It’s that time of year — the time I expect the smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap and chlorine to waft through the windows of every home. It’s my favorite time of the year, too, from my earliest memories. No, I’m not referring to spring and the anticipation of warm weather, but to Pesach — by far the best, most costly holiday in the Jewish calendar.
For most Jewish women, Pesach preparations are just getting into gear. Perhaps there are some familial arrangements to be made, lavish getaways to be finalized. Perhaps they are just getting around to scrubbing parquet floors and Farberware pots and taking apart the stovetop. But for Hasidic women, on the other hand, Pesach preparations of this nature begin the moment the cleanup from the Purim hamantaschen ends, and for some, it starts as early as Hanukkah.
The Torah commands the Jews to rid their homes of every last morsel of hametz before ushering in the holiday. In homes where children are abundant, this commandment requires quite a bit of work. Hasidic women also take this commandment a lot further than I have seen in other observant communities. They go beyond ridding the home of crackers and vacuuming for large crumbs; every last Lego is placed in a mesh bag and spun through the washer, every last tile on the kitchen backsplash is scrubbed for traces of challah dough, every last crevice in the house is searched and cleaned.
It is laborious and utterly exhausting work, but it brings much satisfaction to the scrubbers. Growing up, Pesach preparations generated an aura of excitement and anticipation, as well as a great deal of pressure. My mother would work backwards, methodically calculating the weeks and days left until the seder. Taught housekeeping skills from an early age, my sisters and I were naturally the biggest helpers. We would put on washed-out housecoats, specifically designated for Pesach cleaning, and drag pails of water mixed with Mr. Clean from room to room in the house. Standing on chairs, we would wash the walls from floor to ceiling while belting out to the Hebrew and Yiddish songs blasting from the cassette player. Then we would move on to the furniture, unload everything, wash the drawers and closets, refold the laundry and shine the outside of the furniture. The mattresses were lifted, the bedsprings were vacuumed and washed. Bed ruffles were washed, ironed and stored until the week before Pesach when the house cleaning was complete and all the tchotchkes would make their way back onto the dressers. The bedrooms were done first, with Purim as the deadline. We would lock the rooms during the day so that no one could walk in with hametz, and we would be reminded to dust off our clothing before stepping into the room.
I remember feeling very grown up around this time of the year. Cleaning was always my thing. Sparkling floors so spotless that they can be eaten off of and shining furniture — these things clear my mind. Looking back, I realize that cleaning was my way of controlling things, of carving out a space I could call my own. During my semi-rebellious late teenage years, a friend and I discovered radio — Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, to be precise. While cleaning for the Sabbath, I would tune in to 770 AM and tune out the chaos around me. I loved it. I loved hearing the hosts shout at callers and guests, or at no one in particular. Their conservative and absolutist philosophies and ideals made sense to me at the time, as a devout Hasidic girl. My parents didn’t approve of it, but they did not object outright to it either. After all, they surmised, I could have done worst — such as surreptitiously hang out with boys, like other rebellious girls did.
In those years, during the weeks leading up to Pesach, I spent hours upon hours listening to these angry radio men. It was a time of pure bliss.
A week or two before Pesach, after the last room in the house, the kitchen, was complete, the Pesach kitchen is opened. Many homes don’t have a kitchen specifically designated for Pesach, and they must wait until the very last few days to kasher the kitchen. Opening the Pesach kitchen was like the last stretch of a marathon: the runners now exhausted beyond words, the finish line was oh-so-tantalizingly close. Reaching that proverbial finish line, the first seder, was a delicious achievement. Sitting there in our new holiday robes, and inhaling the odors of a sterilized home, nothing quite compares to that overwhelming sense of gratification.
This year will be the first year in my entire life that I will not clean for Pesach. Over the past few years, I have cut back on the amount of scrubbing and the number of bottles of Mr. Clean I use for Pesach cleaning. But this year, my husband and I are taking the brood and heading to Florida with our friends. We will still have to kasher the kitchen and cook kosher-for-Passover food, but the house will be all scrubbed by the villa maintenance staff, and I will not go looking in between backsplash tiles for traces of challah dough. As exciting and carefree as this feels, I feel a pang of guilt and longing when I am reminded of Pesach preparations of yore.