Can I only be a housewife?

Rachel S. Harris
February 26, 2013
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We met on Jdate, and on our sixth date Mr Perfect (raised conservative and according to his profile attends synagogue: Never) told me (unexpectedly) that he would keep a kosher home and attend an orthodox synagogue. ‘Oh’ I said ‘This is serious?!’ Six weeks from our first meeting we got engaged. He had to learn about my kosher kitchen, the social whirl of Friday night dinners, and turning up at shul most weekends – even if sometimes that means ‘just for kiddush’.  (I’m not an early bird!) Thank God – he speaks and reads Hebrew.

In the flurry of activity that followed I began to plan my wedding, bridal showers, registry lists, visits to parents and siblings, or dinners with friends eager to meet the bride or groom. He was even asked to take a bow in my synagogue. And Mr Perfect – well – he’s perfect. He smoothly sails through the wining and dining. He’s charming, intelligent and interesting – happy to be the centre of attention and smiling at me all the while.

He is moving in with me over the coming months – and as we begin the process of streamlining our single lives we aren’t only making emotional space for one another – but closet space – which is proving much harder!  His bachelor lifestyle isn’t going to survive the transition – one chair and something akin to a camping stool do not constitute furniture, they are out on the street.  He can bring his books, yes all of them – I’ve built more ikea bookcases, well what could I say, I wasn’t getting rid of any of mine either. Apparently organising the bathroom means not covering every surface with bottles, lipsticks and an assortment of things that make him gasp ‘what is this, an instrument of torture?’ He may be right. I bought baskets.

At the same time we learn to be together, to fight, to make decisions, we decide on mikveh, on head coverings, on the kind of beds we will have – we are learning togetherness, to make time for one another, and to embrace the process of marriage that exists long after the tulle, organza and packing tape will have disappeared. Each emotional step that we take occurs alongside learning to manage our relationship around our friends, careers and already established lives.  With a little hard work and some flexibility it seems like I can have everything, the promising career, the supportive husband and the beautiful home.

So I’ve been somewhat surprised by my current research for an article I’m writing on orthodox women in contemporary American fiction. As I tear through some of the hundreds of novels that have been published over the past thirty years, (I’ve read at least fifty in the past few weeks) –  novels written by women and for women, I’ve noticed that the third generation of Jewish writers, my mother’s generation, write about the struggle to have careers, often as professors or lawyers, a process which in these novels often jeopardizes the ability to have a happy, loving relationship. While these women negotiate a world of prejudice and battle between the religion of their parents or grandparents, and the secular world which offers the modernity they crave; many of the novels by the following generation – my own – represent orthodox women as housewives. Writers such as Tova Mirvis, Ilana Stanger-Ross, Naomi Ragen and Yael Levy have created worlds in which women may be unconventional but exist to cook and clean, to attend the synagogue, plan their weddings, and revel in the spoils of their new towels and luxurious china. Saturated with trips to the mikveh (and the often unkind and prying mikveh attendant) these women struggle, feeling alone in a community in which they are constantly watched. Since a trip to the grocery store may be their only outing and cooking is often their only communication with a spouse (there are no other loving but non sexual gestures in these books) I wonder who these heroines are, and the gap between their world and mine.

Wedding lists are fun, but I’ve been living alone for long enough to have a version of most things (towels, dishes, nicknacks) and I’ve cooked for myself and for my friends, who have in turn cooked for me. We have comforted one another, embarked on adventures together and helped each other find plumbers, fix and paint our homes, and shared the minutiae of our personal and professional lives. As I start my married life my domestic world is familiar and functional – but not fetishized. In my world the volunteer mikveh attendants often have PhDs, and my kallah classes are unusually taught with my chatan present.

I didn’t get married at nineteen, nor did anyone else I know.  Consequently, I’m a little surprised that every character I’ve encountered lately has. Yes, I live in an orthodox world and not a haredi one – and my friends who were married young had lived alone for a brief period, even if only as university students. Those who went to seminary and women’s colleges had a chance, even in a limited way, to fend for themselves and make some personal decisions – what will I eat, when, what about laundry, budgeting, friendships. By contrast, the female characters in these novels leave their parents’ homes for the new dwelling they will share with their husband.  Naomi Ragen’s characters may be the only ones to finish school – and certainly none of the protagonists  display the plethora of university degrees – of most of the orthodox women I happen to know – and I’m not just describing a Modern Orthodox world – and in these novels, if they work at all, the female characters can be found as mikveh attendants, saleswomen at underwear stores, employed in sewing or wig making, or occasionally teaching in girls’ schools. That is teaching the very same girls who will one day be married and return to the domestic fold.  Are these the goals and expectations we want to provide for orthodox women, even ultra-orthodox women – who will eventually have to find some kind of employment if their husbands don’t in order to support them in a kollel?

Some of the writers are orthodox and some are not. All of the novels explain, often in great detail, the minutiae of a religious woman’s religious life – operating against a background of Sabbaths and Jewish holidays – while the day to day existence between the women and their friends, family and husbands seems shadowy or non-existent.

Can these novels be seen as an active rejection of feminist ambitions? Are these novels serving as moral lessons – return to the fold and to the domestic life you crave and you’ll find a loving husband and a protective marriage? Or are these just the wistful longings of escapism for the busy woman who has everything except time to enjoy it? Is this a rejoinder to apply ourselves as women to domestic tasks? How is it that, in fiction at least, we have returned to gender defined roles with no opportunities outside those of the immediate religious community?

From a woman in the real world – A final word: Mr Perfect does the dishes, the laundry, and takes out the trash. I maintain the cars.

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Rachel S. Harris is Assistant Professor of Israeli Literature and Culture in Comparative &World Literature and the Program in Jewish Culture & Society at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has published on contemporary Israeli literature and culture in the journals Israel Studies, Shofar, and Modern Jewish Studies. She has written on suicide in Israeli literature, and more recently on women in Israeli film. Her co-edited volume bringing together articles on a range of subjects “Narratives of Dissent: War in Israeli Culture and Arts” will be published in the Fall through Wayne State Press. She is also the series editor for the Dalkey Archive Press “Hebrew Literature in Translation Series” and the Hebrew editor of “The Levant Notebook” an online literary magazine bringing together Middle Eastern fiction and poetry in English translation, along with reviews, and opinion pieces on the state of culture.

1 Comment

  1. First, bravo for showing the difference between real life and escapist literature that paints Orthodox women as exotic and very different.

    By your descripition and by your writing, whether you accept the definition or not, you (and some of the women you describe) are modern.

    I would also say that whatever one’s style of observance the dream of two equal careers at the outset of a marriage often crashes when bumbing up against the way our society is strucured when children and the work of childcare come into the scene. Life certainly seems less ‘perfect’ then. I do find that it is more the norm for highly educated women with interesting careers to give them up when children come in the Orthodox world than in the non-Orthodox world. (Though these are issues that everyone struggles with, of course.)

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