly
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt
December 27, 2015 12:30am (UTC)

They told me that the first time you try on a wig, as a bride, you cry.

The wigmaker, tottering in heels and casting her own long mane over her shoulder, flutters her wide eyes as she explains that she keeps a box of tissues nearby for this very occasion.

"But funny, you didn't cry," she says, watching me. "You laughed. I've never had a bride who laughed."

I smile and say simply that I’m excited for my wedding, less than a month away. Less than a month left of wearing my hair out in fresh air. This moment that they had always glamorized for us girls, created this into a great privilege — that proud symbol of status, a head-covering for a woman spoken for, that crowning glory of the Orthodox Jewish woman — is now finally here, and how very mundane it feels, here in this Brooklyn wig shop with these girls and stylists chattering all around me.

I spin around in my chair to face the mirror, this new foreign hair falling in waves over my shoulders. I tilt my head to the side, and wonder if I actually look more Russian now than ever before – “neizbezhno,” I say under my breath in my native Russian. Inescapable. No uniform could hide my Russian background, an awkward misfit in the Orthodox world.

The wigmaker shows me other styles — I will need a few wigs to start out with, one for everyday and one for Sabbath, holidays, weddings. Straight or curly? Darker or lighter, a more edgy ombre perhaps? Which hairstyle will be my signature for the first chapter of marriage? 

“I need something that looks sleek, professional,” I explain to her. “I’m a journalist. It needs to look effortless.”

“A journalist?” she echoes, not sure if she heard me right. “That’s interesting.” She laughs: What is a good religious girl doing as a journalist?

“But my fiancé is a rabbi,” I add. “So it needs to be a rabbi’s-wife-wig too, you know?” I don’t know how to explain to her that I’m counting on my wig to somehow make sense of a lot of things.

“A wig for a journalist and a rabbi’s wife?” The wigmaker’s eyes are laughing now. “That’s funny. Where do you write?” She lists off Orthodox women’s magazines, the kind that offer advice for hosting extravagant holiday meals and keeping your children religious.

I smile and say simply, no, not really. She looks at me again, closer now.

“So tell me about your fiancé,” she breathes as she takes the wig off my head in one sweeping motion.

*

They started saying it as soon as we got engaged.

“Are you ready for this?” A wink, and then: “Rebbetzin?”

A rebbetzin: a rabbi’s wife, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

That position of intense scrutiny: made all the more intense as a bride, and then all those awkward Orthodox newlywed moments — on just how natural your wig looks, on your wardrobe, on your cooking, on your home decorating.

It was a sudden comic flip of destiny.

I was a young journalist, after all. Raised in the Orthodox community by Russian-speaking Jews who had become religious as I was growing up, I was always the good girl, good student, respectful, modestly dressed, involved in all the school activities, writing in the student newspaper. Like the other serious students, I met with religious teachers regularly to discuss my spiritual improvement. My friends and I never dared to utter a word of gossip; a stray mocking word would be treated with shocked looks. Sabbath afternoons were devoted to lounging on sofas and learning holy books. Our lives were entirely made up of words, a blur of English and Hebrew letters, each word studied painstakingly. “If words could create the world, they could also destroy it,” our Bible teacher reminded us.

But in university, I continued that obsession with words – I began to write and publish, earning the reputation of a critic, an Orthodox woman who was unafraid to speak her mind, to publish uncomfortable opinions on her own religious community, on mandated modesty, on women’s roles, on social pressures, on dating and marriage, on the rabbinic establishment. It had become a routine: Occasionally, I would muster up the courage, write an essay, and then brace myself for the ambush afterward: "How, exactly, does she expect to get married after this?" Or, worse: "She's too smart to be religious. Give her a year, and she’ll leave it all."

*

When I was first set up with my husband-to-be, years ago, I saw him as staunchly "establishment"; a young assistant rabbi, a charming smile, a fluent Russian, a proudly ultra-Orthodox background spanning several continents, a love for learning and teaching, for working with people. After several dates, he told me it was impossible for us to be together, rabbi and journalist. I thought he had nerve; a few months later, I wrote an essay for the New York Times, and referred to him when describing Orthodox men afraid of opinionated Orthodox women. He was incensed then, but our paths only crossed again two years later, by chance; when we went out to dinner that first time again, I blurted out, “I don’t know what I’m even doing here.” We stared at each other from across the table wondering if we could ever trust one another, if two people this impossible could build a life together.

A complicated and lovely courtship later — we got engaged, and suddenly, the critic was becoming the establishment, the iconoclast was becoming a “rebbetzin.” As a bride, I could hear the chortle of Divine laughter as I found myself whisked to meetings with holy rabbis offering their blessings. At night, I would wonder aloud about this to my new wigs waiting to be worn, discussing this with the manneqin heads in a secret Russian and taking solace in their silent response. Teachers who had once berated me for becoming too “modern” suddenly called me to apologize and congratulate me,"You did it!" to which I would just smile and murmur thanks to the Almighty, but deep down wonder, You only accept me now because I have rabbinic certification, ah?

*

Teachers had always encouraged me to write – yet when I began to publish outside our community, it became clear that I had crossed the line. I was telling too much about my own, and it was too searing for them to face. “I read your latest article,” people would tell me at synagogue, at a dinner, and then squirm in discomfort, sputtering, unable to explain what it was exactly that bothered them. “It’s just...how you said it,” they sputter. “Why talk about it?”

In the meantime, I attended writers’ parties, where the other writers, who had left the Orthodox world behind to pursue self-professed “hedonism," laughed at me: “You’re still doing the sleeves thing?” They tugged at my long sleeves. I stood out. I blushed and stepped back, watching them. In the past few years, an entire genre of books had emerged describing the drama of leaving the lifestyle and faith I held dear – and as I read them, watching the frenzy of publicity that came along with those exodus stories, I thought, I would never want to leave this place, this way of life. I was determined to at once stay inside and speak my mind.

But it seemed like an impossible balancing act. I was told that writing would be the end of me, the end of my marriageable reputation. I began to wonder if that was indeed true when I realized with horror that my setup dates were repeatedly making the joke that I was some Orthodox Carrie Bradshaw (though I wonder how Orthodox men knew of that television show). Rumors said that my writing was being handed out in Orthodox girls’ seminaries in Israel; teachers decided to use me as a warning to their students. Sometimes, I was invited to speak at religious girls’ schools. I would agree reluctantly, only because I knew that the moment those starry-eyed girls looked at me when I arrived breathless off a train, me with my uncovered hair, my words would carry little weight – my uncovered head would give me away, that stigma of an unmarried woman, the girl who chose her writing over marriage at the ripe age of 22.

*

A year ago, through the gauze of my wedding veil, and later in the blur of the wedding dancing, I watched as the leaders of the very communities I had once criticized danced in front of me.

“I want to get married so that I have a husband and a wig to hide behind,” I wrote once in my diary, during the single days. I was only 21 then, but already weary of dating. I wanted to be taken seriously — in the secular world I was forever considered oppressed as a religious woman, in the religious world I was rendered incomplete as an unmarried woman. As a single woman, I knew I was somewhat dangerous, a wild card — no one knew how to place me, exactly, no husband could call for me and vouch for my acceptability. A wig, a ring, a new last name: it seemed like a ticket to freedom, a way to keep to my love of traditions, while still pursuing a life of the mind and pen.

And now, finally, that elusive husband and wig were here, those coveted prizes of class stature  — but there was nowhere to hide. I was a rebbetzin now. That very scrutiny that I dreamed of escaping, as an aspiring writer in a tightly knit community, had just escalated, for a rabbi and his family forever live in the public light.

My unofficial job description here, at the minimum, is to simply be present. Ever since a week after my wedding, every Sabbath morning, I enter the synagogues womens balcony, and make that long walk to my seat stepping with measure around the perimeter of the sanctuary, hoping to God I dont stumble, as the cantors voice soars, the choir trills, the men sway below in prayer shawls, the women in their hats, the Torah scrolls jingling, these high ceilings and golden chandeliers.

The first months were a daze. Instantly, there were hundreds of names and faces to memorize, cheeks to air-kiss and hands to shake: who was married to whom (and just as important, who was divorced from whom), family trees of dynasties, childrens schools, parentsprofessions and businesses, their vacation homes, their scandals. Instantly, I was adopted by an entire community of doting parents and grandparents. A congregant with a bridal dress company had his designer create a custom modest wedding gown for me. When I mention offhand a planned trip to Europe to a congregant, I come home the next day to find some guidebooks dropped off with a thoughtful note. When I am thinking about giving a Bible lecture, a young couple immediately offers to host it in their home.

Nothing goes by unnoticed: If I post something on Instagram, something carefree and lighthearted, the kind of thing expected of a 24-year-old — I know I will receive a full analysis later. If I’m in my gym clothing, sans makeup, and spot a congregant in the grocery store, I play hide-and-seek behind the avocados. If I criticize an organization’s politics in my writing, my husband receives calls from donors to please speak to his wife, this is offensive, make her take it back. If I am not standing near my husband after services during the reception, I am reminded by a well-meaning lady that I should be standing near my husband as much as possible.

A mere two months after the wedding, I began noticing the eyes wandering carefully to my still-narrow waistline. “Listen, I saw how your husband smiles at the children, and I figured it all out, and I wish you mazal tov,” a congregant once told me. She promptly left a bag of groceries with our doorman the next day, filled with herbs and vegetables for expecting mothers. I went and purchased tighter dresses, lest there be any doubt left in their minds.

*

There are some days that I come home from synagogue and find myself crying; I miss the Sabbath with my parents and sisters, the quiet anonymity, the soft Russian spoken at home, that time in life when I imagined Christian Louboutin must be a character in a Balzac novel. And when he sees me upset, he is worried and I tell him I’m fine and he says clearly you’re not and I say I don’t know how to say it, how did you ever grow up like this, always observed? I grew up praying in the privacy of my home — or in the back row of the synagogue, next to the divorcees and converts and single mothers. But now I had to pray in front of everyone, live in front of everyone. And how do you pray in front of hundreds of others? How does one allow the intimacy of inspiration, of Divine dialogue, to go public, without it growing meaningless? How does one pray freely — or write freely, it’s the same thing — while onstage? I had grown accustomed to working within the margins.

No doubt this new position, this plot twist, has quieted me. No doubt I have grown paranoid — especially in the face of the world’s obsessive voyeurism with the inner lives of the Orthodox, with our bedrooms, our ritual baths, our wigged women and skull-capped men. Eyes eyes eyes, everywhere. Every word second-guessed. Tight-lipped is the new modus operandi. To my surprise, my husband has become nervous — what had happened to the flippant young woman he had dated? “I beg you, write something controversial,” he tells me one night. “Anything, just write.”

*

As the debate over women’s leadership roils among religious and secular alike, the rabbi’s wife stands out as a strange, misfit creature. She is a 21st century woman who finds herself in that bizarre position of a title defined by her husband’s work alone. Often, she is looked at as a trophy wife, a first lady, an undocumented and unpaid worker — yet she has the power to influence in the most rigid of places. Long before the rise of liberal Judaism’s female clergy, it was the rabbi’s wife who served as advisor and spiritual guide for the daughters and mothers of the community.

So, what kind of a ‘rebbetzin’ will I be? Will I choose to be active, to give lectures, to study privately with women, to host elaborate Sabbath meals and organize educational events? I know I want to. Somehow, I can’t bring myself to detach, as I know many rabbi’s wives opt to do, with good reason — deep down, I long for the community, for the social responsibility.

I married my husband not only because we grew to love each other, careful date after date, but also because I loved his aspirations. I loved his decision to devote his life to others: Visiting the sick in the hospital. Teaching classes. Welcoming guests into our home for long Sabbath dinners flowing with homemade food and wine. Listening to people, offering counsel when solicited, taking the burden off of others. In a matter of days, again and again, we go through all of life’s events: The nervous new father planning a first child's circumcision, the fiancé seeking conversion, the parents who lose their only child to illness, the suicide of a young heir, the young couple planning a wedding, the mother battling cancer. The loneliness of people, the way it comes out of their eyes, the way it’s written on their smiles. It’s grueling, but despite everything, I still see it as a privilege. Nothing could be more meaningful, more sobering.

As a writer, I have found something unique here, in these rigid boundaries, in this tension of public and private. Here, the classic conflict of individual versus society is brought into sharp focus, where the vocal thinker stands out against the obsessive anxieties about social cues and norms. My secular colleagues and friends often remind me that I am an Orthodox woman – a married woman in a wig, relegated to a balcony, her place in the home – they imagine my life limited to the parameters of my faith. But strangely, faith has provided an empowering structure for me, within which I am pushed to critique and create. My writing is compelled not merely by a love for words, but also by a moral obligation to tell stories, to pursue justice. This community and its obsession with words – simply open our holy books, let your finger trace the commentaries upon commentaries who break apart our texts and debate them with one another across the centuries – it is this world, its heart embedded in life-long learning, which defines me as a writer.

The conflict here is no different than that of Fitzgerald writing on the Hamptons’ blue gardens, Austen on Bath’s balls, and yes, even Bulgakov on the Soviets: when confronted with a larger system, the writer learns to play hopscotch between forbidden and permitted. To write within limitations, one is forced to navigate within parameters not unlike that of a sonnet. One quickly learns the art of allusion – to voice an opinion may require courage, but for that voice to be heard, one must be fluent in the rules of the game.

Ive chosen to play this game, to be tied to the heart of a world I once felt an outsider in. I know I could have found a quieter life elsewhere, in which the combination of faith and writing would be much simpler, much less dangerous.

But the silence there would be too painful, the calmness too lackluster.

I know I would long for the swaying buzz of the yeshiva, the cantorsmelodies in the sanctuary, the chanting of schoolgirls, the whispered gossip in the womens balcony, the clinking of Sabbath silverware and the way we live in our texts and the way that our texts live in us hineni, Abraham says to God, here I am, I am choosing this. This Community its overwhelming, the permitted, the forbidden, the unspoken taboos too, the accepted and the outcast but its here, in the very black-and-white of this chessboard, that I find a reflection of my own letters.

Top Rabbi Explains Why God Created Atheists


Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is a journalist living in New York City. She is a frequent contributor for Haaretz, and her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Tablet, and the Forward. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women, and lives with her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in Manhattan. Follow her on Twitter @avitalrachel.

MORE FROM Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt

BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••






Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •