“Who Sets the Table?” is a year-long multi-media project looking at who does what to make Jewish holidays happen at home.
Let’s begin with gratitude to our mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts. According to the over 500 of you who answered our “Who Sets the Table?” survey, around 80% off all the domestic work for Passover was done by women. (A breakdown for each question can be found in the slideshow below.) Without your cleaning, shopping, meal-planning, children-prepping and guest-inviting, the holiday might have passed us by. Well, either that, or Jewish men would have been forced to make a whole lot of last minute arrangements. So, thank you Jewish women. It really would not have been the same without you.
And now a little bit about our intentions. We are not social scientists. We aren’t trying to gather a set of data that will serve as the definitive record of who does what in Jewish households in 2015. Nor are we trying to pass judgement on any particular lifestyles or ways of being. There is no right way to run a Jewish household.
Instead, we intend for this to be a conversation starter. Is the domestic observance of Jewish holidays still women’s work? Why and how, with 71% of mothers with children under the age of 18 in the workforce, is this so? Is it a result of a proud tradition? Or unconscious biases passed along generation to generation? Is it because in non-Orthodox households religious observance tends to be something women take on? (This was a recurring theme in your stories and anecdotes. The less a family was immersed in a Jewish lifestyle or community, the more the onus of Jewish life seemed to fall on the woman.) Or because hubby wouldn’t know how to make a chicken soup even if Joan Nathan was there to guide him? Why is that?
We hope that, in the spirit of Passover, every survey taker and reader was willing to ask him or herself these questions. Maybe some had answers. Maybe a few made changes.
During this year we will run similar surveys about Shabbat, the High Holidays and Hannukah. We look forward to continuing this conversation with you all.
As I was completing the survey, I realized I was likely better to be living in Betty Draper’s skin than my own. Apparently my husband was not involved in anything related to Passover, although I conceded the dishes to him in the survey just so the results wouldn’t tilt one hundred percent female.
But then, I realized, that in fact I was only a little bit like Betty ( I like A-line dresses), because I commandeer Passover not only because I enjoy it, but also because my husband John, who has chosen to live a Jewish life with me and our three children, did not grow up as Jew. He does not have the same instincts when it comes to the sounds, smells and rhythms of the holiday. He thinks gefilte fish is gross ( I love the gelatinous Manishevitz kind), doesn’t particularly care if we go Sephardic or Ashkenazi with our charoset, and would rather not use the Sanka hagaddah or be preached at but doesn’t go the distance to peruse new interpretations of our old tradition.
Which is fine with me. It just works for us. He is committed to our Jewish life, to sending our kids to day school, and to our brand of holiday observances. I am fine with doing the shopping and the prep because I enjoy it. And our children love our rituals. And everyone does kind of help clean up.
So is that all bad?
“Wait, you did it without me? How could you, we always do that together!” No, I was not referring to watching an episode of House of Cards or choosing a color to paint the hallway. My husband had done the last bit of turning the kitchen over for Pesach — the delicate ballet of boiling water and towel-holding that let us know we were ready to start cooking. I didn’t think I was emotionally attached to a household task, but it turns out I was.
When we first married, Matt, a talented hunter-gatherer, did the endless grocery trips to myriad far-flung locales to find the rarer kosher-for-Pesach ingredients. I was queen of the recipes and captain of the kitchen. Over time, I gave up a number of household tasks traditionally done by women. It started with Matt’s grocery store skills and progressed to him hauling cloth diapers to the basement to toss them in the washer. I worried about investing for retirement and the state of the lawn. As a consultant I was, like many women, the flexible working parent, the schlepper of children, the one who arranged playdates and called the pediatrician about earaches.
Two years ago, job changes and opportunities surprised us and without much thoughtful planning (very unusual for this analyst), we swapped roles. We finally trained the school and orthodontist to call him for sick child pick-up or appointment rescheduling. And I am not going to lie — when Matt’s parents bought us a KitchenAid mixer for our anniversary, I was delighted when he claimed it for his own and was inspired to up his cooking game.
But it turns out, despite leading an untraditionally gendered lifestyle, there are parts of me that haven’t yet left Egypt. When I close my eyes and imagine the perfect holiday scene, I am the one in the kitchen, wearing an apron (do I even own one?), having kashered and cooked my way to single-handed holiday perfection. But I am working on it. This year we are having brisket not made from “my” recipe. We swapped one of my go-to desserts for something new Matt wanted to make. (Using the KitchenAid? I don’t even know).
This year, however, I am still making the matzah balls. It took the Jews 40 years of desert-wandering to shake off the shackles of mental constructs that no longer served them; looks like it is going to take me a while too.
—Ana Gordon Volpi
My husband does a bit of cleaning up, but his M.O. is usually just to call at 5:30 to either say he’s going to be late, or “do you need anything?” At 5:30? None of my friends’ husbands do much but lead the seder. I’m not resentful, but I am surprised that this is so common even today.
My situation is unique. I am a woman rabbi — and so (probably like most women rabbis) I both do almost all of the preparation, almost all of the shopping and cooking and then… I lead the seder. I have a wonderful husband who will do anything to help but I have to ask him. It doesn’t come into his mind to make a schedule for the cooking or cleaning but if I ask him to be available at a certain time or to actually be fully in charge of some aspect of the holiday, he will definitely come through. My parents are no longer alive and I am the only daughter amongst their children. My in-laws are alive and very well but live abroad. I suspect between my rabbinic perspective and my feelings of responsibility in the absence of my mother, I carry a huge burden during all of the holidays.
In my family, the woman is a church-going Christian and the man is a Jew. So I (the man) take charge of the seder, although my partner is in charge of cleaning before guests arrive, as she always is. We host a seder but don’t keep kosher for Passover, so worrying about food for the week and getting rid of the chametz isn’t an issue.
My husband likes a big seder so much that the second night each year he’s disappointed when it’s just us and whichever parents and kids are in town. Yet, other than putting the leaf in the table, and leading the service (while complaining about the hagaddah that I made him choose years ago), he does little more than carry in some dirty dishes. Sometimes I swear I won’t host a big seder anymore since I do SO much work to cook for and serve about 25 people … but then I realize I, too, would be sad without it. If only he’d remember that he’s supposedly not sexist. Sigh.
Actually, we work together to prepare for Pesach.
My husband. He does virtually all the cooking anyway…. and most of the cleaning while I pay all the bills and take care of taxes. We each assume full responsibility for what the other one hates.
This survey feels a little off to me, because it misses a very important question: Who drives the Judaism in the house? While both my husband and I are Jewish, I’m the one who cares about it and wants to make sure we have a seder and that my kids get something out of the night. If it were just him, he’d either skip the seder or rush through a Maxwell House version of it. It important to me that the seder (and all our other Jewish celebrations) are meaningful and to that end, I have a homemade haggadah, I come up with a detailed afikomen scavenger hunt, and I make sure the foods are right for Passover. All these questions would be answered differently for any other non-religious dinner/food event. He happily cooks and shops for food for regular meals and if we have guests over for dinner. But when there’s a religious aspect, my control freak comes out. So it’s all on me.
Part of the burden falls on me (the woman) disproportionately because my husband is not jewish. The holiday has the most meaning to me.
I never learned to cook these big holiday meals. My husband enjoys cooking and is good at it so he gets that job. I get the cleaning and organizing. Sometimes I think he got the better deal.
I’m not Jewish, but my male partner is, and I feel a lot of pressure to “get it right” during passover and provide a Jewish community and identity for our daughter. Passover is usually very stressful for me.
I did not grow up in an Orthodox household and as a child, I used to look forward to Passover. As an adult married to a modern Orthodox husband I have grown to dread it. We do a complete change-over of the kitchen, swapping out our two sets of plates and silverware, etc. for two sets of Passover plates and silverware, etc. It is an absolute nightmare that takes days on both ends of the holiday. Most of this is completely left up to me despite the fact that I also work. Hmph!
My husband does most of the cleaning and shopping. I plan and cook the meal, invite our guests, and lead the seder.
While I wish I could say that I share the effort to create a meaningful Pesach 50/50 with my husband, but a combination of circumstances has made it mostly my job. It makes me feel connected to my family history to cook a traditional meal, and my husband’s family memories aren’t associated with the kitchen. He’s also the one out of the house in the office, so the effort of planning a seder necessarily falls to me. It both makes me feel a little guilty about my traditional gender role and nostalgic for my childhood, watching my mom do the things I do now.
Here, the man does most of the work in your questions, but the woman does lots of work behind the scenes that is not recognized well, but takes up LOTS of time, e.g. making the shopping lists, cutting out, organizing, and setting out the coupons, doing lots of laundry and actually “setting the table.” When my children were young, I shopped for new clothes for all four of them and made sure they had their haircuts. I also bring many of my own melodies to the seder.
Women are more likely to experience a real sense of enslavement (getting ready) and great freedom when the seders are over.
The irony in my case is that I am not Jewish, but my husband came from a family that didn’t cook at all. Each year, they had Passover catered, and they haven o traditions to pass down in terms of food which is a shame in a holiday where every bite has meaning. So I prepare the meal, soup to nuts (or shall I say, matzoh balls to macaroons). I also buy all the cute kid-centric things for Passover, and make it festive and fun. My husband presides over the seder but we’re pretty equal there.
I thought my husband and I had a more collaborative effort for preparing for and implementing our holiday seder with his family. Now I see otherwise.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.