Living a Private Life in Public

Once upon a time, when I was a student for the rabbinate, my classmates and I shared many fears about life to come “out there,” but none more than the “living in a fishbowl” syndrome.

All people who live in the public eye, be they clergy, politicians, celebrities, etc., will know of what I speak. Your life is often more of an open book that you- or your family- would like, and there is often the sense that everything about you is being scrutinized. Most people don’t live where they work. They go to work, and then come home, leaving that piece of their lives literally behind them. Rabbis and Cantors, not so. You live where you work, you work where you live, and the people you see “at work” are the people you see at play, in the gym, in the supermarket…. You get the point. It can feel like a fishbowl, particularly for children, who are, when all is said and done, the fish that people are most interested in looking at.

My wife and I have been in the same community for my entire rabbinic career, almost thirty years, and all of our children were born into Forest Hills and raised here. As rabbinic families go, we have been blessed beyond what we could have hoped for. I’m sure my four children each have stories that would prove the exception to the rule, but for them and for us, with rare exceptions, the fishbowl has grown and expanded so that we have rarely felt too very confined or suffocated by it.

On the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, just a little over a week from now, our older daughter- the second of our four children- will be married. Our oldest child, a son, was married a few years ago. We are filled with all of the appropriate joy and wonder that comes with an occasion such as this, and within our extended circle of friends and family, her wedding is an eagerly anticipated event. But what has been particularly fascinating to me has been the way our communal family- those people who “live where I work”- have responded to the upcoming simcha.

What I’ve come to understand, with some combination of amazement, gratitude and wonder, is that while of course it’s our daughter who’s being married, a member of our family, it’s also their simcha. And the more I think about it, the more it just makes me smile, and sigh…

It was members of my congregation who came in the middle of the night to stay with our then eighteen-month-old son when my wife was in labor with this daughter and we needed to get to the hospital. It was members of the congregation who came to her music recitals, cried when she read Torah for the first time in Junior Congregation, celebrated her high school and college graduations, and welcomed her- and us- into their homes more times than I could possibly count. They have literally seen her grow up before their eyes, from a willful and gorgeous baby into a lovely and accomplished young woman. They are as proud of her as I am of their children, whom I’ve also watched be born and grow into adulthood.

The truth is that for me, after all these years and at moments such as these, the lines between public and private are blurry. There are some, of course, that can never be blurred, both for my family’s sake and for the congregation’s. But when all is said and done, I am overwhelmed by the generosity of spirit that my congregation has shown, and by the outpourings of good wishes, and gifts, that have been showered on my daughter. It has been nothing short of amazing. The fishbowl syndrome is a real issue for public people, and there are moments when it can be overwhelming. But the upside of all that attention is a whole lot of love- and that can’t be anything other than gratifying at a time like this.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.