My grandfather and three of his seven siblings immigrated to America from Zawada, Poland, and ever after talked about one subject perseveratively: the hard life of their mother Rose.
“She never had a day that was really living,” was what my great-uncle told his granddaughter, Shelley Roth, when she interviewed him:
To get the family’s brick oven started, Rose was sometimes on her knees for an hour, blowing on the wood. She ground grain in a makeshift mill in the hallway; to get 10 cups of grain (enough for three loaves) took hours. Several times a day, Rose drew water from the neighborhood well, loading two heaving buckets on to a yoke across her shoulders. From 4 a.m. until 10 at night, Rose cooked, washed and cleaned for the family of 10; they lived in a small wooden house with a thatched roof, dirt floors and a huge meat hook for shekhting that dangled from the ceiling. There was no sewage, no electricity, no refrigeration. In the summer, Rose shvitzed beneath her shaytl.
My great-uncle remembered his father, a klezmer fiddler and reluctant farmer, standing in front of the mirror brushing his whiskers, getting ready to go play a khasseneh [wedding]; outside the window, there would be Rose, wearing her wooden yoke, endlessly hauling water.
My great-grandfather considered his wife’s household tasks “beneath his dignity.” In the U.S., replaying these scenes of gross domestic inequity in his head, my great-uncle sent money back to Zawada earmarked for his mother. “So a water well could be drilled beside the house,” he told Shelley.
Almost 80 years later, domestic equity issues have changed — but not that much. The norm of two-earner families has hardly begun to rectify the reality of women’s “invisible” home labor. My female therapist friends joke that if they get a new client who’s a (heterosexual) young mother, they know that the clinical issue will be rage.
In post-modern marital relationships based on love and mutuality, why are these injustices still with us? And don’t they deserve to be framed in moral terms — religious terms — alongside, for example, our marital vows, so that we might pledge to “love and comfort, in sickness and health, through babysitter screw-ups, noticing unfolded laundry and preparing for the Jewish holidays, so long as we both shall live?”
With this in mind, I have long wanted to write a wedding vow for domestic justice, but I didn’t have a ritual “handle.” [See how Lilith used Miriam’s Cup for a new ritual for adoptive moms of Chinese daughters; Winter 2011–12.] When Abigail Rome’s manuscript about house rings came into the office, though, things came into focus. I now had an authentic — indeed, venerable — Jewish handle.
In the following ritual, the bride gives her groom a Jewish house ring — a long overdue corrective. Either before or after this ritual, the bride and groom also exchange traditional vows and rings.
Couples: Let Lilith know if you use this ceremony. We eagerly await rolling out the white carpet for pioneering men!
Officiant: In this world where two-earner families are the norm, the problems of husband and wife sharing equally in the responsibility for their household and children remain very much with us. Women still do significantly more housework and childcare than men; on average, 15 more hours per week, totaling an extra month of 24-hour days each year. In a relationship based on love and mutual nurturance, the word for this is “injustice.”
groom: Unpaid, unheralded, and unending domestic (and childcare) labor — never done! — belongs equally to us both. I have a moral responsibility to assume half of these burdens.
The bride picks up the house ring from the table and puts it on the groom’s index finger for all to witness. He shows it to assembled family and friends. [“Witnessing” the exchange of an article of value in this way is halakhically traditional.]
Groom (repeats after the bride): With this house ring/ I promise to devote myself/ to taking on equally with you/ the domestic tasks of our household/ and of our family to come.
Bride (repeats after the groom): A man of valor/ who can find?/ This is one of the reasons/ I am marrying you.
Groom removes the house ring and returns it to the table.
Groom: Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your thankless tasks, my thankless tasks.
Bride: On behalf of all women, everywhere and throughout the ages, amen. Do I have a witness?