Photograph courtesy of Sarah Zell Young
After college, I became traditionally observant for the first time, taking on a chunk of religious obligations without really understanding them. Newly relocated to New York, I was new to graduate school and new to the study of Torah. I found a rabbi to teach me the ins and outs of halachic observance and soon after we started studying, he invited me for Shabbos dinner. I was drawn to the family’s recitation of the traditional Friday night table song, “Eishes Chayil” or “Woman of Valor” to the rebbeitzen, their wife and mother.
On the surface, the 22-verse poem taken from Proverbs describes a woman being praised for her character in the framework of serving her husband and household. To mark the end of our time together and remind me of the obligations I was taking on, the rabbi gave me an illuminated plaque of “Eishes Chayil.” Once I found an apartment, I hung it in my tiny bedroom. Mounted directly across from my bed, it was the first thing I saw when I woke up and the last thing I saw before I went to sleep.
Each night before bed I mouthed the words, “A woman of valor, who can find? Her worth surpasses pearls, the heart of her husband trusts in her….”
The question which starts this paean marks an active search. I hadn’t become who I strived to be in a religious sense as I was still learning new prayers and practices and was struggling with larger sense of belonging in my new city. All 22-verses encapsulated my aspirations for my newfound religious life and I wanted to make myself into an “Eishes Chayil” so in a certain sense I could be found. Being seen for all my good seemed important.
Over time, I began to question, both the words and the psalm’s methodology. How could my value, religious or otherwise be defined by other’s validation or in someone else’s trust in me? I had focused so much on how things appeared to other people, that I neglected to give enough time to cultivate the most important trust of all, a trust in myself in service to of the creator.
After I had that realization, I stopped reading “Eishes Chayil,” eventually taking down the plaque from my bedroom wall and rejected the words that had given so much meaning to me at the beginning of my religious journey. I cringed when “Eishes Chayil” was sung at the Shabbos table and was vocal about my discontent. Since then, my reaction both in its heat and in the moment has mellowed.
Untangling preconceived notions of what being a good Jewish women should look like allowed me to stop being so reactive to the literal words and achieve a more nuanced, sometimes allegorical understanding of the psalm.
This past year I made a decision to take a break from my art career and took a job working with the homeless. I woke up every morning at 4:00 AM to do direct outreach work on the streets of upper Manhattan. I brought mental health, harm reduction and drug addiction services to people who had become disconnected from mainstream society and had lived on the streets for many years. My goal was to help them reintegrate into the community and eventually find permanent housing. Many times the people who I was reaching out to did not want help or even appreciate my presence. Being cursed out for trying to help was a regular occurrence but I went on, cherishing the calm that washed over me in the quietness of New York City in the early morning. The job came to an end this fall. During the transition I was looking through some boxes and found my old “Eishes Chayil” plaque. I read over the familiar words and to my surprise the words resonated. The identity of the “Woman of Valor” seemed real and alive. The streets of New York had become my household and in their quiet whisper I was finally able to hear the voice I was searching for all these years, my own.
Fast forward a few weeks; I was sitting at a barbershop with a few girlfriends who dared me to get a design carved into the underside of my new funky haircut. Immediately I knew what the design should be. My fried Elaina showed Gary the Harlem barber the Hebrew letters that spell out the name of the prayer. I left the shop with “Eishes Chayil” carved onto the side my head. That Friday night, at another Shabbos dinner, this time with friends; the familiar words of “Eishes Chayil” were sung around the table. I quietly smiled. My new inscription was hidden, unseen by the world as the top hair covered it. It was just as well as it has taken me some time to get here; but I had finally realized that I didn’t need other’s validation to become a woman of valor. This identity comes from within and besides, we are already “Women of Valor”; just the households we serve all look a bit different.