I just walked out of a charming home in Monsey where the owner, a friendly man in his thirties named Yanky, showed me around his fabulous, incredibly functional kitchen that he built with his own hands, using salvaged materials found at auctions or giveaways. I admired the custom-made cabinets and double sinks equipped with an automatic soap and water dispenser and thought, “This is a skill that very few of us still have, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could try to reclaim it?”
I am talking about DIY, the do-it-yourself attitude. There was a time when almost all Americans lived with this can-do philosophy, doubly so if you were an American Jew. Just think back to the time when our grandmothers slaughtered their own chickens, and canned vegetables grown in their backyard to last the winter. Men built the family homes with their own hands and added on as needed.
As our society became more mechanized and affluent, these skills, once considered the norm, slowly became obsolete. You would be hard pressed to find one woman left in the New York Metropolitan area under the age of forty who knows how to kasher a chicken properly, and any man who knows how to build a home is charging thousands of dollars for his services. But the weakening of our personal skills goes even further than that. Most of my married friends cannot sew as much as a button back on its rightful place, and must send out the family’s shirts and dropped hems. A woman who makes Pesach without a cleaning lady is advised not to turn her children into the korbon Pesach.
When did we become so afraid of a little hard work? Do we really have that much extra money to throw away on substandard products and shoddy service? I think not. I believe, that with just a little effort, we can minimize the outsourcing of our labor and reclaim our rightful titles as Jewish homemakers in the real sense of the word, living up to the traits so elegantly rhapsodized in Eishet Chayil, sung every Friday night. According to that psalm, we make our own bedspreads and plant our own vineyards, so there’s quite some ways to go before we meet those lofty standards, but we all have to start somewhere.
Here are a few suggestions to begin with:
Clean Your Own Home: I’ve mentioned many times in this column my dislike of cleaning ladies. As my good friend Moran said as we were discussing Pesach cleaning, why would she give away the mitzvah of preparing for Pesach to someone else? However, as most women would rather eat tuna fish on Friday night before they give up their cleaning ladies, I won’t propose that drastic step. Instead, let’s consider…chores. Not for yourself, you busy person you, but for your children. A great idea would be to make a rotating chart with each child over the age of four receiving a 10-15 minute task – setting and clearing the table, doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, folding laundry, etc. With this nightly clean-up, you should be able to cut back on your cleaning help, and bestow upon your children a great gift: the ability to clean up after themselves.
Ices, Ice cream, Cakes and Cookies: There are so many great recipes found either online or in the pages of the Jewish Press Magazine. Your little kids will jump to help you, and it can be a great motivator to get your bigger ones in the kitchen. The price of these goodies are a fraction of what it costs in the store, and tremendously healthier, especially if you are using whole grain flours, minimizing the sugar, and substituting for margarine and oils. Even if you are using white pastry flour and sugar, you definitely wouldn’t think of using chemically derived products such as high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenate oils, unnatural items found in almost every processed good, so your treats are still at a great advantage. Double recipes to save time (but do a trial run first to make sure you like the results) and invest in a second freezer and good storage containers. You will make back your money in no time.