Ode to all the women who make our homes Pesachdik

I suddenly learned this week what women go through to make a kosher-for-passover home! Yikes!  This is hard work!

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer

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It is hours before Pesach 5780, and I write to share my ode to Jewish women, to all the women in my life - and you can think of yours - who loved me enough to make my home Pesachdik. I love them all.

1. Men Are Men, and Women Are Women — We Each Have Unique Holy Roles

During many of my weekday hours, I live and practice a secular profession in the outside world as  a legal consultant and a law professor. In that world, current political correctness asserts regarding gender that men and women are identical. There is not a stitch of difference among (not between) the genders — that is, there are more than two genders (because "between" applies only between two, while "among" covers more than two). 

There is male gender, female gender, cisgender, non-gender, non-binary gender, tomorrow's agender.  And the genders all are the same, identical. Some men and women in that world even identify themselves as "mxn" and "womxn." Anatomy is merely a state of mind.  If someone born and evolved with musculature that we dinosaurs call "male" wishes to compete in "women's sports" as a female, then (s)he may do so — and forget about Title IX federal American assurances that women can have meaningful sports opportunities in college, competing against others of similar biology and musculature.  Mxn. Womxn. Humxns.

I am an Orthodox Rabbi who believes every word of the Torah that G-d Almig-ty bestowed uniquely upon the Jewish people. And I know that there is a world of difference between male and female.  No political correctness can beat it out of me.  G-d created male and female. We are different: “And G-d created man in His own image, in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them.” (Gen. 1:27).  And we need each other to be complete.

2. After Years as a Rav Telling Laity How to Practice Torah Judaism in a Secular World, I Suddenly Found Myself as Laity in a Secular World

When I began as a rav, I practiced only rabbonus (the rabbinate). I never had worked meaningfully in the secular world. Yes, I also had non-congregational jobs, but they also were Jewish and rabbinical.  Back in the early 1980s, I taught religious studies (Talmud, Chumash, Jewish Laws and Customs) and secular studies (American history, world history, civics) in yeshiva high schools.

In 1983, at the ripe old age of 30 — do the math, and you will understand why I have been indoors the past three weeks — I was hired to be the national Executive Vice President of the American branch of the Likud Party. For two years until I moved to Israel in 1985, I traveled around the country with the likes of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Israeli Minister Ariel Sharon, and Defense Minister Moshe Arens, doing the advance work for them to raise bucks.

Along the way, I got to meet a young Benjamin Netanyahu, a protégé of Moshe Arens, who seemed on the way to big things with a role as Israel's U.N. representative. I even got to meet a U.S. Senator from Delaware, named Biden or something like that, because I was in charge of organizing our group's annual convention, and we had "big hitters" in the days that I was running it, so I brought Joe in to keynote our convention one night. I still have pictures of myself, one on one, with Netanyahu, with Sharon, with Arens, and with Biden. Like a whole scrap book. I cherish the picture with Arens.

As a rav, that was as "worldly" as my life got, my broadest exposure outside yeshiva and shul, except for my four years as an undergrad at Columbia University.  And then a decade later, one day in 1994, I became an attorney, first clerking for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Louisville, Kentucky, then practicing law for more than a decade in Los Angeles.

I must say, my ten-plus years as an attorney broadened my perspective as a rav. I always knew the rules and the laws and the tips and practices to teach and counsel my shul members as to how to live a proper Torah life in secular America. But then, by golly, it was I myself now navigating that secular world — and that was an eye-opener.

I always had explained to the laity when I was a shul rav that a man should and could still wear a kipah at work. Indeed, when I clerked for Judge Boggs that was no problem, and the very decent managing partner of Jones Day’s Los Angeles office, Rick McKnight, also was fine with it.  But when I went to practice at Akin Gump in 1999 as a fifth-year experienced litigation associate, I found that, in my next three years there, curiously they assigned me only once to make an in-court appearance — only once in three years. By contrast, I had made scores of court appearances in both federal and state courts during my earlier years at Jones Day. I found it strange that Akin Gump, though paying me big bucks and though I never had lost a case in my first five years and had won maybe 95% or more of all motions I ever had brought during my Jones Day years, never had me go to court. And then one day they asked me to do an appearance before a commissioner in downtown L.A. on an application for an attachment  For some reason, they suddenly wanted me to appear at that hearing — very badly.  And when I arrived, I understood:  the attachment jurist, Commissioner Levin, wears a yarmulka. I grasped what it is to be a frum (religious) Jew in the secular world.

So I gained new insights about life as an Orthodox Jew in secular society once I myself was such a layman. I always had told my congregants "You can always find something kosher to eat at lunch. Worst comes to worst, order a fruit plate without certain berries. Or just take your client to a kosher restaurant."  And then one day there I was, practicing big-firm law and taking the CEO of General Motors to lunch. Where was I going to take him -- to "Khop a Nosh"?  To a small greasy falafel joint?  The Akin Gump partner who was supposed to take the CEO to lunch, but got called out on an urgent litigation matter, said to me: "Look, Dov, I know you can do this.  I know you can impress him with the quality of your legal work. But don't you dare take him to some kosher dump hole. Take him somewhere nice." (The partner used a synonym for "dump.")

So I learned a great deal about life as an Orthodox Jew in secular society. (Fortunately, I thought quickly and asked the guy whether he likes Steven Spielberg movies. Who doesn't? So I then asked: "How would you like to meet his Mom — she has this cool restaurant with all these 'Star Wars' posters and stuff all over the place. Here name is 'Leiah,' and that's how they got the name for the Princess." So the guy got all excited, and we had the time of our lives at "The Milky Way." The kosher restaurant’s proprietor, Leah Adler of blessed memory, sat with us, told us lots of stories about "Steven as a boy," and so it went.

3. After Years as a Guy Having the Most Wonderful Women in My Life Make Pesachdik Homes for Me, I Suddenly Found Myself This Year Holding a Vacuum Cleaner. And Now I Love Those Women So Much More for What They Lovingly Did.

What does this all have to do with my “Ode to Women”? Nothing -- and every thing.

All my life, women have prepared Pesach for me.  My mother of blessed memory.  May G-d bless the soul of my holy Mom. She would be assisted by my darling sisters Debbie, Rhonda, and Sharon. They all loved me so much, and I loved them. Later, in my first marriage, I gladly acknowledge that my wife made Pesach beautifully. She would be assisted by my three darling daughters, who assisted so very lovingly. And then, of course, my beloved wife Ellen for the past nineteen years. I never made the Pesach home. I of course helped with the schlepping, but I never did the stuff they did.

Rather, I did the "Guy" things.  In the Judaically normal world where I grew up, men and women are different. We have different roles. We respect those roles. They are of equal value and importance, but they are different. Some of those differences are cultural, some are engraved in stone, some intuitive. F'rinstance, when I first met Ellen, I fell in love with her that first dinner at our first date. We mutually connected immediately. We talked about anything and everything. It emerged that she is really, really, really smart. I actually learned things that night from her — imagine, pedagogy on a first date. I made some reference to a camel I had seen in Israel, and she asked me: "Was it a bactrian or a dromedary?" I told her I did not know what religion the camel was. And she taught me that a dromedary has one hump, and a bactrian has two. Heckuva thing — learning stuff if I ever get to be a contestant on a TV game show . . . and on the first date! So of course I married her — because she knew from stuff!

After we got to know each other for a few weeks, she asked me whether I could change the light bulb in her bathroom. Sure, I said. Glad to. And it was then that I learned that she did not know how to change long fluorescent light bulbs — straight out of the Jewish joke about the mother sitting in the dark.  Poor thing had gone weeks in the dark.  I asked her: "Do you know any thing at all about ‘Guy Stuff’?” — and she proudly answered that, yes, when she got divorced she went to a hardware store and bought (i) a hammer, and (ii) some screws.

I asked her: "Did you buy nails?" She: "No, just screws.  Why, do you need nails, too, for a hammer?" I don't think I ever answered the question, still laughing. (By the way, Ellen tells these stories publicly all the time. Otherwise I would not.)

So in my Orthodox Jewish world, guys have our role, and women their role.  As in the opening of "Fiddler on the Roof," women make a quiet home, a proper home, a kosher home. They mend and tend and fix. They rear the children and run the home so that the guy is free to read the holy books. And the guy scrambles for a living, feeds his wife and children, says his daily prayers, uses nails with a hammer and a screwdriver for screws.

And comes Pesach time, Ellen makes Pesach while I am time-swamped for hours and hours, for weeks and weeks, arranging for the sale of everyone's chametz, learning an extra tractate of Talmud for the siyum class that allows first-born males to eat on Passover eve, putting together our two annual public community sedarim (seders), dealing and negotiating with the facility where we do them, buying the merchandise, coordinating the catering, promoting the event, registering participants for the sedarim, raising the funds to pay for the stipends and discounts we offer teens, college students, young adults, and others in need of a break.

This Coronavirus Year it all is different.  Because of logistical circumstances, this year the Rebbetzin is not situated to make the Pesach Home alone.  So it devolved on me for the first time in my life. “Well,” I thought, “I am a rav of nearly forty years. I know this stuff. Piece of [pesachdik] cake!”  And then, like that rabbi I was who in 1994 suddenly found himself practicing law in a secular world amid non-Jews who put mayonnaise on pastrami, sandwich it with white bread, drink a glass of milk with it, and who spend all of lunch talking about their weekend plans to go hunting for possum — I suddenly learned this week what women go through to make a kosher-for-passover home!

Yikes!  This is hard work!

Oh, how I now honor and adore all of you!  Ribbono shel olam (Master of the Universe), that is some ton of work!  Thankfully, we have a self-cleaning oven.

  • But scrubbing the schmutz off the stove and the grates — and then, 24 hours later, putting on the burners while throwing the grates into the self-cleaning oven.
  • Scrubbing the granite counters and scrubbing the stainless steel sink — and then 24 hours later having to pour boiling water over all of it and deal with that.
  • Scrubbing out the microwave ovens — and then 24 hours later having to pop inside it a cup of water and nuke it for ten minutes, then again on the other inside of the oven.
  • Moving all the chametz from the frig and the freezer out to the garage. 
  • Schlepping in all the pots and pans and dishes and flatware from the garage to the house.
  • And then the vacuuming.
  • And dealing with those dust bags afterwards — the Chometz Cleaner's answer to Coronavirus: "Here, you little COVID-19 viral organism, take a whiff of this chometz dust from my vacuum cleaner! Now let's see who's got to quarantine!"

Oh, what the Jewish woman does every year to prepare a kosher for Pesach home! Do husbands appreciate it sufficiently?  And so, for all the women in my life who lovingly have made Pesach for me every year, I dedicate this song:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVq0ONrSH-Q

And for those of you married couples who will be having seder this year without many guests and friends  perhaps even without visiting children or grandchildren or parents or grandparents or siblings, celebrate this one time in your lives that you can have an intimate seder, just the two of you, just like the number of humps in a bactrian. ,And for those having lost a spouse and having it by themselves, I wish you loving memories to conjure up at the seder.