In the New York Times last week, there was an article about first lady, Melania Trump, and how she has broken the traditional first lady role. The reporter opined that there was a basic failure of consent between Melania and the President about her role in his Presidential foray. She has not towed the line the way other first ladies have, as was seen by her refusal to occupy the white house for the first five months of her husband’s presidency, and her regular refusal to perform regular first lady accompaniment tasks.
About a month ago, there was big news that at the tender age of 96 years, Prince Philip of Great Britain is retiring from public engagements. He clearly as been the First Man for about 65 years, and has earned a bit of peace in his old age.
I know many of the first ladies of the five towns, OUR REBBETZINS. I observe them in many situations, and it has always raised a curiosity in me that I couldn’t pinpoint. Until recently.
They are spouses of elected or appointed officials with no official title, other than as first ladies to their husbands. They get the title respectively of First Lady, Prince, Rebbetzin, but only the prince gets compensated for his duties, it was not expected that he would dedicate his life to public service with recompense to the tune of L359,000 annually. It would have been interesting to see what Bill Clinton would have done as First Gentleman.
My grandmother died two years ago this month, at the age of 101. She was born in 1915. She was one of a few women accepted to NYU Medical School and she became a bacteriologist, working in blood labs and a penicillin lab. She married a pulpit rabbi, and there were the expected Shabbos guests.
She would end work in the lab, stop off at the butcher chose a live chicken which the shochet slaughtered, she’d go home and pluck, clean and kasher the chicken, and be the mother and rebbetzin. Although she worked a full week, she was expected to teach Sunday Hebrew school, for which she was not compensated. It was expected of her, and when she married my grandfather knew this would be a part of the job description, I suppose.
The rebbetzins of this community are so very accomplished in their own respective right. They are bright and talented and work a full week, aside from raising children and having a regular revolving door of guests and those in need.
It’s about public expectations. It’s about the agreement between the rabbi and his wife. Its about balancing both. Just as the public expects to see Melania at the Christmas tree lighting and the Easter egg hunt, women of a shul look to rebbetzins for guidance, advice, problem-solving, and help in asking the rabbis their questions.
I am exhausted today. I took off some days before Pesach to prepare for Pesach, and then Pesach, so when I returned to my off, there was a seven inch stack of mail, 512 emails, and about 50 phone calls to return. It’s erev Shabbos, and there is more to be done. But at least on Shabbos, I know I can go to shul and relax and be among friends.
I watch the rebbetzins in shule. After their long work weeks, and preparing for Shabbos, they are still ON in shul, greeting congregants, addressing people’s life’s issues, engaged, engaged and engaged.
I grew up literally next door the Rebbetzin Chantzie Horowitz. Watched her raise her beautiful children, work her nursery, come home and cook and prepare her challahs and full Shabbos for her family and congregants and guests.
Then I moved to Woodmere, and a few months later, in moves Chanie Wolowik, and we had children together, and we both worked full time, but then I watched in amazement that she had 50 people at both Shabbos meals and prepared all from scratch, and she is on and available 28 hours a day, 10 days a week.
Ribono shel olam, with Mother’s Day arriving, these are the GRAND mothers of the Five Towns, true first ladies. After watching these rebbetzins over the years prepare for Pesach, their husbands and the entire community MUST sing tonight the Ayshet Chayi/Woman of Valor song a little louder and more passionately, in appreciation of our Five Towns First Ladies and role models.