As a girl growing up in the 1980s, I was praised by my parents for fairly mundane things: loyalty to siblings and friends, occasional athleticism and a willingness to speak up to adults on behalf of causes I believed in. My father let me answer the phones on “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” My mother bragged to friends about my above-average reading skills. These things were all nice to hear, but produced nothing close to the unqualified pride I felt when called a balebuste.
Yep, it was the title of “housewife” that I viewed as the ultimate honor, ranked high above achievements in school or in sports. My mother and maternal grandmother would bestow the title on me, earned at a young age by my methodical table setting or meticulous organizing of my toys and books. Right away it felt profound — even sacred.
In my family, one didn’t earn the moniker balebuste just by being competent or industrious — there had to also be a sense of wonder to it all, matched with a benevolent, authoritative spirit.
Even today, as I conjure up a three-course dinner from a near-empty refrigerator or fluff all the pillows in the house just so, I think of my grandmother tossing up her permanently garlic-scented hands and shouting, “That Elissa is some balebuste.”
A joyous frisson still follows — and then, a somewhat recent development: a wave of guilt.
Should I, in 2010, value housework in the same way my grandmother did? After all, she was born in 1918 (or so she said), two years before women were constitutionally guaranteed the right to vote. For every meal I throw together, or pillow I fluff, am I just freeing up my husband’s time for more leisurely activities, such as finishing that day’s newspaper or catching up with a friend? And do our pillows really need such quality fluffing?
There are the obvious answers, taken from my feminist forebears and the mothers down the street, warning me against the pursuit of bountiful meals served off a sparkling stovetop. But then there is also this distin- guished tradition of domestic sorcery mastered by balebustes through the ages.
Yitzhak Niborski’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Aramaic Words in Yiddish defines balebuste as translated from Hebrew by a friend, the Yiddish Ph.D. student Saul Zaritt, as “a woman who owns her own house or business; housewife, proprietress; the wife of the balebos; a female leader, boss, etc.”
Zaritt also translated a few illustrative proverbs on the subject, including, “A house without a balebuste is like a wagon without wheels.” And, “When a mad balebuste prepares cabbage and borsht, both go sour.”
“Guide for the Jewish Homemaker,” a book written by S.B. Levi and originally published in the late 1950s, used the moniker to illustrate a deeper meaning behind housework: “The homey Yiddish expression balabosteh literally means ‘a mistress of the home,’ from the Hebrew ba’alathabayit. The significance of this phrase, suggesting an important executive, should offset the diffidence we sometimes feel when we fill out a form and note our occupation as ‘housewife,’ raising our status in our own eyes. The management of a home in the Jewish tradition is a dignified, important and rewarding job.”
While undoubtedly anachronistic, this line of thinking is not without its relevance.
With home maintenance increasingly relying on complicated webs of 30-minute meals (and Chinese food delivery), nannies and housekeepers, gardeners and dry cleaners, it isn’t the worst thing to be reminded that the home can be — and should be, according to Jewish tradition — a place of dignity and grace. “Every wise woman buildeth her house,” says Proverbs.
This is not to say that producing daily homemade meals as my grandmother used to do is reasonable, nor is it to say that one gender should be in charge of all the meals. But perhaps we can accept these things without letting go of the balebuste as an ideal.
In fact, my grandmother and mother weren’t too shortsighted about the potential legacy of balebustes, either. My brother Peter, the eldest of four, earned the appointment with similar zeal, through his proficiency in vacuuming (at age 3!) and through competent caretaking of his younger siblings, activities that gave my tired mom an occasional rest. Even today, when entertaining, Peter bounces around his home with a rag in one hand and used stacked glasses in the other, as he catches up with guests.
The last time he came over to my apartment, I caught him in the kitchen, peering above the refrigerator. “It’s dusty up there,” he told me, eyebrows raised, head cocked to one side.
It wasn’t a criticism, but rather a tip, from one balebuste to another.
Elissa Strauss is a frequent contributor to the Forward.