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.
Challah and Bread: Challah is the one item that most women have attempted at least once. Unfortunately, as we do not have the culinary skills that were once our birthright, the dough often flops and women give up. To that I say, try again! Do some more research. Patience is a scarce virtue in our generation, but it can be developed. I have tried so many challah recipes until I found a great one that satisfies me (no sugar) and my husband (I use only white flour to appease his palate). But once you find a good challah recipe, why stop at making it only for Shabbos? Use leftover dough or a second batch to create smaller rolls that can be used during the week for sandwiches and toast. You can differentiate between challah bread and weekday bread by making the weekday bread less rich and a different shape. For those of you who like fresh bread, most bread machines have overnight options, where the ingredients go in at night, and fresh bread comes out in the morning. I know, very cool.
Sushi: Over a year ago, I went to a class where I learned how to make sushi. I was shocked at how easy and cheap it was to make this expensive delicacy myself. I stocked up on a bamboo mat, nori seaweed sheets, brown sushi rice, fresh ginger, wasabi and never looked back. When I make the sushi for my family, I can’t make the rolls fast enough. Even my husband loves it, and let me tell you, he will never willingly eat brown rice otherwise. To learn how to make it, a quick Google search and/or YouTube video will show you the way.
Container Vegetables: Many people arequite successful at growing their own vegetables; some are even able to give produce away. That’s not my story. When my second child was born, my husband planted sunflower seeds for me as a baby present (I know, he’s the sweetest), sparking my own personal green revolution. That was four years ago, and I have successfully killed any green thing that has crossed my path, including bamboo shoots which is quite the accomplishment. But I have not given up yet. The idea of growing my own vegetables is a dream that I strongly feel can be achieved. This year, I intend on growing tomatoes and peppers. So far, they are growing quite nicely on my kitchen counter. Bli ayin hara, I will let you know how much produce I will actually pick, but here’s to hoping!
Other things I want to attempt to make are yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, and I’d like to wash and set my wigs. I haven’t been successful yet, but here’s the trick: I will try again, more slowly this time, and actually follow the directions.
Take one thing you normally send out or pick up, and see if you can’t do it yourself with minimal fuss. Then, after a month, calculate how much money and hassle you saved, taking a minute to pat yourself on the back and brag to your nearest and dearest, and consider if you can’t do one more thing. Before you know it, you will be a DIY aficionado, and you too will say to your husband as you study the peeling wallpaper in the downstairs bathroom, “Can’t we renovate this ourselves?”
And really, why shouldn’t you? As you and I both know, nobody else will do it as well.Pnina Baim
About the Author: Pnina Baim is the author of the Young Adult novels, “Choices,” “A Life Worth Living,” and a how-to book for the Orthodox homemaker, “Sing While You Work.” The books are available at amazon.com.
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