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The secret life of a Chief Rabbi’s wife

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In the home of a rabbi, the soup ladle is connected to the telephone, and just as soon as the rabbi’s wife picks it up to serve her family a meal, it always triggers a phone call from a member of the congregation. So, says Ann Harris, the wife of the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, and a speaker at Limmud in Johannesburg last weekend.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Aug 10, 2018

People tend to forget that a rabbi and his family are also human beings, the British-born Harris says, and there is no shame in reminding them from time to time.

“People think that a rabbi’s wife is an extension of the rabbi himself. When he is not around, they often expect her to play his role.

She spoke of how when their family moved to a new congregation back in England before taking up the position in South Africa, a member of the shul arrived at their house.

“He said he had come to speak to me, not the rabbi, and told me that the only woman in the community who was appropriate company for me was his daughter, as she was an ‘orthodox intellectual’. I happened to know her, as we had attended university together, and knew that I really didn’t like her at all,” she says with a chuckle.

“The same member also explained what I should be wearing, and how I should dress my children.”

In her experience, Harris says, people in congregations believe it is their right to involve themselves in the private matters of a rabbi and his family, and they apply their own standards and expectations to every member of the rabbi’s family.

This includes the expectation that the rabbi’s wife is as involved in the community as her husband, even filling in for him in his absence. “I was committed to my profession as a lawyer,” says Harris. She chose not to get involved in every charity or communal organisation, but was selective, choosing to work with the Chevra Kadisha in England, and Afrika Tikkun in South Africa.

The community also expected her to know where her husband was at any given time, which of course she didn’t, as he was busy being a rabbi, and she was involved in her work and family. “People often forgot we were two different, independent people, and that I was the rabbi’s wife, not the rabbi.”

She says the demands of a such a life take a toll on family in a way few understand. “People forget that the child of a rabbi can’t sit next to him in shul like other fathers and children because he is working, so he can’t make sure that they are behaving well.”

This situation had some amusing consequences for her family. Says Harris: “When my husband was younger, he wanted to engage more with the youth while he could still relate to them, and was director of the Hillel Foundation. We often spent shabbat at a Hillel House with university students. On one visit, he gave a sermon, and my son, who was three at the time, had to sit with me. When my husband finished speaking, a little voice piped up for all to hear, “That’s exactly what he said last week!”, and the shul erupted with laughter.”

But, beyond the rabbinical demands, Harris fondly recalls some memorable moments, such as those shared with the late Nelson Mandela. “People often ask if my husband and Madiba were really as close as it appeared,” she says. “In truth, my husband and Mandela shared a very special friendship, for no other reason than that they connected as friends, and could discuss many subjects.”

She recalls when Mandela married Graça Machel on his 80th birthday. The event was kept secret. However, Mandela had contacted Rabbi Harris, as he wanted him at the wedding, scheduled for a Saturday. When the rabbi explained that he couldn’t be there because of Shabbat, Mandela invited him to his Houghton home on the late Friday afternoon. “Before Shabbat came in, we went to Madiba’s home,” says Harris. “He and Graça took this very seriously, and treated the occasion as they would their wedding the next day. They were both dressed in their wedding outfits, and wanted my husband to be part of something that was as special as the wedding itself.” After blessing the couple, the Harrises and the Mandelas enjoyed a le chaim together before the rabbi and his wife headed for the nearby Great Park Shul.

Harris says her life as a rabbi’s wife has been marked by experiences both wonderful and less so, but left her audience with one clear message: remember that the rabbi and his family are also human beings with lives of their own. She hopes that this understanding will become an integral part of the training of rabbis, and set the tone for the relationship between rabbis and lay leaders moving forward.

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