As a 21st-century version of the balebuste, Sisterhood contributor Elissa Strauss wrote of the joys of being an organized, industrious wife. Although Strauss’s balebuste inclinations were recognized when she was still a little girl, one may argue that she officially entered the ranks of true balebuste-hood when she became a wife. (Other Sisterhood contributors weighed in on embracing or rejecting the balebuste moniker here, here, and here.)
In fact, my 1968 version of Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish” defines a balebuste as “the wife of a baleboost or An excellent and praiseworthy homemaker, A female owner, A female manager, A bossy woman.” Furthermore, Rosten goes on to explain that — like Strauss — he was most impressed “as a child, by the obsession with cleanliness in our household, and the scorn with which untidiness was castigated.”
My own model of the quintessential balebuste is a rather untidy, creatively chaotic 29-year-old single Jewish woman: My daughter, Lara.
I have often claimed that it doesn’t take the big remodeled house or granite countertops, let alone home ownership, to make a successful holiday meal. After Thanksgiving of 2008, I acted on this principle and asked Lara to host a family Hanukkah gathering. It seemed to be the perfect holiday to begin a family paradigm shift away from my holiday-centric home.
Lara agreed to play hostess, and seemed not to think twice about it. Since Lara was a little girl, she has been my number one assistant in the kitchen. Before Pesach, she often helped me decide on the menus, prepare lists, and accompanied me on the pricey pilgrimages to Hungarian — Skokie’s “One Stop Kosher Shop.” In other words, she is no novice.
I suggested sending an Evite, and Lara took the Evite to ne heights: To commemorate the oil that lasted 8 days, her Evite wallpaper included photos of oil well platforms, her invitation title: “A Yontiv a Sheyner” — Yiddish for “a beautiful celebration.”
By the time of my early arrival with the food processor and other culinary aids she had requested, Lara had moved the kitchen table into the living room, magically transforming the Ukrainian Village apartment she shared with two other women. I walked into tables set up and ready for guests.
Her dimly lit kitchen rocked in well-orchestrated chaos — pans and dishes on the floor (where the table had been), pots simmering on the stove, barely an inch of counter space. Lara’s MacBook glowed with Internet recipes in the adjacent bedroom. She ran back and forth between laptop and kitchen in the way our mothers and grandmothers had with their own yellowed cookbooks and newspaper clippings. She conjured, she stirred, she tasted. And I tasted. A pinch here, a grind of the pepper mill there. She squeezed an orange to add just the right touch to the mulled wine simmering in the giant stockpot that teetered on the small four-burner stove, while the back porch served as a cooling area for prepared trays of food.
By the time our family arrived and dumped winter coats, boots and scarves in the hallway, cheeses, mahamara dip (red pepper, walnuts, and pomegranate) and veggies were on the table. Lara served mulled wine followed by Mahi Mahi coated in Macademia nuts. The homemade rugelach was the best I had ever had.
Lara regretted running short of time to make a playlist on her iPod, but I had brought along Erran Baron Cohen’s Hanukkah CD, and, at one point, the family was actually doing the hora. Giddy from the warm wine, we unabashedly sang Hanukkah songs, and searching for the right melody, gradually recalled the Hanukkah blessings. Lara and cousin Jerry led the Yiddish version of “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah,” as the rest of us struggled through it. We laughed our way through the grab bag gifts, and then all sat back tired and full.
Everyone left Lara’s house that cold December night declaring that it was the best Hanukkah party we had ever had. It was a night Lara’s grandmothers and great-grandmothers would have been proud of. But it wasn’t until everyone had left that we realized that Lara had officially made the right of passage. Like her Nana Jacqui and Grandma Rena before her, she had forgotten to serve one dish: the cherry soup was supposed to have introduced the chocolate chip rugelach. It was official, Lara had entered the ranks of the best of the balebustes.