Danielle Drossel: How the Pandemic Turned Me Into a Balabusta [Unofficially]

A balabusta is a Yiddish word that refers to a Jewish homemaker of the finest quality – a person who loves to bring family together, to cook for them, and create a warm and comforting home. I come from a long line of balabustas and grew up surrounded by these types of woman – my own mother, my bubbe, and my Israeli aunts. For these women, cooking is their way of expressing love. Their “love language” as the millennials like to say.

Becoming a balabusta is not a natural succession when your mother is a balabusta. At least not in my family. As a child, the kitchen was my mom’s domain and she had a lot of rules when it came to food. I avoided the kitchen, lest I make some horrific mistake, like (chas v’shalom) double dipping or forgetting to wash the banana before peeling it!

The first time I attempted to bake was in college. I brought my homemade oatmeal raisin cookies to a college party and watched anxiously as a guy stumbled over to my plate and took the first nosh. “Disgusting! Murder cookies!” he yelled, as he tossed the plate of cookies to the floor. At that moment I realized two things: 1) while drunk college guys will eat almost anything, even the most savage and desperate palate can detect when something is unsuitable for human consumption; and 2) apparently my cookies fell into the unsuitable for human consumption category. “I wonder who is trying to kill us” I muttered, looking down at my red plastic cup.

After that night, I stayed away from flour, measuring cups, and spatulas for many years. I became a lawyer (arguably the antithesis of a balabusta) and earned a salary that could accommodate take-out meals. But then I had kids, and I wanted to create a warm home for them filled with the delicious scents of the Jewish homes that I remember from my childhood – the smell of warm challah, burekas, and matzah ball soup. But after a long and stressful day at work, the last thing I wanted to do was a prepare a meal that I would later have to clean up. And truthfully, I just didn’t feel that I was capable of preparing a meal that anyone would enjoy eating.

Then, Covid-19 hit.

As the outside world came to a stop and we all retreated inside, our homes have become redefined and, in many ways, have presented new opportunities. If there is one thing that Covid-19 has given us, it’s time – time to reconnect to our living spaces and to our families. Also, time to take out those old kitchen gadgets that have been collecting dust since they were gifted to us at our wedding nearly ten years ago.

For those of you rolling your eyes at yet another “silver-lining” story, let me just say that I see you and I hear you. This is hard, not everyone is in the same boat, and not everyone has unexpected “silver linings,” and that’s okay.

Like many other parents, I began my journey into pandemic parenting with color-coded schedules, healthy meal plans, fun learning projects, etc. The kids were exploring the backyard like it was uncharted territory, and using their newfound freedom in creative ways. They collected rollie pollies from the yard and built an amazing rollie pollie farm. Things were looking good. But alas, the honeymoon phase did not last long. By the second week, boredom and Zoom fatigue had set in, my kids were eating goldfish for lunch, and there was only one surviving rollie pollie left on the farm. The house was a complete disaster and cleaning it felt as pointless as brushing your teeth knowing that you’re about to eat an entire box of Milk Duds (one of several bad habits I picked up during quarantine).

There was a tremendous sense of panic realizing that our lives would be filled with this mess and utter chaos for the indefinite future. But I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t also an equal sense of relief in temporarily retiring our calendar of endless of commitments and just living in the moment, day-to-day (albeit groundhog day).

I’ve reconnected with my kids in ways that would not have been possible pre-Covid. And being with them 24/7 makes me think a lot about my own childhood. Judaism played a large role in my upbringing and some of my best and most vivid memories are derived from my Jewish identity – spending summers in Israel, the smell of burekas baking in the oven on Saturday mornings, spending Shabbat dinners with family, the sweet taste of Manischewitz wine during Passover.

Many of us have taken on “pandemic projects” or turned to creative outlets – like painting and writing – to combat the stress and boredom. Others are unearthing hidden talents. Since I have yet to discover any hidden talents of my own, I decided that becoming a balabusta would become my pandemic project.

For me, becoming a balabusta is not about cooking gourmet meals or having a clean and orderly house. It’s about having a home that is filled with warmth, laughter, and Jewishness. The balabusta’s of my childhood didn’t control the noise and the chaos, they embraced it! And giving up control is something I have mastered during this period of pandemic parenting. This part actually requires very little work – in the fact, the less you do, the more chaos will ensue!

As for the Jewish stuff, about a year ago we started practicing a Shabbat ritual at home. This ritual has given us a moment in our busy lives to take a pause and connect to our families, to Judaism, and to the ancient traditions of our ancestors. Post-Covid, everything has changed and time feels flat – like we are living in a real life version of the Groundhog Day movie. But Shabbat remains, steady and unscathed, and perhaps one of the few things still tethering us to the days.

The only problem is that my challah supplier, Coffee Bean, had closed. As such, baking a challah seemed like an appropriate and “on trend” pandemic project in my quest to become a balabusta. I used Linda Kaufman’s famous recipe and added some tips I picked up from my intense challah interrogation of Mariela Socolovsky. “Put your back into it!” she said. “Flour helps feed the yeast.” “Make sure your bowl has enough space for the dough to rise.” I also watched three YouTube tutorials on how to knead plus two on how to braid.

There are so many things that could have gone wrong, but by what must have been divine intervention (baruch hashem), my first challah turned out…edible! In fact, my husband, who is not one to mince words, went as far as to say that it was “pretty good” (read: delicious). Challahlujah!!

After my first successful challah I sent my sister a picture of my Shabbat table. This was our text exchange:

Me: I’m officially a balabusta! Check out my beautiful Shabbat table, tablecloth and all, with my very own homemade challah!

Sister: That’s nice. Have you made a brisket yet?

Me: No, I made challah. Why are you asking about brisket?

Sister: You can’t call yourself a balabusta until you’ve made a brisket.

….Is there a Yiddish word for “buzzkill”?.

Following this text exchange, I called my mother and asked her to send me her brisket recipe. “What for?” my mom asked. “If you want a brisket I’ll make you a brisket.” (As I said earlier, becoming a balabusta is not an easy succession).

I have yet to make a brisket, but I’m accepting recipes.

So while I may not be an “official” balabusta according to my sister, I do feel like my home has undergone a sort of spiritual transformation – a place where we endured 24/7 togetherness; where time stood still; where we learned that staying home was a sacrifice worth making to protect our vulnerable population. And on a personal level, it became a place where I gave up control and embraced the chaos; where I learned to bake challah and cook meals that my family actually wanted to eat; and where we found new ways to connect to Judaism and to each other.