Tag Archives: rabbi’s wife

Polygamy, cheating husbands and wife-beating – is this still the fate for women in the 21st century?

10 Nov

I haven’t posted for ages – but wanted to come back to post the last blog entry I wrote for Times of Israel before we left Kenya earlier this year. This dates back to May this year when there was a big uproar in Kenya about a new polygamy bill of law that was introduced. Suffice it to say, the proud feminist that I am felt compelled to write in horrified response!

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Polygamy, cheating husbands and wife-beating – is this still the fate for women in the 21st century?

Times of Israel, May 11, 2014

From the time I – white, Jewish, feminist, western woman – heard on the car radio a male DJ recommending his listeners to get a woman blind-drunk so as to be able ‘to bed her’ on a first date, I’ve been wondering about levels of equality between men and women in Kenyan society.

I received a confirmation to the negative recently when President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law a bill legalising polygamy, with a particularly hostile-to-women amendment:

The bill “brings civil law, where a man was only allowed one wife, into line with customary law, where some cultures allow multiple partners.

Controversy surrounded an amendment to the bill, supported by many male MPs, allowing men to take more wives without consulting existing spouses. [my emphasis]

Traditionally, first wives are supposed to give prior approval.”

(BBC News, 29th April 2014)

What left me particularly speechless was this amazingly demeaning-to-women amendment. Not only does an existing wife apparently have no say in her husband choosing to take more wives, but he isn’t even obliged to have the courtesy to inform her that he is planning to bring into their home a second/third/fourth wife.

The BBC quotes a couple of male MPs who justify this amendment:

“When a woman got married under customary law, she understood that the marriage was open to polygamy, so no consultation was necessary.” (MP Samuel Chepkong’a, who proposed the amendment)

“When you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way and a third wife… this is Africa,” (MP Mohammed Junet).

Kenyan female MPs stormed out of parliament in protest, but as they are a minority, were unable to stop the passing of the bill.

I’ve spoken to a few Kenyan women about this bill and they are horrified – but at the same time, feel utterly powerless to do anything about it.

Some local newspaper reports I read justified the developments by stating that polygamy is an effective way to combat men’s propensity to stray from their wives. In other words, if a man is allowed by law to take as many wives as he likes, he will no longer feel the urge to cheat on his partner.

Great news for women, then.

A Facebook group I joined for Nairobi mums has also opened up my eyes. Frequented by, from what I can tell, mainly middle-class Kenyan mums as well as expat (aka white, foreign) mums living in the Kenyan capital, what has struck me most is how much the Kenyan mums discuss straying husbands and issues of adultery. On Valentine’s Day, one woman posted a depressingly twee little poem giving all a blessing that their husbands should stay faithful to them on this ‘day of romance’.

At the same time, a Kenyan woman I know showed me scars on her wrist where her husband had attacked her with a broken bottle when he returned home after a drunken spree. She said he gets blind-drunk on almost a daily basis these days. And Kenyan newspapers are full of reports of drunken husbands turning violent.

As a white, Jewish, feminist, western woman, I’ve been caught in an ongoing philosophical battle with myself for the last I don’t know how many years. The two sides of my brain argue as follows:

Me A: Yes, I need to shout out against this treatment of my fellow women.

There are universal standards of justice and equality that all societies should strive towards.

Me B: No, the constraints of cultural relativism demand that I butt out and accept that ‘this is Africa’ [substitute Middle East, ultra-orthodox Jewish society etc etc], it’s not up to me to change other people’s cultural norms.

Luckily for Me A, the fact that Kenyan women themselves are angry gives me permission to express my own distaste at this anti-woman trend that hits me in the new culture I’ve found myself living in these last nine months.

In the meantime, as the wife of a rabbi of an orthodox Jewish synagogue here in Nairobi, I haven’t even broached the subject of how my feminism plays itself out in this communal role.

That will have to wait for another blog.

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Gulp – is being a rabbi’s wife not so bad after all?

11 May

Having been thrown into the thick of the most rabbi-wife-like activities – coordinating a communal Passover Seder – I realised that I was actually kind of, dare I say it, having fun.

Read more at my blog post on The Times of Israel:

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Gulp – is being a rabbi’s wife not so bad after all?

Times of Israel,  April 12, 2014

Somehow, somewhere along the line, I’ve got roped into doing more and more full-on ‘rebbetzin-esque’ duties at Nairobi Synagogue, where my hubbie is rabbi. My guerilla anti-rebbetzin campaign, it seems, is all for nought.

It started a month or two back. Margarita, a good friend in the community (yes, somehow, I seem to be finally gaining some friends along the way too), asked me casually if I’d join the Passover Seder planning committee. Imagining it would involve just a meeting or two to discuss just a matza ball or two, I said yes, of course, no problem.

Scroll forward to last week. Somehow, over 80 people have now reserved a spot at the Seder; somehow, the menu now involves a vast array of intricate dishes, most of which can only be prepared at the last minute; and to top it off, somehow, all the people on said committee seem to have left Nairobi temporarily and disappeared overseas.

Leaving just two of us ‘fryerim‘ (as the Israelis put it so eloquently), Margarita and me, to direct the multi-faceted operation and ensure that a three-course banquet, involving table hiring, flower arranging, seder plating, volunteer gathering, staff managing, market shopping and vegetable chopping will be prepared in time and the evening will go off swimmingly.

And the weird thing about it all – I’m enjoying every minute of it. Weeeird.

The whole process has been really entertaining – we’ve spent half the time giggling, and the other half haggling raucously at the fruit and veg Hawkers’ Market in central Nairobi with bemused market vendors, or cooking up a veritable storm in the synagogue kitchen, while debating vigourously over the sweetness levels of our haroset (me – too sweet – M – not sweet enough) or the garlic levels of our vegetarian main (me – too much garlic, M – not enough).

Man, I’ve even enjoyed making gargantuan vats of GEFILTE FISH. What is happening to me? (Although I did make sure it was Marg to get her dainty paws stuck into the gefilte mixture, meaning she would be the one to scare off her nearest and dearest that night with that overpowering heimishe whiff of chopped fish and not me).

In the meantime, the synagogue’s new back-up generator is experiencing birthing pains just as Kenya Power has decided to wreak particular havoc on the power supply to our part of town, people keep trying to book spots for the Seder at the last minute, and instead of going to bed so as to be wide awake for the last two daunting days of the cooking marathon ahead of us, I’m sitting here blogging.

Well, happy Passover to anyone out there, from here in the heart of East Africa.

It’s lonely being at the top

27 Apr

Belatedly catching up on my reblogging. Here is my post on the Times of Israel about feeling a bit friendless (but kind of enjoying it) being a rabbi’s wife:

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It’s lonely being at the top

Times of Israel, March 12, 2014

RBS — my hubby and incumbent rabbi at Nairobi Synagogue – studied at YCT Rabbinical School in New York City — oh so many light-years away from East Africa — where open-minded, open-orthodox males study to become even more open-minded, open-orthodox rabbis. We do like them open.

Many of the students are already married and most, if not all, of their wives are highly educated professionals. So there was always going to be some degree of irony to the fact that YCT offers students’ spouses their very own ‘wives’ club’.

The idea is that being wife of a trainee rabbi, and even more so, of a real practising rabbi, has its own particular status and challenges, and there was stuff that we wives would have in common and wish to discuss and delve into.

It was always entertaining to attend these wives’ meetings. Without exception, every get-together involved at least one of the highly educated women present protesting about the existential fact that this very meeting existed; we were highly educated women and what on earth were we doing being in a ‘wives’ club’. A couple of my peers seemed particularly outraged — not sure why they kept coming to the meetings, bit of an attraction-repulsion thing going on? — and would always go off on an irate rant on this theme.

I personally didn’t always see the point of the meetings — and certainly did enjoy joining in at times with the aforementioned feminist outrage. On the other hand, being a newcomer to the States, I found it a great opportunity to meet other like-minded women.

One thing I did take away with me from those encounters were words which now resonate strongly with me, as I’m living the life of a rabbi’s wife out in a far-flung community. Women already out in the field would guest-star at these meetings and one thing they all described was a particular kind of loneliness they felt in their role as rabbi’s wife.

We are caught in a kind of Catch-22 position. Are congregants able to see us as a real friend or someone to be friendly-with-but-keep-their-distance-from because we are the rabbi’s wife? Conversely, do we, as the rabbi’s wife, have to maintain a distance of our own, not join in with the gossip (ha ha), never complain? This is probably one reason, among many, why I have such an aversion to the title ‘rebbetzin’. Having a title necessarily creates distance, and I’m still just Rebecca. I’m the same person, so please approach without trepidation.

I discovered I was feeling this very loneliness when I looked at my mobile phone the other day and realised that it had not rung for something like 48 hours. I suddenly had a visceral craving for a massive gossip session with my good old mates from London (where I grew up). The irony, of course, is that RBS, the Eeyore to my Tigger, now has to spend far more time on the phone than I do, speaking to congregants, dealing with community affairs and generally doing the sociable thing that rabbis have to do.

But it’s not all doom and gloom — some, if not many, congregants have quite effortlessly broken through that psychological barrier and are quite comfortable treating me as Rebecca, calling RBS by his first name and generally relating towards us as real friends. Also, being parents of a very cute child is definitely helping us win friends and admirers.

Now, if someone could just pick up the phone and give me a call.

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