At-home dads dive happily into a sea of chores

Jonathan is "out of the pantry."

So are Noah, Art and Zvi.

Like many of their brethren, they happily acknowledge their roles as stay-at-home fathers — an admission sometimes referred to as "coming out of the pantry."

In their cases, however, the pantry is stocked with matzah meal, Shabbat candles and jars of horseradish.

Art, Noah, Jonathan and Zvi are stay-at-home Jewish dads.

"There are not a lot of us," said Art Margolis.

"I'm proud to be a Jewish stay-at-home dad, but I think Jewish men make up a very small percentage of at-home dads. It could be a socioeconomic thing, I'm not sure."

One thing Margolis is sure of: He's going to enjoy being pampered Sunday on Father's Day, because being a stay-at-home dad is not always easy.

Just last Friday, he was hurriedly trying to observe Shabbat with his two kids, 5-year-old Jake and 3-year-old Zoe, in their Menlo Park home.

The trio (well, mainly Dad) was rushing so as not to be late for a Shavuot service at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City.

It didn't help that Margolis' wife, Susan Light, the senior medical director at a Fremont biotech firm, was out of town on business.

While Margolis was hustling to get things ready, someone inadvertently knocked over the kiddush cup, spilling the purple grape juice onto the black-and-white kitchen floor.

Margolis wasn't sure who the culprit was — "I think it was me," he confessed. But he didn't really care, either. He just wanted to get the mess cleaned up, so he grabbed a mop and quickly got to work.

"You wanted to see me doing something like this?" he said with a smile to a photographer capturing the mop-up scene. "Well, here we go."

Margolis, 45, is one of an estimated 2 million stay-at-home dads nationwide, according to the At-Home Dad newsletter.

"After taking care of my kids for five years, I've come to see what an important job it is," Margolis said. "In fact, it may be the most important job there is."

Raised Orthodox and formerly the vice president of a Reform synagogue in New Jersey, he has been an at-home dad for nearly six years.

Shortly after Jake was born in 1994, Margolis took a three-month leave from his job as manager of a New Jersey Lexus dealership and never went back.

"It would have been unheard of when I was growing up," he said. "People would have said, 'What's wrong with this guy? What's wrong with this situation?'

"And I do get that a little bit from older people because they still have different concepts, but we're in the year 2000 and things are changing."

Zvi Weiss, a stay-at-home father in Los Altos Hills, said he once told a co-worker at the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles about his decision to quit his job and stay at home with his two kids.

"He was a Holocaust survivor, and he just shook his head and started laughing," Weiss, 41, recalled. "He said, 'Zvi Weiss: Hausfrau [housewife].'"

Weiss, who takes care of 5-year-old E.J. and almost 3-year-old Noah, said he feels "blessed" to do such things as bake challah with his kids Friday afternoons and volunteer at their Jewish preschool.

"I feel like I'm the luckiest person in the world to be able to raise my own children," said the former BJE assistant director.

Like other stay-at-home dads, Weiss, a Los Angeles native who lived in Israel from 1981 to 1987, said he couldn't do it without the earning power of his wife.

Debra Weiss is an investment banker with Banc of America Securities in Palo Alto; she manages the company's telecommunications investment group.

The wives of other men interviewed for this article also were big earners. One helped develop a new drug for kidney transplant patients. Another ran a software company that produced a successful family-tree program.

San Francisco's Gary Siegel, a stay-at-home dad since February to 2-1/2-year-old Benjamin and 10-month Seth, said wife Michele's earning potential as a pension-plan administrator was much more than his as a manager of a Midas shop.

"A big part of our decision was financial," Siegel, 42, said. "I was working full time and then part time, but my wife has her own business — and her business is really good.

"By the time we got done paying a nanny or anyone to watch the kids, we'd have about $5,000 left over from my salary for the year."

Some of the stay-at-home dads use the opportunity to get involved in their children's Jewish upbringing.

Noah Cohen of San Francisco, for example, takes his 8-month-old son, Jacob, to a variety of programs at Congregation Sherith Israel: Havdallah Happenings on Mondays, Shabbat Club on Fridays and the Tot Shabbat every other Saturday.

Others take their kids to Jewish preschools and playgroups.

"I try to expose him to as much Jewish stuff as he'll let me expose him to," said Cohen, 31, a former high-tech worker at the Gap who now runs the Sherith Israel technology committee as a volunteer.

Cohen said one of his most difficult challenges in his six months as a stay-at-home dad is maintaining his identity as a male in a sea of women.

"I could easily be having an identity crisis," he admitted. "When I took Jake to his first playgroup, I went with my wife, and it was like she was taking me to the first day of school. It was all mothers — and me."

"I still feel emasculated," revealed John Aaronson of Novato, a stay-at-home dad for 5-1/2 years. "I hang out with a lot of women, from chats in the parking lot to the various committees I serve on."

Margolis can commiserate.

"In general, moms' groups don't know what to make of us," he said. "But I'll just charge right in there and in a couple of weeks I'm like one of the girls."

In a story for the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center newsletter, Weiss wrote: "It was a little awkward being the only father in the Parent and Me groups, hearing the moms discussing their breast-feeding woes, sore nipples and all."

The fathers do a variety of household chores, although some have a housekeeper once or twice a month; others split the cooking with their wives or eat out often; some use Webvan, but most do the shopping at the market.

Getting the kids dressed, feeding them and making the beds seem to be de rigueur for stay-at-home-dads.

But some fathers draw the line at certain tasks. "I don't clean," Aaronson stated flatly.

A former clinical social worker and vending machine operator, Aaronson, 43, said he would recommend being a stay-at-home dad to other fathers, "but with a few reservations."

"The social aspect is the part that has gotten to me," he said. "People laugh when you say you need to have male bonding, but it's very important. I hang out with a lot of women and they have nice qualities, but they don't think like me. It's important to set something up to get together with male friends."

Aaronson, whose wife, Alma Rodoni, is Catholic, is the father of 9-year-old Julia and 6-year-old April. Both kids were converted to Judaism in April at the family's synagogue, Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Unfortunately for Aaronson, no synagogues or Jewish agencies in the Bay Area have formed support groups or playgroups for stay-at-home dads.

However, there are at least two nonsectarian playgroups for stay-at-home dads and their children in the Bay Area. One in Silicon Valley meets twice a week at various parks; another in San Francisco chooses one park and meets there weekly for a month.

There is also a Web site — www.slowlane.com — that caters to stay-at-home dads and has links to dad-to-dad groups, including the Silicon Valley group.

Also, there's a stay-at-home-dad newsletter that "started with 73 dads in 1993, and now goes to more than 1,000 people," said Robert Frank, the author of the 1999 book "The Involved Father: Getting Dads to Participate More in the Daily Lives of Their Children."

"The trend is moving along rapidly," he said, alluding to a report in American Demographics magazine that said one in three U.S. households will soon have an at-home dad in charge of the nest.

"Other fathers tell me, 'I wish I could do that, I wish I could stay home with the kids,'" said Siegel. "But it takes a big commitment. It's not a cushy life.

"But I love it. I just wish I was better at the housekeeping part of it."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.