by Barbara Bensoussan
I had a blast of nostalgia recently when I read an article by commentator Peggy Noonan about the imminent attempt to reinstate S&H Green Stamps, those sheets of stamps we used to receive at the grocery store and redeem for items like toasters and coffee machines. Ms. Noonan wistfully remembers pasting stamps in the S&H books with her mother, and the way slowly filling up the books made for an exercise in patience and discipline. But she is not very optimistic that Green Stamps will go over in the 21st century. "Once we had more time than money in America," she writes. "Now we have more money than time. That is the difference between your child's America and yours."
"More money than time"... The phrase caught in my mind and reverberated for days. It rang so true. Not that I am rolling in money, mind you. It's rather that today's economic pressures and general mindset so often lead us to evaluate all our pursuits in terms of their dollar value. Using time in ways that don't bring in money, or taking time away from bringing in money, gets looked at as a waste or an indulgence, rather than something that may have essential (albeit intangible) value for one's quality of life or spiritual growth.
It's an issue of particular relevance to women, because as more and more of us work outside the home, those unpaid, time-consuming activities we did in previous generations suddenly seem to diminish in value when compared to activities that bring home a paycheck.
Take the example of baking challa, the Shabbos loaves. It's more expensive to buy challa than to make it; for the price of one bakery challa, one can buy a bag of flour and that will yield six challas. But if a woman works and makes $30 or $40 an hour, then she can more than afford to absorb the extra costs of store-bought bread. She can sit at her desk and never have to sweat from a hot oven, wash out a mixer, or aggravate her varicose veins. It makes an ordinary homemaker feel downright foolish for knocking herself out when it's so much easier to run to the corner and buy the stuff. Her only consolation is the thought that at least if she bakes challa herself, she can be sure there are no suspicious chemicals in it to give it a longer shelf life.
WHAT PRICE HOME-BAKED CHALLA?
And yet there are considerations other than saving time or money, or even avoiding nasty food additives. What price the taste of freshly baked, homemade challa, or the smell that fills the house as it is baking? What price the knowledge that our valiant homemaker fulfilled the mitzvah of separating the dough herself (see Numbers 15:17), rather than counting on the bakery to do it for her? What price the appreciation of her family, not to mention the example to the children, that Shabbos is worth a mother's best efforts?
By the same logic, one can ask why anyone would bother to stay home changing dirty diapers, when she could hire a babysitter to do the job for a grand total of perhaps $15 an hour. From the point of view of pure economics, parenting one's own child makes less sense than working at a job that pays substantially more than the babysitter makes. For many women, the margin of profit that remains after paying the babysitter is enough to make working outside the home an uncontested necessity.
But each family has to evaluate its priorities. Some "needs" -- rent, food, etc. -- are clearly not negotiable; others are more debatable and children have needs as well, which can only be "paid" for by a mother's investment of time with them. The early years of a child's life never come back, and I can tell you from experience, they go by very fast. Who is going to leave those indelible first impressions, that first orientation to our way in life, in the child's mind? How does one weigh the trade-offs between creating solid bank accounts and creating solid kids? And since we've all gotten so used to considering things in terms of their dollar value, consider this: skimping on being there for our children, in the short term, can turn out to be very expensive in the long term, if we end up having to call in therapists and tutors to repair the damages later down the road.
DEFINING THE FUNCTION OF "HOME"
When we -- especially women -- exchange our time at home for time outside to make money, we run the risk that the home will become reduced to a place where everybody comes only at night to wolf down a take-out meal and roll into bed. I know people who work hard to afford their gorgeous homes, but they're never home to enjoy them (ditto the women with beautiful custom kitchens who never cook).
A vicious cycle gets created when the more a woman works, the more she needs to run out and buy the things she otherwise would have made at home. Then she needs to make yet more money to support her expensive habits of buying meals, repairs and services from other people. When she's not at work, she's out shopping; then she wonders why so many of our youth are spending all their time running around on the streets. Why should they stay home if nobody's there, physically or emotionally?
Both our quality of life and our spirituality suffer when we seek to buy on the outside rather than personally invest ourselves in the areas that are so fundamental to our lives: food, an orderly house, clothing, Shabbos and holidays. For example, I know people whose "celebration" of Chanukah means telling the housekeeper to pop a package of frozen latkes into the microwave for the kids. That certainly avoids the problems of scraped knuckles, dirty pots, and potato starch turning brown on the counters. But frozen latkes are only the weakest approximation of the real thing (my apologies to frozen latke makers). More importantly, there is a message being sent that the holiday is not important enough to warrant scraped knuckles and an evening spent next to a frying pan.
Similarly, these days a mother has a choice between buying a Purim costume for her child or making one herself. But a child's eyes will not shine in the same way over a chintzy store-bought costume as they will over an original "creation" that Mommy stayed up half the night sewing, nor will he or she get to bask in the exclamations of the neighbors: "Your mommy made that! Wow!" The message registers: "Look how important Mommy thinks I am! Look how important Purim is in our family!"
QUALITY TIME... BUILT ON QUANTITY
Not every Jewish woman must stay at home, chained to her stove and sewing machine. A Jewish mother's primary job is the education of her children, to bring them up in the way of Torah, rather than to keep the furniture immaculate or make her own muffins from scratch twice a week. But even the job of bringing up children as servants of God cannot be accomplished if she does not allow herself the time to create a joyful, inspiring Jewish home life for them. As a psychologist once said, there's no way to have "quality time" with children unless a minimum of "quantity time" has been spent. (This applies equally to our relationships with spouses, friends, even God.) And the education she gives will not inspire them unless it is clear that she herself is enthusiastic about Judaism and is willing to put the best of her time and energy into the practice of it, in line with her particular talents and inclinations.
While today it is often necessary to spend money rather than time, and to take shortcuts wherever we can, ultimately, there is no short cuts when it comes to creating truly warm, nostalgia-laden Jewish memories in the minds of a child.
It used to be very hard to be Jewish; in our generation, at least in the urban centers of America, it's a pleasure. We have an explosion of choices in every aspect of Jewish living; no self sacrifice is necessary to obtain kosher food, keep Shabbos, etc. Our challenge is to avoid taking it all for granted and, instead, to use our new opportunities and prosperity to do mitzvot with as much enthusiasm as we can muster. If our children see no element of personal investment in the way we carry out our Jewish lifestyle, they will infer that Judaism is not truly important to us; not something we need to strive for, but rather a set of rules we follow out of social pressure. Their youthful needs for ideals will become frustrated and turn into cynicism and disillusionment, if they see Judaism as just another commodity to buy, along with food for Shabbos and holidays, costumes for Purim, and babysitters and tutors to bring up and educate our children.
I truly doubt that God intended our Judaism to be something to purchase rather than create. When we devote time and energy to creating beautiful Shabbos and holidays, and vibrantly Jewish home lives in general, we become partners with God in generating spirituality. We grow ourselves, and enjoy Judaism more fully. And we inspire children to want to do the same.
MORE THAN GREEN STAMPS CAN BUY
I don't think I'd collect Green Stamps if they came back, for the same reason I rarely use coupons; neither is worth the time. But some things are worth the investment of my time. In the Jewish world, is has become more difficult, but more important, to reserve time for Jewish family life. There's not much point in paying all that money for day-school tuition if the child returns to a vacant Jewish home and a hollow home life.
Money can be earned and lost and earned again; it is replaceable. But time is not. If we devote enough time and to improving the quality of our Jewish family life, we will end up with bonuses much longer lasting than all the Green Stamps can procure: the continuation of the tradition that God has entrusted to us, and true joy (nachas) from our children.
Article reprinted with permission from
Jewish Observer magazine (February 2003)
published by the Agudath Israel of America.
Presented in cooperation with Heritage House, Jerusalem. Visit www.innernet.org.il.