Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Giving Tree, Eshet Chayil, and the Host/Parasite Relationship

By Sherry F. Colb

When my daughters were little, one of the books that I read to them before bedtime was The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. The story involves a boy who, in today’s parlance, apparently suffered from a failure to launch. He seemed unable to go out into the world and get himself food or shelter. The Giving Tree always had something to offer the boy, and she (I am pretty confident that the tree is a she) was happy to do it. She gave him fruit, wood for building a home, and ultimately a place to rest when he had destroyed all but a remaining stump. I always found the story very sad, but I somehow missed the fact that the story—however well written and creative—is quite ugly and offensive. If I read it to children today, it would be as an example of how misogyny finds its way into “classic” writings.

When I was little, my family was Orthodox Jewish. Friday nights, we sang zemirot, Hebrew songs. One particular song was for the head of the household (a man) to sing to his wife. It is called “Eshet Chayil,” a woman of valor. As a child, I found the song boring because it did not have much of a beat, and only one person (my oldest brother because my dad had already died) was allowed to sing it. I liked the zemirot that were festive and collective, like Shalom Aleichem, that seemed to welcome the Sabbath into our home.

I remember one line from Eshet Chayil that went like this: “Sheker HaChain VeHevel HaYofi, Misheyirat Adonai Tis-halela,” which roughly translates to “Charm is a lie, and beauty is garbage, praise she who fears God.” As I am currently in the midst of watching The Handmaid’s Tale, the phrases “praise be” and “blessed be the fruit” come to mind. I do agree with the sentiment that holds charm and beauty in contempt for their superficiality.

But why should we praise women who fear God? More importantly, the rest of the song is all about the wife performing wifely tasks, working with her hands, making clothes for her family, waking while it is still night time, not eating from the bread of idleness. She works and works and works. And for those thinking that this is a liberated vision, remember that the exalted work is studying the Holy Books, and that work is for the man. She meets the family’s basic needs so that her husband can concentrate on studying—he is the consummate academic, even if his wife is much smarter than he.

Eshet Chayil is a giving tree. She is constantly doing for the others in her family, sewing and planting and ensuring their health and wealth. She does not sleep through the night or relax or otherwise get a moment to herself. And then her husband praises her above all other wives, flattery that she doubtless knows better than to enjoy.

I should not say this as I am myself an academic, but it seems that the Eshet Chayil is to her husband as a host is to a parasite. The parasite might praise the host, but he does nothing to ease her existence. On the contrary, he makes demands, express or implied, that require her to run herself ragged, never eating from the bread of idleness. No wonder the song references beauty as garbage. Her ceaseless labor for her family likely ages her long before her time.

Stories and songs provide lessons, especially for children who listen to the words over and over again. When I think about The Giving Tree now, I want to call it something that better reflects what the story is about: perhaps The Taking Boy or The Parasite.

And how different is Eshet Chayil? It seems a catalogue of what the idle man expects from his wife—a willingness to use up every ounce of strength on feeding, clothing, and sheltering the family. He too, in the end is The Taking Boy or The Parasite. If I had it to do over, I would tell my girls to stay away from boys and men who identify with the boy in The Giving Tree or the husband in Eshet Chayil. They are aspiring parasites, and you don’t want to be their host.


Joe said...

I am not really familiar with the author's work.

Are other works by him as (in the eyes of the author) problematic?

Greg said...

I've never liked The Giving Tree, largely for exactly the reasons you list. There's a reasonable argument to be made that "The Giving Tree" more closely mirrors the unconditional love between a parent and child more than it mirrors the relationship between two peers, but my real frustration was that the "child" never even really expresses any kind of gratitude to the tree whatsoever. That's the part that most frustrates me about it. Many children's books are quite problematic if you take the time to think about it. My personal biggest dislike is for "I Love You Forever," but there are many examples.

As for Joe's question: "The Giving Tree" is a fairly serious book for this particular author. Many of his more famous books are collections of children's poems that are often more silly than anything else, full of childish humor. I think I remember some minor problematic themes around childish misbehavior, but it's probably been 20 years or more since I've read any of his books.

Joe said...


I did not read the Forever book though Joey on Friends did do a partial reading.

Jack said...

I think the author makes some good points but I object to the use of the word parasite as both over-broad and missing the point of the song. Sure, eishet chayil, as it was originally crafted, highlights a lot of the points that the author discusses. But the main theme of the song is for a husband to express admiration and appreciation for their wife. There is a reason it is sung as Jewish people bring in the sabbath; as they pivot from their days of work to their day or rest, they recognize and highlight the most important parts of their life; wife and family. As society has changed and women have become an essential part of the workforce in many industries (although there is certainly room for improvement), the song has become a way to embrace their importance to the family .

I also object tot the use of the word parasite as over broad. While some husbands might relegate their wives to the traditional “house-wife” role, many do not. Moreover, as opposed to a parasite, many (if not most) jewish husbands show appreciation to their wife’s and don’t do nothing to ease their wife’s existence. It’s insulting to the men who have embraced women’s prominence in this world. Moreover, it’s insulting to the women who work tirelessly all week as a doctor, lawyer, teacher, academic, consultant, etc., who look forward to hearing their husband sing about how much he values her

While their may be issues with the text of the song, there are many issues with the text of many old documents (U.S. constitution to name the obvious). But that doesn’t mean that we must change the text to meet modern standards; if so, we’d be rewriting many old documents and lose the historic relevance and value they have. Rather, we can take its meaning and adopt it to normal times. I know myself, my friends who sing it to their wives, and our parents when we were growing up and today, sing this song to our wife to show appreciation for their hard work and effort.