The holidays, which begin on Wednesday, offer a chance to solve a mystery: Why do women, even those who work outside the home, and even those who have proven themselves big time in diverse careers, often measure themselves on the basis of their household management skills? And why do others use that same yardstick?

Why are there women who, after working a 12-hour day managing some company, spend hours in the kitchen preparing multi-course, gourmet holiday meals for the countless guests they have invited? And why would a woman, who does not have a need to do such things, a woman who is totally unconnected to the domestic side she is "supposed" to have, why does such a woman feel there is something is wrong with her if she doesn't produce this culinary extravaganza for the holidays? And this goes for self-aware women who have imbibed mainly feminist reading as well.

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Of course there are women who like to cook, just as there are men who like to cook, and may they both have fun. But here we are referring to those who don't derive pleasure from cooking yet still find themselves puttering about, preparing food and hosting.

The overworked hostess is not the only one for whom the holiday may constitute a nightmare. Try being a 30-year-old single woman; or a woman married two years and not yet pregnant; or a sister-in-law who gained weight since the last holiday. Every one of them would likely have preferred to stay home with a good book and avoid the comments or looks directed at her during the holiday meal.

It's not just the cooking and the hosting that are arduous. The family dynamics can also be challenging. A friend tells of her mother-in-law who complained to her that her son (the partner of my friend ) is not in touch with his cousin. For some reason, she (my friend ) is regarded as responsible. The mother-in-law has also accepted the role of connecting and bridging, while it appears that the two cousins are absolved of all responsibility for their own relationship.

The lucky ones

Getting back to the holidays, then of course there are always the lucky ones, or the smart ones or the brave ones. Let us salute them: Those who achieve what most of us would like to do every holiday - travel abroad. For the chosen few who have the guts to just ditch the family we hereby kneel before you, remove our hats and give you a medal. Even those who go to a restaurant with the family on the eve of the holiday, or just order catered meals, are doing better than those who sigh,"I was on my feet all day and now I'm completely wiped out and did you see the look Bracha gave me when the soup was served?"

The day before Rosh Hashana is the time to ask: How is it that even though we really adore (most of ) our family, the majority of us suffer so much from the holidays and these frequent family gatherings? And, why for heaven's sake, do women have more reason to suffer?

This question raises several related ones. For example: Why do only women (for the most part ) deliberate the need "to balance between work and family"? And why is it that when feminists point to problems in the institution of family - the frequency of sex crimes, against minors as well, that occur within the family, for example - they are accused of trying to get rid of the institution of family, and of hating men and who knows what else?

Family, like other institutions that were in the past considered completely private, is a political issue. If once, when a man beat or raped his wife, or when parents hit their children, it was considered their private business, today it is the business of the state and its authorities; this is due, in part, to the feverish efforts and activities of feminists.

Various forms of feminism view the family in different ways. Liberal feminism strives for a fair division of labor within the family; cultural feminism calls for gender flexibility in all matters relating to qualities deemed "motherly" and "fatherly;" and radical feminism questions whether the nuclear family - mother-father-child - is really such a great discovery and suggests expanding the possibilities for shared human existence.

So why, given all the changes that have occurred, are we so agitated around holiday time?

A test of femininity

The holiday, says Dr. Miri Rozmarin, a lecturer in philosophy and gender studies at Tel Aviv University, is perceived as a test of women. "The woman's connection to the private space and to the family is rarely cracked, even when she is more involved in the public space. It's still considered the essence of femininity and the holiday is the height of it all. So even someone who can afford to pay another woman to cook and clean for her during the week will, when it comes to the moment of truth (on the holidays ), do the cooking herself in order to 'show that she is also a woman.' And here the men's masculinity is also evaluated: Are they free from the obligation of having to cook? Does the boss loosen his pants and sit down?"

This dynamic also requires reassigning gender roles in the family, continues Rozmarin. She also cites the work of researcher Carol Pateman, who showed how liberal thinking in effect held women back by leaving them in the "domestic" realm. To this day, says Rozmarin, people do not apply the same standards of basic fairness to the home and family as they do to the workplace, for example. The demand to do so is perceived as castrating or distorting human nature by ignoring the fact that what is considered "natural" is basically a product of social-culture circumstances in very many cases. "Even among enlightened couples," says Rozmarin, "when children are born, suddenly the male monkey and the female monkey come out of the closet and everything is seen as supposedly being 'natural.'"

A sacred ritual

As for the holidays, she adds "even though there are many variations of family, we still worship the dominant model. And if we don't live it in real life, we have guilt feelings about that. This is essentially a sacred ritual of the standard family: We all gather in large and supposedly peaceful groups." "Supposedly" is certainly the key word here: "Often it can be people who can't stand each other, who bore each other, but who sanctify the blood relationship."

Rozmarin relates that she decided ahead of this holiday "to wean herself from the effort to choose the ultimate recipe, become Master Chef for a day, create a myth of the superstar chef mom, and make do with what I really am able to cook, which is good enough. Like Winnicott's 'good enough mother', I'll be a "'good-enough cook,'" says Rozmarin, referring to the concept made popular by the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. .

In Israel, a particularly family-oriented country, it's not easy to resist being part of this race. The family is a banner held high here and the woman has a central place in it. And this important occasion, so it seems, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it illustrates and highlights the vital role of women in the social fabric; on the other hand, it obstructs them from advancing in the public realm and from achieving full equality in economic and political life.

The only thing left to do is to ponder how many female (and male ) readers of this column are staining this page with sauce that just dripped from the roast they are preparing for tomorrow, or perhaps with honey from the cake that you cannot not make, and are muttering to themselves: I knew it, I knew we should've gone away (preferably until after Sukkot ).