Dear Dr. Yael,
I enjoy your column so much. You have given me countless insights that have helped me in my marriage and with raising my children. In gratitude, I would like to share with you something I just read that helped me with my shalom bayis and could prove useful to your readers as well, especially if they are in a “mixed-culture” marriage like I am.
I’m an American baalas teshuvah and my husband isIraqi. During the five years we have been there have been many arguments. My husband is not a bad person, but I have felt he didn’t care about me because he never saw things my way. For example, I resented that he does not do his share in cleaning the house. We were always fighting about his wanting the house to be neat and clean but refusing to lift a finger to help make it that way! I work full time, and we have young children and I was furious at what I saw as additional pressure when I am already overwhelmed.
At first I thought it might be a religious thing, as frum families are more traditional, but then I saw other frum couples where the husbands did help out at home. I would tell my husband, “So-and-so’s husband vacuums every erev Shabbos” and he would just answer, “Good for him! I’m not so-and-so’s husband.” All that did was make me more frustrated.
Then I picked up a copy of The Well-Spiced Life, whose author, Barbara Bensoussan, happens to be a favorite of mine. The cover says it’s a “food memoir,” and it does include a lot of recipes, but in reality it’s about Mrs. Bensoussan’s learning to understand her husband’s Moroccan background. It’s like I found somebody to interpret my husband for me!
I grew up in Florida and my mother worked, so in my home meals were simple and nobody cared if the house wasn’t neat as a pin. Then I read this: “Since women living in an Arab country were not able to work outside the home, Jewish housewives channeled their drive for achievement into running spotless, well-organized homes, making extravagant meals, and taking care of their husbands and children. In fact, the Moroccan wife’s chief pride is showing that she ought to win the prize for the most attentive and solicitous spouse and mother, with a bathtub so clean you could eat her gourmet dinners right off the bottom… Unlike American women, who wage bitter wars with their spouses over who will vacuum the living room or bathe the kids, a model Moroccan wife refuses to let her husband worry about the housework or young children, because after all, he is so very pressured and busy earning a living for the family.”
Do you know it never even occurred to me that my home could be my pride, and that my husband couldn’t understand why I didn’t see it that way? Then Mrs. Bensoussan jokingly says many Sephardic men believe their participation in housework is “to stuff a few bills into his wife’s hand and enjoin her to go hire a cleaning lady.”
I realized that I couldn’t force my husband to change ingrained attitudes. He thinks he’s doing his part just by working long hours (which he does) and learning whenever he can, and if he’s basically a good husband, why should I keep insisting he change to fit my idea of the ideal spouse? So I asked what he thinks about getting cleaning help, and he surprised me by saying he was all for it! Argument over!
Reading The Well-Spiced Life with its anecdotes of Barbara Bensoussan’s life in a mixed-culture marriage and realizing I am not the only person dealing with cultural differences in my marriage helped me relax. She writes about that Moroccans think “the more, the merrier” when it comes to family visits, which taught me that there can be different expectations about how long family can and should impose on a couple (even a couple crowded into a two-bedroom apartment in Boro Park!). I am now going to try to grin and bear it gracefully next Pesach when my brother-in-law and his wife come to New York for an extended visit (instead of fuming that they have no respect for my privacy).
My husband and I don’t see eye to eye when it comes to finances, but when Mrs. Bensoussan wrote that Moroccans are “generous to a fault,” it rang a bell even though my husband is Iraqi. I was brought up to believe that one must have a budget and stick to it, but he’s always buying that extra aliyah in shul or loaning money to a friend. I still don’t like it when he goes over budget, but now I realize it’s in his culture and he won’t change so fast even when I ask nicely. Maybe I need to work on being more open-handed and having more emunah and bitachon. As long as he’s not spending crazy amounts on crazy things, it’s cheaper than marriage counseling!
And one last bit of knowledge I gained from the book: how much emphasis the Sephardic culture places on food. My own mother never spent a lot of time in the kitchen, but my husband thinks it’s important for us to have great food at least for Shabbosim, and I can see that food really is a way to show my family I love them and to create beautiful Yom Tov memories. I’d never thought about the importance of family meals for chinuch, but I now realize how much my kids need for us to sit down together at night and listen to what happened during their days.
So I never thought I’d be writing to you to talk about a “food memoir,” except that it really helped me understand my Sephardic husband and take a few steps, culinary and otherwise, to improving my home life!
All the best,
Thank you for your lovely letter. As a marriage counselor, I agree that mixed-culture marriages are challenging. I hope that this book will be helpful to my readers who are struggling with some of the issues you mentioned. Every marriage has its challenges and we all come from families with different values; how much more difficult it is when you add a variety of cultures to the mix. I appreciate your positive attitude and wish you hatzlocha!