Last summer, my husband Julius Rabinowitz accepted the position of spiritual leader at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, Connecticut. Mazal tov! It’s been a busy and challenging few months. Norwich, I wondered, when he first told me about the offer, is that located halfway between Norwalk and Greenwich? Not quite, I learned. It’s an hour north of New Haven. Really far. He needs to be there every Wednesday evening through Sunday afternoon. Wow, a big chunk of the week. Although I was very proud of Julius, it felt like the familiar ground I knew and counted on, the ground that our life together was based on, was shifting under me, maybe even shifting away from me. Scary.
And then there was the house, the parsonage.
A two-story, four-bedroom house, that, sight-unseen, he, or we (I wanted to spend at least every other weekend there) would be living in those four nights a week. My first impression of the house, to be honest, was not positive: 12 large, almost-empty spaces, all except for a too-blue kitchen, painted off-white, with beige tweed carpeting, small casement windows, and cottage-cheese ceilings. What to do?
Well, we started working it out. First, the timing, the transportation issues, scheduling my work and other commitments around going up there. During the High Holy Days, I began meeting the warm, welcoming members of the congregation, and they made the transition easier. And then I started working on the house: Making it not only a place we could be comfortable in, but a place the congregants could be welcome and comfortable in, too.
I sat in every room and let it speak to me. How to make the living room not only a place for us to hang out, but a place to host a study group. How to make the dining room the right kind of space to host dinners for members of the congregation; after all, I was the new rebbitzin. The Redecorating Rebbitzin. On a budget that many designers would allocate for one room, not a dozen.
So, inspired by shows like “Design on a Dime” and “Designed to Sell,” I began my various projects, still not 100 percent convinced that I could love this house. Then along came Superstorm Sandy. Our area of lower Westchester County was hit pretty hard, with lots of trees and power lines down. Two candlelight dinners in Irvington were romantic and fun. The days were warm, and it was nice to be in a peaceful house with no hum of electronics in the background. Then the temperatures turned frigid, and it wasn’t fun any more. On Wednesday, October 31, we packed the car and came up to Norwich—to a warm, well-lit place with wi-fi. I hadn’t been there in a couple of weeks, and stuff had gotten done, furniture had arrived. It started feeling like home. That Wednesday, I worked on my laptop, cooked on a working stove, and enjoyed sleeping in a heated bedroom.
The next morning, I got up early, went downstairs, and made myself a cup of coffee. Standing at the bay window in the kitchen, I watched the sun rise, a gold and pink sunrise over the trees at the edge of the back yard, over the hills in the distance. It was beautiful. All of a sudden I said, almost out loud, “God is in this place and I did not know it.” I surprised myself. This, a verse from the story of Jacob in the Biblical book of Genesis, was not a phrase I was used to saying, or even thinking. And, somewhat like Jacob at that moment on the path of his life, just after his dream of angels ascending and descending the stairway to heaven, everything changed.
The house starting loving me and I started loving it back. The next weekend, I brought up my sewing machine and made curtains. I made art for the house and brought up plants and books and pictures. Including pictures we’d bought in Israel—wanting to support those hungry artists in Safed and Jaffa—but never had enough wall space for in Irvington. Here, the pictures can shine.
I’d rather not show you a ‘before’ picture of the downstairs powder room, left. Actually, my first project was sponge-painting the off-white walls sky blue to blend with the tile floor and finding an inexpensive frame for a large poster I’d designed for a competition on the theme of global design. Successfully transforming the smallest room in the house gave me the confidence to forge ahead.
The house now has wi-fi, but it’s without a TV, a land-line phone, a stereo, exercise equipment, or even a food processor or blender. And that’s part of its low-tech charm. It’s a place for reading, studying, talking, knitting, sewing, listening to the one local oldies FM station on the boom box, working on laptops, meditating, doing yoga, practicing music, entertaining new friends, and cooking simple foods. And sleeping!
The 125-square-foot master bath, with tub, walk-in shower, large vanity, and ’70s vintage rose-bordered tile—much of it broken or missing— was another challenge. New tile would have been expensive (and cold underfoot). The solution: FLOR modular tiles, selected in FLOR’s SoHo, NY, store, in a discontinued pattern called “Toy Poodle” and laid out in a random pattern.
One of the spare bedrooms is now a comfy guest room. We turned another bedroom into an office/sewing room, below, where Reb Julius and I can work quietly together. Curtains: done. Pillows: done. What’s next?
No more bargain-hunting or furniture assembly, I hope. Just getting to know the congregation better, hosting groups of congregants for study groups and dinners, and relaxing and enjoying the house. And exploring the area—beyond Home Depot and Jo-Ann’s and TJ Maxx—a little better. I hear there are charming towns nearby, a famous rose garden, and beaches. Did I do it all for $5000? Not quite, but pretty close.
And then, when the snow melts, a little flower gardening. The front beds need work. Finally, someplace to put those astilbes that need so badly to be divided.