Thousands of young frum men and women in their late teens and early 20s will soon be returning from a year (or two or three) in Israeli yeshivas and seminaries, full of youthful exuberance and idealism. Many who had planned on going to college have changed their minds (often to the dismay of their parents) insisting that secular studies or employment are not for them. They want to be full time learners or the wife of one.
The girls in particular see themselves as neshei chayil – they will work and be the main breadwinner of the family and “hold the (domestic) fort” so their husband can immerse himself in Torah. After all, that is the goal they have been encouraged towards by their morot; there is no greater calling than doing what it takes to enable their future husband to lose himself in Torah, free of any mundane concerns, interruptions or worries.
While this is a very noble lifestyle to strive for – the fact is very few of these very earnest future wives truly know what this lifestyle entails; nor are most cut out for the hard work and sacrifices that come with the territory.
These sincere but naïve young ladies have what I call the Rebbetzin Akiva Syndrome, named after Rochel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva, a girl brought up in the lap of luxury. She gave it all up in order to marry Akiva (her father had disinherited her) and encouraged him to devote himself to learning, even if it meant she would have a very reduced standard of living and be alone most of the time, which in fact was the case for years. She gladly sacrificed physical comfort and even emotional support (being on her own) for the sake of Torah.
Those teachers and principals who have influenced these impressionable kids to go on thatvery dignified, but difficult, derech may genuinely feel that they are putting them on the path of true Torah happiness. But I can’t help wonder if the discussions on the spiritual beauty of these lifestyle were balanced with an honest reality check, so that these over-enthusiastic girls could take a step back and do a cheshbon hanefesh – an internal assessment – and thus be better equipped to make an informed choice.
While many girls daydream of emulating Rebbetzin Akiva and are determined they will be just like her, most, not surprisingly, are not made of the same stuff and eventually find themselves in a living nightmare: The day to day actuality of juggling several occupations that are full time by themselves. Caring for children, working, dealing with myriad household chores and crises, and facing endless, unavoidable expenses and debt can become overwhelming, demoralizing and lead to serious shalom bayis issues. What sounds so romantic and glorious on paper rarely translates that way into reality.
When I was a teenager, a kallah I bumped into, told me with pride and radiant eyes that after her chassanah – a lovely affair that her financially comfortable parents made for her – she was going to live in Eretz Yisrael and work while her husband learned. I wished her well but I had a feeling that this pampered girl with her weekly manicures, pedicures and designer outfits didn’t know what she was getting into. About four years later I bumped into her again. This time her eyes were dull with weariness and her face was haggard. She was still an eishes chayil – working full time and being for all intents and purposes a single mother (she had two pre-schoolers and was expecting) while her husband spent his days and evenings in the bais medrash.
While I had no doubt that her parents helped financially, she had several younger brothers and sisters who also wanted a learning lifestyle. At some point, her parents had to divert some of their support to their other children.
In reality, as this kallah found out, it is very challenging to be a superwoman – to run from home to job and back; to deal with the needs and demands of several young children; to run a household – and not burn out or be awash with resentment and even anger at what can seem as a one sided effort.
Years ago someone told me of a lecture she went to at which a rav admonished the women to allow their learning husbands to go to night seder and evening shiur without insisting he help give the kids a bath and put them to bed. The anger in the room was very palpable, I was told.
These girls should be told that there is another, likewise honorable option in terms of a husband – men who are leaning towards a college education or working in a trade.
Unfortunately, many of these erlich individuals are made to feel that they “sold out” and let their rabbeim/teachers down. Because of this disparaging view of “earners” many post-seminary girls in the parsha turn their noses up when redd a shidduch with one of them.
Several years ago I wrote of a bachur, a “black hat” type of boy who had graduated from a specialized university program and at a young age had an excellent parnassah. He was very frustrated because he was constantly being turned down for shidduchim because he wasn’t “a learning boy”, even though he was machmir on learning with a chavrusah in the evenings and in his spare time. I called him “Avi.”
Avi eventually married and now has a baby. His wife has the luxury of being a stay-at-home mother and seeing her child reach each milestone. She has her own car and cleaning help if she wants it. The baby is being raised in a calm, comfortable home by parents who are not harried, worn out or distressed due to physical exhaustion and a mountain of bills. Avi gives generously to the local kollel, yeshivot and to chesed organizations, indirectly supporting the husbands of the women who rejected him, so that they can learn.
Seminaries should paint a realistic view of life as the wife of a learner – both the benefits and the challenges from all the angles – spiritual, emotional and socio-economical. The girls need to be able to assess what the “facts on the ground” are in terms of their parents’ ability to support; their own ability to be self-reliant and independent and their “comfort level” in terms of needing to have “things.”
The community also needs to adjust their negative attitude towards earners. Without Zevulin, Yissachar will falter. Young people should be able to make informed choices, without shame or guilt – or regret.
Cheryl Kupfer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org