Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > family > The Myth of the Charedi Superwoman

The Myth of the Charedi Superwoman

Maayan David
Maayan David Journalist and Publicist

Charedi children grow up with the mythological "Charedi superwoman." Meet the mother of ten who seamlessly combines caring for her home and children, loyalty to her husband and his Torah study, and of course a full time job as single breadwinner of the household. But the myth hardly reflects real 21st Century life, in which Charedi women are likely to work long office hours, relying on husbands for substantial contributions to running the home. The dissonance between rhetoric and reality brings many to disappointment and disillusionment, and calls for adjusting the ideal in response to shifting circumstances.

Adar 2 5779 / March 2019
 

In Charedi society it is not uncommon to find spheres in which the ideal, especially as described in various party-line media outlets, differs noticeably from reality on the ground. This dissonance has advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, it allows for perpetual aspiration towards a lofty and pure ideal; on the negative, it breeds an ever-increasing divergence between what we say about reality and reality itself. Yet even within the Charedi space, which is admittedly replete with gaps between rhetoric and real experience, it is difficult to conjure up a more extreme example of the phenomenon than the division of labor between husband and wife.

[E]ven within the Charedi space, which is admittedly replete with gaps between rhetoric and real experience, it is difficult to conjure up a more extreme example of the phenomenon than the division of labor between husband and wife.

Most graduates of Charedi educational systems are raised with the familiar myth of the “superwoman housewife.” Etched in each girl’s mind are the famous words of an Israeli childhood song: “mother, how do you cope?” which describes a mother who manages a ten-child home with sublime proficiency, finding time (and patience) for her many chores, inside and outside of the home. This is the mother whose picture appears in all Charedi children’s books: she cooks and cleans, washes and irons, organizes breakfast and bedtime, sends the kids out in the morning and takes them to the park in the afternoon. The house is always spick and span (no money for housemaids of course), and freshly cooked meals are always waiting at the appropriate times for the family to enjoy. And fathers? In children’s literature they appear as guests —to make Kiddush on Shabbos, to provide answers to halachic questions, to lead Seder Night, and so on. These “literary mothers” have a virtual monopoly on all things related to the home and raising children.

But does this idealized picture stand up to the test of reality? Not at all. Until some twenty years ago, many Charedi women were indeed housewives in the literal sense. Many others worked as school and kindergarten teachers, which allowed them to spend long hours, daily and during vacation periods, at home and with their children. This facilitated a sharp division of labor among couples, as reflected in the literature. However, those days are long gone, and as the years go by the ideal model continues to become more and more rare. We should be aware of this, speak it out, put it on the table; so long as we don’t, we stand to pay an ever-rising price for those women who fail to live up to this elusive ideal.

 

An Egalitarian Revolution?

In recent years, the prevalence of fathers who are virtually uninvolved in taking care of children and household chores has dwindled considerably. If our grandmothers still tell nostalgic stories about (male) neighbors knocking on doors asking for assistance in changing a diaper, it is surely hard to find modern fathers for whom such tasks are unfamiliar. Today’s fathers are well acquainted with household chores, and are even willing partners in them.

If our grandmothers still tell nostalgic stories about (male) neighbors knocking on doors asking for assistance in changing a diaper, it is surely hard to find modern fathers for whom such tasks are unfamiliar. Today’s fathers are well acquainted with household chores, and are even willing partners in them.

This phenomenon reflects the egalitarian trend of the Western world, of which Charedi society, like it or not, is part of. In fact, Charedi society is surprisingly advanced in the general blurring of traditional gender roles that the West has seen over recent decades. A large-scale survey published in a recent edition of Mishpacha Magazine examined the division of labor, outside and inside the home, of Charedi couples. The findings showed that only 11% of Charedi households characterize the literary model of a housewife exclusively responsible for household chores. 41% of households declared that the woman held primary responsibility for the home, while 40% said—in a response given predominantly by younger couples—that the household burden was equally shared by husband and wife. Comparison with data from other surveys and research indicates that Charedi families are more egalitarian in this area than their non-Charedi counterparts.[1]

The picture of an egalitarian household is well-known to Charedi families, especially those in their early forties and below. Whether the husband is an avrech, occupied in full-time Torah study, or works in gainful employment, the reality of a “mother who does everything at home” is a rarity, and survives mainly in families where the husband works in a lucrative field and the mother is a full-time housewife—a model common to Hassidic homes but rare in the Litvish and Sephardic communities (this division emerged from the above-mentioned Mishpacha survey). Couples in their twenties and thirties might remember the traditional model from their parents; they are unlikely to follow it themselves.

A large-scale survey published in a recent edition of Mishpacha Magazine examined the division of labor, outside and inside the home, of Charedi couples. The findings showed that only 11% of Charedi households characterize the literary model of a housewife exclusively responsible for household chores.

Anyone who lives in (or passes through) a Charedi neighborhood is likely to witness each morning scores of fathers with strollers, taking their children to nursery and preschools, while their wives are well into their working day. The same can be seen at lunchtime, when the same fathers collect their children, take them home and give them lunch. The identity of the cook is a poorly kept secret too. A leading rabbinic authority recently decried the situation whereby Torah scholars not only cook lunch for their children on a daily basis, but have also begun cooking for Shabbos, “and are even proud of it.” The rabbi further lamented, “She works so that he can continue to study Torah, and he becomes a housewife so that she can work—and you can guess where this circle comes to an end.”[2] But such is the reality on the ground. Welcome to the 21st century.

This past summer a Charedi women’s magazine published a fascinating article describing a relatively new trend: fathers who stay home with their children during the “bein ha’zemanim” period (the summer vacation of the Charedi yeshiva cycle), while women continue to work. Those living the Charedi lifestyle have been aware of this phenomenon for several years: an avrech whose wife is not employed in the teaching professions learns to tend for and entertain his children during the weeks of bein ha’zemanim.

 

The Model of Full-Time Torah Study

How did Charedi society, ostensibly the most conservative of population sectors in Israel, realize a role reversal that rivals the most progressive of egalitarian societies? A significant part of the story is the central element that justifies the entire model: the husband’s (full-time) Torah study.

From its inception, Charedi society in Israel, specifically but not exclusively of the Litvish variety, encouraged women to go out to work and provide for the household while the husband continued his full-time Torah studies. Sometimes, the husband will find a Torah occupation of one kind or another down the line. But as Charedi society has grown, such openings have become few and far between, and the full-time learning arrangement often continues many years (sometimes long decades) into a marriage. So Charedi women went to work: initially as teachers, but later, as job opportunities in the teaching professions dwindled, in a broad range of occupations. Most of these, like all modern jobs, require long working hours. Today, women coming home after 4:00 pm has become the norm rather than the exception.

Most workplaces in Israel expect employees to arrive at approximately 8:00 am. It is therefore no surprise that the day of full-time Torah students begins formally at 9:00 am, and informally closer to 9:30 am, allowing fathers to take care of their children while their wives are out of the house.

When the woman of the home is the exclusive breadwinner, a strain is automatically imposed on both husband and wife. She has little option but to work long hours; even as a teacher, women will often look to teach extra hours and accept additional responsibilities to bring home some extra income. Furthermore, as single-income families, there is little extra money to pay for babysitters and costly afterschool care programs for afternoon hours. Thus, the role reversal is virtually built into the system.

Most workplaces in Israel expect employees to arrive at approximately 8:00 am. It is therefore no surprise that the day of full-time Torah students begins formally at 9:00 am, and informally closer to 9:30 am, allowing fathers to care for children while their wives are out. The Kollel schedule also typically includes a lunch break between 1:00 pm and approximately 4:00 pm—which is of course unheard of in the modern workplace—again catering to the father who needs to tend to young children before his wife returns home from work.

This then is the reality on the ground—a far cry from what it was some decades ago, when the traditional division of labor was both viable and widely prevalent. From here we turn to the ideal: has it also changed?

 

Detachment Between Ideal and Reality

It should not come as a surprise that the change in division of labor among Charedi couples does not draw from the modern ideal of gender equality. At least not in a direct sense. Charedi couples do not sit down before their wedding to map out an egalitarian division of roles based on the day’s liberal standards. The change that Charedi society underwent in this regard stems from real-life needs coupled with a sharpened sense of pragmatism, rather than from the lofty ideals of liberal morality—though modern labor laws and social acceptance of working women certainly made the process more feasible. The fascinating thing, however, is the Charedi ideal itself. While the situation on the ground underwent radical change, it seems that the ideal has remained just as it was decades ago.

The fascinating thing, however, is the Charedi ideal itself. While the situation on the ground underwent radical change, it seems that the ideal has remained just as it was decades ago. […] [T]his ideal is well represented in Charedi children’s literature. In my own youth, the figure of the Charedi superwomen was everywhere, omnipresent just as she was omnipotent. But despite the deep social changes […] the same character is there in the books I read to my own children!

As noted at the outset, this ideal is well represented in Charedi children’s literature. In my own youth, the figure of the Charedi superwoman was everywhere, omnipresent just as she was omnipotent. But despite the deep social changes that call for a revision, or at least for a softening of her all-powerful image, the same character is still there, in the books I read to my own children! Even the most recent books continue to represent the Charedi mother as the traditional superwoman—she who takes care of all household chores on her own, while her husband is perennially absent from the home (presumably in the beis medrash, doing what all husbands do).

An extreme example is a recent book in which a young child learns to help his mother clean the house for Pesach. The mother does all the work herself, and the five-year-old boy, the oldest child in the family, manages to find creative ways to help her. At the end of the book, when the boy’s grandparents arrive for Seder Night, the mother realizes that this year she was not alone: her five-year-old has helped her achieve a pristinely clean home for Pesach. The father, of course, is nowhere to be found; he is absent throughout the book. As mentioned, some books will have the father make “guest appearances” to provide educational counsel and halachic advice, to perform a particular mitzvah or to study Torah with the children. At most, he can be relied on to carry the heavy Peach shopping from the local sale. But that’s it.

The ideal mother, by contrast with the real one, is found not only in children’s literature, but even in adult texts. It is true that in adult magazines and books the father is permitted to fulfill a broader role at home, including helping out here and there with household chores, but the author (usually female herself) will emphasize how he has trouble managing these himself, how he fails to find the right children’s clothes in the morning, and how (for instance) his busy wife still needs to iron his shirts.

Noted Israel anthropologist Tamar Elor, who studied Charedi women extensively, mentioned this phenomenon some years ago. In Western society, she wrote, the liberal ideal is somewhat out of sync with a reality that still reflects non-egalitarian divisions of labor. But in Charedi society the situation is just the opposite:

The situation in the Charedi community is completely different, and even reversed. The explicit ideology presents a deep inequality between men and women, which is defined as reflecting an innate difference between the sexes. […] However, in daily life […] an intense social activity is reshaping the ideology and filling it with egalitarian content and behavior.[3]

The question then is: Why is there such a contradiction between the actual experience of Charedi families and the popular ideological model? If the reality on the ground has undeniably changed, and everybody knows it, why does the public representation of the division of labor between husband and wife remain static? Statistics tell us that most Charedi children grow up with a father who is deeply involved in their daily lives, who takes them to kindergarten and often brings them home, who participates in household chores and who certainly makes far more than “guest appearances” at home. Why then does Haredi literature continue to exclude him from these basic activities, as though fathers are inherently inept at doing all the things they’ve learned to do so well? And still more significantly: why do we continue to associate the mother’s role with a long list of tasks that only few can achieve, thus condemning many righteous women to feelings of guilt and frustration?

 

The Myth of the Charedi Superwoman

It seems that Charedi society is unwilling to formally concede that it has had to compromise. We have always been educated that women should be entirely available for rearing their children and caring for their homes. Concomitantly, in the ideal world, husbands are perpetually free to immerse themselves in Torah study, exempt from the burden of household chores. But reality, alas, is a far cry from these ideals, and demands compromises on both counts. Mothers must work to allow fathers to dedicate their time to Torah study, and fathers must be actively involved in the home to allow the mothers to work. Yet the ideal, as if it were some Platonic axiom, retains its purity.

Charedi society is predicated on living an elevated ideal. It is precisely this that separates the Charedi community from other societies, which are prepared to compromise on lofty ideals because of pragmatic considerations and human weaknesses. Denial is thus the only solution to the awkward compromise that everyday life demands from men and women supposedly living the Charedi ideal. We continue to tell our children the story that Daddy learns Torah non-stop, without any involvement in household chores, and paint an idealized picture of Mommy as superwoman. We continue to talk to ourselves about the sharp division of labor that always defined the contours of the Charedi home. As for reality—we elegantly ignore it.

Charedi society is predicated on living an elevated ideal. It is precisely this that separates the Charedi community from other societies, which are prepared to compromise on lofty ideals because of pragmatic considerations and human weakness. Denial is thus the only solution to the awkward compromise that everyday life demands from men and women supposedly living the Charedi ideal.

This is what I call the “myth of the Charedi superwoman.” Girls in Charedi high schools are educated to believe that the role of every married woman is to remove the burden of worldly affairs from her husband’s shoulders. In Charedi magazine columns and literature, we encounter the idealized picture of marital harmony in which women care for children with infinite patience, while also managing all the affairs of the home. In many cases, this is also the model that many girls, certainly until recently, in fact grew up with. The expectation of these young women is therefore to live the ideal. Sure, she’ll have to work a full-time job too. But what does it matter? The Charedi woman isn’t just any old woman: she’s superwoman!

The myth is not entirely detached from reality. Twenty and thirty years ago many women indeed raised beautiful families with eight children and upwards, and did so more or less on their own, also caring singlehandedly for household chores, while their husbands were free to engage in full-time Torah study. Today, however, the fully realized version of the lofty ideal is hard to come by. Aside from the essentially different makeup of today’s generation (which should not be ignored), today’s women are simply called upon to do much more. There are also many more of them; and there are many more for whom the ideal is simply impossible.

Charedi women today are not responsible only for their homes. They also must work long hours outside of it, which simply don’t allow them to dedicate themselves as they once did to their homes and children. This reality is not merely the product of a shortage of teaching positions. The cost of living has risen, and so have standards. Expectations are higher than they once were, often including bigger houses, cars, and even the occasional trip abroad. Moreover, mothers are called upon to help their kids with homework (harder than it used to be), to take them to extra-curricular activities that were once unknown, and to provide a parade of therapies that have become basic requirements. Whereas taking care of children used to involve sending them to play outside, today even this staple of Charedi life is fading into nostalgic memory, as parental awareness of the need to actually supervise children grows, mainly in the safety of their own homes.

All these changes involve demands on a mother’s time that our mothers and grandmothers did not know, and even the most elevated ideal cannot but bow its head before the necessities of modern life. The superwoman ideal of the Charedi mother thus transformed into the myth of the Charedi superwoman.

 

A Dangerous Ideal

The result of changes to Charedi life is that relatively few women are able to realize the ideal. Some make peace with their situation, and are content to live a life in which husbands participate in household chores and care for children. But this situation causes many to live with a constant sense of failure and disappointment, and some will even go to great self-sacrifice to somehow live the ideal they grew up on. Cases of physical and emotional crises, resulting from a stubborn refusal to let go, are sadly far from unheard of. Continually promoting an ideal that is manifestly detached from reality endangers these Charedi women. Instead of encouraging them to be wonderful housewives, the superwoman ideal exposes their failures and deeply hurts them.

Charedi women believe that deep down, a real eishes chayil (woman of valor) manages on her own—even as she collapses under a physical and emotional burden that borders on the impossible. This is the very self-sacrifice, even self-effacement, that her schooling teaches her to strive for. In the public, rhetorical sense, the Charedi woman represents the feminist ideal of the woman who can really “have it all”—a good job, a calm and happy home, many kids, a scholarly husband—everything. This is the ideal to which every Charedi road leads. Except for the road of reality itself.

In the public, rhetorical sense, the Charedi woman represents the feminist ideal of the woman who can really “have it all”—a good job, a calm and happy home, many kids, a scholarly husband—everything. This is the ideal to which every Charedi road leads. Except for the road of reality itself.

In boys’ education, it seems that institutions and educators have internalized the need for a modicum of realism. Making unrealistic demands of young men concerning their study regime can do more harm than good. Caution must be taken to refrain from imposing an ideal too far removed from reality, and to ensure that its realization is tempered by the complexities of human limitations.

For girls, however, certainly in all that relates to their future life choices, it seems that this insight has yet to be discovered. Girls are continuously exposed to the message that a God-fearing woman possesses by definition superhuman powers that enable her to “have it all.” They will hear nothing about the treacherous crossroads that real life will conjure, of the husband’s responsibility to play his part in running the household, and of the strain and hardship that work-home combinations often create. If she ever reads about husbands who help out at home, it will often be in some fictional work in which the mother, tragically, suffers from postpartum depression.

 

Charedi Women Can’t Have It All

In 2012, Anne Marie Slaughter, a Princeton expert on international relations, published her famous essay on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”[4] Despite her academic credentials, and notwithstanding a senior position held in the state department under Hillary Clinton, Slaughter is best known for her groundbreaking essay, in which she lays out the harsh reality that struck her when she took up her position in Washington. Slaughter had two children, both in middle school. Her devoted husband was happy and willing to rearrange his schedule so that he could take care of home and children and allow his wife the freedom to pursue the career of her dreams. But none of these facts made any difference. After two years she gave up, quit her Washington job, and returned to New Jersey to her home and family.

Her article, in which she laid out the conclusions of her own experience, quickly became one of the most widely read articles ever published in The Atlantic magazine. In it, she argued that the great feminist ideal whereby “it’s possible if you are just committed enough” is a half-truth. The other half is that real life, which involves homes, families, children, doesn’t always bow to ideals. The starting point that girls are expected to internalize, an underlying understanding that “having it all depends primarily on the depth and intensity of a woman’s commitment to her career,” is a misrepresentation of reality. It places an unfair burden of expectation on women and ultimately leads to misplaced feelings of failure and guilt. The same can be said of Charedi girls’ education.

The feminist ideal that stands at the center of Slaughter’s article is a far cry from the ideal that Charedi girls are brought up with. In the Charedi scheme, the ideal is not the career itself, and the goal is not a promotion track in academia or in business, to reach the zenith of a dream job in the state department. These are rather the means. The end is a large family inculcated with Torah values, not least of them a husband engrossed in full-time Torah study. But the distinction between end and means is of little interest to the woman who must juggle between career, home, children and husband in a vain effort to make it work. Yes, even Charedi women can’t have it all. They can’t be perfectionist housewives, calm and dedicated mothers, devoted wives, and employees who work long hours to bring home respectable incomes. They just can’t.

[P]erhaps it is time to stop pricking the conscience of our daughters by emphasizing an ideal that cannot be achieved in our modern circumstances. Perhaps we can stop hiding behind our admiration of the Charedi superwoman as she’s supposed to be, and to appreciate her as she is in reality.

Charedi society is yet to find its own Anne Marie Slaughter. No publicly known and appreciated woman, dedicated to the Charedi ideal of the eishes chayil and committed to her husband’s Torah study, has plucked up the courage to speak out the truth of her life—to confess that she really isn’t omnipotent, that her house is often a mess, that she relies on help from her husband to care for the kids, and that occasionally he even cooks for Shabbos. No such woman has so far spoken up to explain that having it all, Charedi-style, is not just a question of a strong enough commitment, and that “instead of chiding, perhaps we should face some basic facts.” We’re still waiting for her.

But Charedi society has always had a healthy instinct for pragmatism; this is among its greatest strengths. This tendency led to the phenomenon described by Elor: an efficient egalitarianism that flies, remarkably, in the face of the Charedi ideal. Since this pragmatic approach has already reached the majority of Jewish homes, perhaps it is time to take the next step. Yes, maybe it’s time to stop pricking the conscience of our daughters by emphasizing an ideal that cannot be achieved in our modern circumstances. Perhaps we can stop hiding behind our admiration of the Charedi superwoman as she’s supposed to be, and start appreciating her as she is in reality: a very human woman, doing her very best, in close partnership with her soulmate.


[1] A survey conducted in 2015 by the Economics Ministry of Israel achieved different numbers, but it also concurred with the fact that Charedi households are more egalitarian that non-Charedi ones. See Ronit Harris-Olshak, Integration of Work and Family—Division of Labor in the Household (July 2015) [Hebrew].

[2] See http://www.bhol.co.il/news/980060 [Hebrew].

[3] See Tamar Elor (1992). Educated and Ignorant; From the World of ultra-Orthodox Women. Tel Aviv (Am Oved; pp. 2329-230) [Hebrew].

[4] See: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/.


photo: Bigstock

5 thoughts on “The Myth of the Charedi Superwoman

  • Thanks for this wonderful article.
    I want to note that even after their husband’s participation, Haredi women really are superwomen, and deserve every credit for their commitment.
    Also, there might be room to question the thinking that says “how will he grow to be a Torah scholar if he needs to take out the garbage?!”
    I grew up among Torah scholars who washed the dishes, did the shopping, cared for the kids and took part in every chore, and all these did nothing to dent the intensity or quality of their learning.

  • This is a fascinating article that bravely presents the conflicts of Charedi women and explains them in depth.
    After reading the article I can understand how dangerous the “superwoman myth” really is, and how it leads women to feelings of guilt and shame that many Charedi women I know experience. As a Charedi working mother myself, who shares household tasks equally with my husband (who is full-time learning), I am used to experiencing the same feeling of ineptness to realize all that I expect from myself. Now I understand where they come from.

  • Before touching the point made in the article about the role of Charedi women, it is important to understand the difference in Charedi society between ideology and pragmatism. There are many areas in which there is a distinction between ideology and reality, and the question is always: does this do more good or more harm? True, some women will undergo some strain and even disappointment because of the education they received, but this might be justified for the sake of those prepared for self-sacrifice for Torah study? Leaving Kollel for men is often difficult and can even be traumatic, but still we wish to educate toward an ideal of Torah study, to ensure that those who can will stay in learning and grow to be tremendous talmidei chachomim. The balance is difficult and it’s always hard to draw the line, but the point is that a community doesn’t need to change its principles to alleviate guilt pangs of individuals who don’t fully reach the ideal. In addition, it’s the job of the home to add a little breadth and bridge between the ideology of the public space and the reality of private lives.

  • Beautifully written article, and as someone who does write Jewish literature–for adults and for kids–trying to depict reality rather than this falsely “perfect” image is something I strive for. If Hashem expected us perfect, He would have created us as angels, and every woman–or man–with thrive better under humane expectations.

  • Beautiful article.
    Very important to pass this on to teachers in girls’ schools, who should take into account limit resources of women, and stress the need for partnership (of both spouses) in running a home. This will only enhance relationships.
    Also, it would be useful to limit the scope of evening Kolels, which deprive home of the husband in critical times for the family.

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