Out There: ‘Bayit rek’ – Empty house

For religious Israeli teens, bayit rek is both a concept and an ideal; The folks go away for Shabbat, they invite friends over, cook for themselves, put mattresses on the floor and make noise.

Drawing by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Drawing by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
When the kids were a few years younger, say in their late teens, “We’re not going to be home for Shabbat” were the eight most welcome words The Wife and I could say to them. It didn’t happen much. But when it did, the offspring lit up and immediately began fighting over who would get the bayit rek, the empty house.
For religious Israeli teens, bayit rek is both a concept and an ideal. The folks go away for Shabbat, they invite friends over, cook for themselves, throw mattresses on the floor and make a lot of noise.
What bothered me was less the potential havoc these glorified Shabbat slumber parties could wreak on our apartment and our relations with the neighbors, and more the glee – the utter glee – with which my kids reacted to the news that we would not be home overnight. It hurt, hurt bad; but I understood.
I work from home. Sure, I have meetings and interviews and events to cover from time to time, but the bulk of my time is spent at home, in my safe room, typing. Some kids grow up yearning for their fathers to be home, mine hankered for me to get the hell out of the house once in a while.
See the latest opinion pieces on our page
“Home, again,” my daughter said once in high school when she returned from classes on a day she didn’t think I would be around, only to find me around. As her friends’ fathers were at the office busily turning the great wheels of commerce, her dad – as always – was sitting at the desk in the saferoom typing in his undershirt.
“Don’t you ever get tired of just typing?” she quipped, not showing an abundance of appreciation for what I actually do for a living. “Doesn’t it get boring?” The only kids genuinely happy to see me at home so much are my neighbor’s five girls. We keep their spare apartment key, and about three times a week one of those girls comes knocking on my door looking for it. When I open the door, they are always thrilled to see me – it’s always a relief to see the person with your house key when you fear you’ve been locked out.
“You guys are the only people truly glad I’m home so much,” I said to one of those girls the other day, wishing my own kids’ faces would shine as much when I opened the door.
“That’s not true,” the girl replied politely.
“I’m sure your kids love it.”
Right, I said, just like you’d love it if your dad was always home.
WITH THAT as background, I’m always taken aback when my kids, who for the most part live elsewhere these days, get insulted when The Wife and I mention that life as near-empty-nesters is not a catastrophe. It’s OK for them not to want me around – and to articulate that they don’t want me around – but when the roles are reversed, and The Wife and I dare to say that we don’t mind the quiet in the house when they are not living there full-time, they get insulted, and wonder what kind of parents don’t want their offspring living with them forever.
“Of course we want you around,” we explain. “It’s just that when you’re not actually living in the house full-time, life goes on as well.”
That parents can have a life without their kids is as painful a realization for kids as is the parents’ realization that their children can have an independent life without them. When the children get older, they obviously develop a rhythm and tempo of life all their own. But that rhythm and tempo is not necessarily compatible with that of normal people. They come home late, they cook at all hours of the night – moving around pots and pans, frying onions and mushrooms at 2 a.m. – they field calls on their cellphones and watch television at ungodly hours.
It’s lovely to have them home. The house is full of life and fried mushrooms and onions, but it’s not quiet. And quiet is not a bad thing.
AS LONG, of course, as it is not too much quiet. Too much quiet I experienced the last couple of weeks when not only were the kids not living in the house, but The Wife was also away, visiting family in Chicago. This isn’t the first time in nearly 30 years of marriage that The Wife and I have been separated for a short period, or that she’s traveled and left me to mind the homestead. But it’s the first time she’s traveled while we are in our new status as near-empty-nesters.
Which means when she goes, and the kids aren’t around, that nest really empties; it completely empties – empties so much that you keep the radio on just to hear some noise.
As lonely as it can get – and it can get lonely – there are some upsides. It’s a lot easier to keep the house clean. There is no clutter. It takes less time to make the bed. The phone is always in its cradle. When The Wife goes away, I always go into overdrive in an effort to keep the house neat, wanting to prove to the kids who really is the party responsible for the stuff constantly strewn all over the apartment.
“I want you to tell your mother how orderly the house looked,” I said to my daughter when The Wife returned.
“Sure it’s orderly,” The Wife declared.
“For two weeks you didn’t shop, cook or do any laundry. Why shouldn’t it be orderly?” Valid point, that. The refrigerator looked clean because it was empty; there were no freshly washed clothes on the couch needing to be folded because I didn’t do any laundry; and there were no packages of food on the counter to be put away because I didn’t shop.
But the con of loneliness far outweighed the pros.
On the first Shabbat the Wife was away, all the kids dutifully came home to keep me company. We made a deal (actually I made the deal, and forced it on them): I’d pay for the food – though I ordered my daughter to actually go to the store and buy it – and they’d cook it all.
It was wonderful. Three of the four kids actually like to cook and do it very well, and there they were, my little darlings, frying up onions and mushrooms during daytime hours.
The following week, however, they didn’t come home, and I faced a situation I had not had for nearly three decades: A bayit rek for Shabbat.
In their younger days, my kids would have killed for it. But as they get older they will realize, as I did that Shabbat, that a bayit rek – even if it is very orderly and clear of all the clutter – is just that: A bayit rek, an empty house, something that’s not always what it’s cracked up to be. 
A collection of the writer’s ‘Out There’ columns, French Fries in Pita, is available at www.herbkeinon.com and www.amazon.com.