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.