In the weeks leading up to Passover, housecleaning is transformed from a private activity into something of a national competitive Israeli sport. In my corner of greater Tel Aviv suburbia, spring means the smell of ammonia, not roses, is in the air. Walk into the supermarket, and you have navigate past shelves full of cleaning supplies, before you make it to the milk and eggs. You can’t turn on the television without commercials for the latest gadget to make cleaning easier, faster and better; public service announcements sternly warn the population against the inhalation of too many toxic cleaning products.
Once we were slaves in Egypt, now we are slaves to the image of the idealized Passover home, with everything perfectly scrubbed and in order.
When I first moved to Israel 17 years ago — a childfree career woman and a feminist, with no fondness for normal housework, let alone this kind of frenzy — I was appalled at first. It all felt like some kind of conspiracy on the part of obsessive-compulsive neat freaks to make their freakish socially acceptable, and pressure the rest of us to meet their ultrasanitary standards.
Reared a Reform Jew, I became slightly more understanding as I became more familiar with the tough standards of getting the house kosher for Passover in the Orthodox world.
I watched as my Orthodox mother-in-law began her Passover cleaning ritual more than two months in advance of the holiday. And among the Orthodox, it makes sense. No food for Passover can be prepared until the house is chametz-free. So the cleaning must be completed before the cooking for a seder can begin. And big families mean big seders. (Still, in Israel, the cleaning orgy transcends religious barriers, with non-Orthodox women often plunging in with as dedicated a competitive fervor as their observant counterparts.)
I confess that over the years, I too, have apparently gotten sucked in.
How did that happen?
While the flames are certainly fanned by those who have the most to benefit financially from compulsive cleaning — the manufacturers of the cleaning products, the supermarket chains, the stores selling the vacuum cleaners — this one is impossible to pin on corporate greed.
Blame can’t be pinned on men, either. True, Jewish tradition dictates that the husband takes on the role of “Passover inspector,” conducting the search for leftover chametz just before Passover, leaving the mistaken impression that wife cleans and husband supervises. But in reality, most men I know hardly distinguish between “mere” cleanliness and sparkling perfection. I’d venture to say that the majority of husbands only care about or take part in the big Passover cleanup (when they can’t find an excuse to stay out of the house) under orders of authoritative wives. My friend, the late, great Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum used to [complain humorously] (http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=56956) about his battles with his wife over Passover cleaning every year. He wrote:
God gave us the Torah which we commemorate by commanding every Jew to suck lint out of his drawers with a rubber hose. Moses led his people to the Promised Land, so I symbolically scrub the barbecue. I know the Torah — I’ve seen the movie — and not once does Charlton Heston say we have to shake out the mattress.
Indeed, this is a rare case of Israeli women imposing stricter standards on themselves than the rabbis. No one is oppressing us except our own inner Pharoah. And so no Moses can set us free.
Once the house is reasonably clean and organized, it is up to us to lead ourselves out of self-imposed slavery, from the desert of detergents into the Promised Land of the lovely spring weather I can see right now. I’m headed outside — just as soon as I spritz the dirt off of the windowpane.