I was raised in a pretty progressive family, where everyone at least tried to share in the household duties. My dad was happy to cook, and since he was my only Jewish parent, everything I know about creating a Jewish home came from him.
Prayers and candles. Filling the hanukkiah from right to left, but lighting it from left to right. Grating the latkes by hand, and extracting the starch to use in the batter. He knew which apples made the best applesauce, and always wrapped the small gifts he gave us (packages of figs, a book) in the previous year’s Jewish calendar. When I do these things, I think fondly of my father humming to himself.
Growing up, gender was never a factor when it came to this question of “Who sets the table?” Then I got married, and my husband, though eager to help and support me, is no more a cook than he is a Jew. Because of this, we have a traditionally gendered household when it comes to both casual dining and Jewish ritual.
To be honest, I like things the way they are. I like meal planning and shopping. I like that religious practice is my domain. Especially in our intermarried home, my husband’s lack of control makes things simpler for everyone. I’m in charge of our kitchen and our faith.
The trouble with all this is that I have two sons. Boys who will grow up to be men. Men who were somehow — despite several generations of progressive politics — raised in a traditionally gendered household. Men who had a stay-at-home-mother (often barefoot in her grandmother’s old calico apron) who did all the shopping and cooking, stored the hanukkiah from year to year, remembered to buy candles and gelt, etc.
Sometimes I look back at my boys from my stove while I’m cooking, and shout: “I do this because I like it, you know! I don’t have to do it! I can quit anytime I want!”
They laugh and reply, “We know, we know.” It’s a running joke.
But whenever I leave town for a weekend, there are other jokes. “Awesome, three nights of pizza and video games!” they shout. They call it Special Boys’ Night. I roll my eyes and they laugh again. But it worries me a little.
I do my best to get them involved in my “women’s work.” My younger son likes to help in the kitchen. At 8 years old he can handle the butcher knife, and he knows how to separate an egg. But I can see that cooking is more like a game to him. I haven’t done a good job of making it clear that this daily work belongs to us all. My older son is proprietary about candle lighting. He loves to strike the match, and reminds us all to shush during the Sabbath or Hanukkah until the blessings are done. Recently, when I was away on a Friday night, they lit the candles without me. The Sabbath and Special Boys’ Night are not mutually exclusive. That’s nice.
But I wonder. I do. As unconventional as my family’s Jewish life might be, the routines we’ve established mean a great deal to me. The thought that our traditions — my grandmother’s apple cake in the fall, or her meringues at Passover, weekly candles for the Sabbath, and even the iconoclastic “Shabbacos” I make (the Sabbath is often taco night at our house) — might fade from memory without someone to carry them on. This makes me sad.
Beyond that, my feminism is wrapped up in this. Progressive politics are as much my heritage as Judaism is. I can’t handle the idea that I’m raising men who think of food and faith as women’s work. And so, as Jews do, I turn back to history, to memory. All I have, in the end, to quell this fear of mine is my father. The boys call him Boppy.
“Boppy always grates his knuckles, too,” I explain when my younger son scrapes himself and cries. “It’s an honored tradition. Adds flavor!”
“Let me show you how Boppy melts the wax off the hanukkiah,” I offer when my older son starts picking at the streaks of color with a fingernail. In this manner, I summon my father into the room frequently. He may live far away, and only visit once a year, but his presence is constant. We call him when we have questions about Jewish practice, which is often. And I regularly find myself saying things I know he’d say, making jokes I know he’d make.
My father functions in our lives as a Jewish grandfather, a patriarch. But equally he functions as a feminist role model, a man in the kitchen. He’s the kind of Jewish man I want my boys to be.
Most nights, I set the table. But Boppy helps.
Laurel Snyder is the author of books like “Bigger than a Bread Box” and “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted To Be Kosher” and Project Manager for Atlanta at InterfaithFamily. Find her online at laurelsnyder.com or on Twitter @laurelsnyder.