When I am asked to write a bio of myself and my very short career as a writer, I am always tempted to add “balebuste” next to “writer” and “mother.” But instead of using a word that connotes housewife, I settle for “baker,” because, let’s face it, bakers can be learned and cultured, whereas balebustes are stereotypically standing over a pot of soup while the challah dough is rising and the baby is latching onto the hem of their frumpy punjelos (Hungarian Yiddish for a housecoat or robe).
The Yiddish word balebuste describes a good and competent homemaker, and is derived from the Hebrew ba’alat habayit, or mistress of the house. Balebuste was a coveted title among the women I grew up with. My sisters and I managed to secure this praiseworthy epithet, thanks to my mother, the epitome of a fantastic balebuste.
A balebuste is not only a housewife who cooks, bakes and cleans, but a woman who has truly mastered the art of domesticity (yes, it’s an art). She bakes the daintiest rugelach and cooks the heartiest chicken soup and does it all while raising a perfectly-dressed brood and maintaining a spotless house and a neat look herself. She is a homemaker par excellence. Moreover, she is the mistress of her domain. Winning the praise of her husband and relatives is an accomplishment in and of itself, but certainly not the driving force behind a balebuste’s prowess. She is the queen of domesticity and she knows and flaunts it.
From a recent pre-Sabbath photo session, proof of Frimet Goldberger’s ‘balebuste’ badness
Yet many balebustes don’t find meaning in their work. They feel chained in their role and ache for opportunities outside the kitchen and home. For those women, being a balebuste feels oppressive. Some of my Hasidic friends who have jobs outside their homes have said to me that being a balebuste is a job they very much dislike, and if not for the social and familial expectations, they would have resigned that role.
It is unfortunate, however, that many women who did find meaning in this work untie their aprons when they leave the Hasidic community. They conflate domesticity and being a balebuste with subservience, and abandon their kitchens with their cultures. I hear women reminisce wistfully about the days when they prepared elaborate meals and hosted guests at their Sabbath tables. I feel saddened by their resistance to reclaim that title, and wish I could show them that it is possible to leave Hasidism and remain a balebuste.
I personally find domesticity highly rewarding. Cooking, baking, cleaning house — they’re not chores to me, but activities I derive pleasure from. Nothing quite beats my blissfulness when ushering in Shabbat: curling up on the couch with a book, the house sparkling clean, the candles flickering on the white table cloth and the heavenly aroma of homemade food wafting through the house. I enjoy switching hats and embrace my dual identity, from writer by day to balebuste by night. I bring my love for the women of my youth, who were so devoted to their work inside the house, into my home, and pay homage to them. (My husband, mind you, is a great balebuste, too, even better than I am at times.)
While scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed last Friday and clicking “like” on a gazillion selfies and whatnot, I noticed a post by a friend, a fellow ex-Hasidic women, about her Sabbath prep, with the hashtag #balebustes. I “liked” it once, although I would’ve liked to “like” it 20 times, and commended her for embracing her inner balebuste in a private message. Her response is worth sharing: “I think we can embrace the new and the old and really celebrate what it is to be a balebuste in a renewed and full sense. The pride in our domestic skills and cultural womanhood celebrated alongside our modernity and independence is something worth reclaiming.”
Amen, sister. I hereby pronounce my campaign to reclaim our inner balebustes. Ladies (and men, if you feel like a balebusta), let’s take back the title and its positive connotation. Bake challahs, babkas and chocolate soufflés, cook up a storm of chicken soup and cholent, and steak au poivre for you modern cooks, and post your food selfies on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #balebustes.