Every few weeks, we gather round our kitchen table on a Friday evening, light candles, do a little davening, eat a little challah, and usher in the Sabbath. It doesn’t happen every week, but, when we do it, we are always happier for it. Our Shabbat ritual has settled into a routine, now. We don’t change it up; we like it the way it is. But, long ago, when I hadn’t even converted to Judaism yet, we weren’t sure how to go about it.
One source suggested we begin the Sabbath meal by reading each other biblical praises. This is an excerpt from Proverbs 31 that a husband is supposed to read (or sing) to his wife every week:
Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
(Proverbs 31:10-15, King James Version)
It made us feel squicky, somehow. We didn’t bother to examine our feelings much; by tacit mutual agreement, we just never did it again.
Having had at least one child (or one adult incapacitated enough to count as a tall child) home sick every day last week reminded me of that odd Shabbat episode. When I am not writing fiction or crafting or running or blogging or (shudder) part-time bookkeeping, all that remains is “housewife.”
If my husband were a nineteenth-century subsistence farmer, I don’t think I would mind so much. (That is, I would not mind the title “housewife.” I would definitely mind if my husband were a nineteenth-century subsistence farmer. Or at least be very confused.) In such a situation, the “housewife” has a huge and important duty. Without her, the farm can’t run. In the Little House on the Prairie series, for example, the author’s father never minimizes her mother’s work. And there is a lot of it: canning, butchering, making cheese, sewing everyone’s clothes and bed linens from scratch, knitting socks and other clothes, cleaning, washing clothes by hand, growing most of the family’s food, cooking, bearing, nursing, and teaching children, and that list is by no means exhaustive. Because the entire family lives and works together, the housewife’s work is very visible.
(And, yes, I am obsessed with Little House on the Prairie this week for some reason.)
The “woman of valor” verse reminds the reader of this kind of hard work. After the excerpt above, it continues to praise her for buying and tending land, spinning, giving good advice, and making her family’s clothes, in short the work of the farmwife.
I’m not a farm wife. We have exactly 0 cows. Everyone in my household leaves in the morning at around the time I am a third of the way through my first coffee. (I could not tell you what all three of those people are wearing today if you paid me, though you are welcome to try.) They return, in the best of all possible worlds, to a beautifully-appointed, immaculately-cleaned flat filled with handcrafts and organic foods, or, barring that, to a house that is clean enough to not give them hookworm or sleeping sickness and something to eat that is definitely edible and untainted by malevolent bacteria. I am a machine that turns chaos into clean socks. I am our household’s last bulwark against entropy. I am Wall-E.
My work, like Wall-E’s, is largely invisible, though not for lack of complaining loudly. I don’t think it usually occurs to my family that I do this work, in the same way it does not usually occur to me that the sidewalk is largely free of refuse or that the train is driven by a human and arrives reasonably on time. Just as I only think about the train driver when the train is late, they only think about housecleaning when it’s not done. By default, most of my feedback is, thus, negative: “I don’t have any clean pants/there’s no turkey for my sandwich/Mommy, I can’t find the floor.”
I am, by default, a kind-of-housewife. I do my work (and, mostly, my trying-to-get-work) from home, so I’m obviously well-situated to popping a load of laundry in the washing machine between sentences and then forgetting it for two days. I pick up children between paragraphs and pop them in the bathtub and forget about them for forty-five minutes. I have a husband who expects to have deodorant when he needs it, and this benefits us both. But I’m very resistant to describing my primary role as “housewife.” I don’t think the word accurately describes what a 21st century woman with an Internet, a credit card, a master’s degree, a DVR, and a craft supply addiction does with her day.
I mean, I can do some of the things on the “woman of valor” checklist. I have been specifically asked to stop seeking wool and flax. I don’t do evil, mostly. I buy food, if Trader Joe’s counts as “afar” (I prefer the one in Daly City). I get up when it’s dark (in the winter). But the “woman of valor” in the verse is a farm wife, and, I’m afraid, I’m not a very good farm wife: despite my best, caffeinated efforts, I am a miserable wreck when housewifery is my full-time job. And, when I’m forced to be in full-time housewife mode, I feel that failure acutely.
So, next Shabbat, instead of Proverbs 31, I’m going to have my husband read to me from the Book of Cake:
I want a girl who gets up early
I want a girl who stays up late
I want a girl with uninterrupted prosperity
Who used a machete to cut through red tape
With fingernails that shine like justice
And a voice that is dark like tinted glass
She is fast and thorough
And sharp as a tack
She’s touring the facility
And picking up slack
I want a girl with a short skirt and a long, long jacket
Cake, “Short Skirt Long Jacket“