Levana Kirschenbaum is the author of the forthcoming book The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple (June 22nd). She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
I came home late one recent evening, and found my husband uncharacteristically agitated. “I just put out a fire!” he said, panting. “I have no idea how it started, I just wanted to microwave some dinner and put it in a foil container to warm, and flames started leaping out!”
Now please don’t find me too biased: I ask you, how are un-domesticated husbands, who almost never prepare or even warm up their food, who almost always wait for their wives to tell them what dinner consists of, supposed to know that foil is the microwave’s nemesis? I looked all over the lethal appliance to see if the manufacturer had included some warning, but no, not a word about the hazards of using foil. Shame on you, I thought indignantly, you should learn from a sign I recently saw on an ad for bulletproof jackets: “Guaranteed or your money back,” or the warning sign on coffee cups that became ubiquitous after an infamous lawsuit: “Caution: Hot beverages are hot!”
On another occasion when my husband received a friend after I had gone to bed, he asked at the top of his voice, from one end of the house to the other: “Levana, do we have any glasses?” To be sure, I did think of a few answers to this, this… how should I put it politely, obtuse question. Examples:
a) “Of course we do, just look in the kitchen;”
b) “We don’t, but you promised we would go and buy ourselves a dozen when our twentieth anniversary rolls around;” or c) “We used to, but we smashed all of them during our arguments and we have none left.”
But of course I thought none of the above answers would reflect well on my husband, who was trying after all to be a good late-night host, and all of them would make me sound like a shrill and sarcastic matron. So instead I jumped out of bed and got into some decent clothing. I walked drowsily past the bewildered guest toward a kitchen cupboard and took out the glasses. In the interest of thoroughness, I should add I had also thought – very briefly – of saying, “of course we have glasses: Open the cabinet in the back of the kitchen, look on the second shelf, etc…” but I dismissed that option almost as soon as it crossed my mind, the reason being, I can hardly remember a time I sent my husband to the kitchen to fetch something with any luck. He would always say, “I looked high and low and didn’t find it,” and if I would find it and wave it a few inches from his face, he would say with amazement, “wow! So where was it?” But he would almost always quickly add, “well, what do you expect, you didn’t tell me to look on that shelf!”
Other times, when he is more inclined to be conscientious, he would just repeat every line after me, as if by rote, with the expressionless tone of someone memorizing some essential lines he would need on an impending trip to a foreign country. “Open the door of the cabinet on top of the refrigerator….. Open the door of the cabinet on top of…” Oh, never mind… never mind, I’m coming.
I can’t remember how the lines got so rigidly drawn between my share of the household tasks and his. I remember a lovely handmade gift a good friend brought us, which we still enjoy: two coffee mugs aptly marked “You the man!” and “You go girl!” For the most part we both got used to our respective roles and even acquit ourselves of our tasks quite honorably, but sometimes it gets a little frustrating, like in this scenario which has a way of recurring occasionally: One Shabbos day when we walked the few short blocks from synagogue towards home, a shy elderly man I had invited to join us for lunch walked with my husband, while I chatted away with some friends a few paces behind them. When we got to the lobby of our building, I asked my husband where the old man was, and he answered “Oh! So that’s it! No wonder I kept telling him ‘Good Shabbos’ and he just stood there! Then he just went away! I didn’t know you had invited him!”
When I reached forty, I thought I should celebrate this major milestone by conquering my fear of driving. Perennial city mouse that I am, I proved a mediocre student, and passed by a hair on my third try. Then I had the uninspired idea of asking my husband, a wonderful driver, to help me boost my nonexistent skills. And here I should warn you: Even if the dynamics of your marriage are made in heaven, please go to any length not to make a co-pilot out of your husband. Those rare times I diffidently clambered behind the wheel were the first times he started putting on a safety belt and urged me to put on mine, sitting the way we sit in a rollercoaster, muttering between his teeth “oy-oy-oy!” My daughter, who was in the car on one of those nerve-racking trips when my husband was screaming “You are breaking the transmission!” told me she prayed it wouldn’t be cause for divorce. My driving career was blighted after a dozen spins at the most. You might say mass transportation got me back in marital business.
So all this begs the question: What would my husband say about my Venus habits? Until he does, let me give you some clues and leave it at that: When my PC breaks down or even stalls, I just sit and cry, and I don’t think there is a technical support operator from Los Angeles or China or Bengladesh who doesn’t try to duck when he gets my desperate call. I do speak several languages but can never make out any technical instructions. I cook, sew, bead, knit, write, conduct classes, run the house, give lectures and go places, but can never orient myself: a street or a building approached from a new angle becomes totally unfamiliar. I have never ever mailed a bill to any service, balanced a checkbook or packed for a trip. I leave it all to my husband, a model of timeliness, industriousness, thoughtfulness and fitness. And he confidently – I almost said conveniently – leaves everything else to me: our meals, our social agenda, our trips’ itinerary, the management of our house.
Luckily we love a lot of the same things: food (and you know I feed him well), movies, music, books, friends, and places. We share a blind devotion to our children and a fanatical excitement for everything they and their own children do. So yes, it’s a real and working partnership. So what if after all these years, he still does the Jackie Mason thing each time we go to a restaurant, points randomly to an item on the menu and asks: “Levana, do I like this?”? Don’t I still ask him which way to turn each time we visit one of our children in mazelike Washington Heights where they have been living for years? See? We are a team!
I almost forgot something that could have made me feel bitter about having cooked up a storm all these years, resorting to the whole gamut of bribes and incentives to feed everyone healthy meals, while my husband’s best and only culinary performance is make coffee. One morning ages ago, dropping off my children at the school bus stop, I slipped on some chicken fat a nearby greasy spoon joint had disposed of carelessly. I cursed at the slobs, then made all pressing arrangements. I asked my husband to be home early and feed them a decent dinner, while I went with a good friend to the emergency room. It was almost midnight when I got back home, groggy from pain killers, with a bloated foot tightly wrapped in a voluminous bandage, and on crutches. The children waited up for me, I thought lovingly, they want to know how I am doing.
But somehow that question didn’t come up, or at least not right away. They were giggling delightedly, and my oldest son said: “Wow, Mommy, you’ll never believe this: Tati makes the most awesome hot dogs!”