Martyna Starosta // A woman hired to clean a Hasidic home before Pesach
“Thank God I don’t need to get a goyte this year,” I shout from the living room, as I’m adding, for the umpteenth time, another grocery item to the shared google doc titled “Orlando Grocery List” — Orlando is where my family is heading for Pesach this year.
I pause. Wait, did I just say that word? Goyte, it rings in my ears and rolls off my tongue. It’s the female version of goy, or gentile, and it carries a deeply-ingrained connotation for me — and not of the positive sort. Goytes are cleaning ladies in Hasidic communities — usually Eastern European or Mexican immigrants — who spend their days running from one designated house to another to clean its interiors. Most Hasidic households have a goyte come in once or twice a week, before the Sabbath, after the Sabbath and in between. But in the pre-Pesach madness, they are in high demand.
I’ve never given much thought to Jehovah’s Witnesses. I also have a knack for avoiding them on the streets of New York as easily as I can dodge canvassers in Union Square. I don’t open my door for them, and after dating an ex “Jdub” I was pretty sure they were a religious group I just couldn’t quite understand.
All that changed this past Saturday. I was waiting for deliveries from Fresh Direct, FedEx and USPS and, when the doorbell rang, I flew down the stairs and flung open the door expecting to see a courier. Instead, a girl about seven or eight years old reached into her purse and pulled out a pamphlet with an earnest looking, fair-skinned, long-haired drawing of Jesus on the cover below the words “Watch Tower.”
I’d opened the door for Witnesses.
Jess Grose, writing at the New Republic, has kickstarted a provocative discussion about partnerships and housework with a piece called “Cleaning: The Final Feminist Frontier.” She notes that the culture shift that has brought about many men’s newfound willingness to help cook and parent has not been matched by an eagerness to scrub the darker, grimier corners of the home. And she notes that for women, the desire to clean is often driven by social pressure: “Unfortunately, the notion that women will be the first to be judged for a messy home and the first to be commended for an orderly one isn’t much of an incentive for men to pick up a mop.”
Jonathan Chait responds that the problem is overly sparking standards of cleanliness. He argues if women were content to be messier, the work level would slide to 50-50. Case in point: stacking magazines. He doesn’t care about stacking and his wife does, so when she stacks, that’s optional work, not bedrock housecleaning. In other words, “the assumption of much of the feminist commentary [is] there is a correct level of cleanliness in a heterosexual relationship, and that level is determined by the female.”
I’m not normally a fan of diets, though I have on occasion ventured into the world of trendy eating plans. There was the one from Seventeen Magazine (at the time I was much younger than 17) that introduced me to the dubious concept of eating breakfast. There was an attempt at that cabbage soup fad in college; my roommate and I made the soup and were instantly so disgusted by it that we left it in the fridge untouched for I don’t remember how long. And there was that moment when seemingly all of America went on the South Beach Diet. South Beach food was extremely healthy, but — as I coincidentally learned in South Beach — the cumulative effects of several months without starchy carbs means a drastically reduced tolerance for alcohol.
But for the most part, I ignore dietetic quick-fixes, not to mention their adjunct large-print paperback books. Instead, I stick to the boring stuff. I count calories. I don’t allow tempting foods into my cupboards. I give up treats that are more trouble than they’re worth. (Popcorn, for instance. Who needs a bowl full of empty calories that can slice your gums?) I understand that being thin, or in my case being less than extremely fat, is not something one achieves in a week. It’s a life-long mundane struggle.
Except every spring, I find myself looking at Passover’s eight breadless days and suddenly, all of that knowledge goes out the window. I think, Hey! Maybe I can lose some weight!
On Monday night, the first night of Pesach, many of us will sit around a table telling stories. The primary narrative of the evening — the exodus of the Jews from Egypt — is pretty much the same at every gathering, as is the basic framework of the haggadah from which we’ll tell the story. Drink wine, dip greens, break matzah, eat bitter herbs, make Hillel sandwich, drink wine, drink wine. Dayenu! And so on.
But the diversity of our personal narratives impacts how we each understand this story. We all carry a legacy of distinct experiences and backgrounds that shapes how we understand what it means to be enslaved. For women especially, remembering the exodus can be complex. Women start to become insignificant immediately following the exodus as stories of military might become the stuff of which Torah is made. In her book “The Nakedness of the Fathers,” Alicia Suskin Ostriker explains that it is in “the life of Moses that we see the women disappear. We see the flash of their backs as they dive, like dolphins, beneath the agitated surface of the text.”
I wasn’t going to host a seder this year. No way, no how.
I just came off a year during which I moved three times while pregnant and had my first child in the middle of a hurricane. Then there were the problems breastfeeding and my foolish resistance to getting any help during my baby’s first couple of months. And now there is the constant biting off more than I can chew work-wise during the 20 hours of nanny-time I have a week. This is all to say, I am pretty tired.
Then last week, while while scrolling through my emails with one hand while my baby slept in the other, I saw that Fresh Direct was offering a pre-made seder plate. I could get delivered to my front my door each of the five symbolic foods pre-prepared and rolled up in plastic and an actual seder plate that they all will neatly fit on for $19.99. Okay, I thought, I’m in.
I called my in-laws up in the Berkshires, my aunt in Manhattan and my friends around the corner in Brooklyn. I was having a seder.
Every Seder has its own story. There was Passover circa 1960, when Uncle Buddy stood in for Elijah. Or the Passover of 1985, when we started the Seder as we got up from sitting shiva for my father. I will never forget the Passover Seders when each of our children recited the Four Questions for the first time. Or the Passover when our first grandson made his appearance, and we all were transformed in our familial relationships and identities.
But no matter what the backstory, for each Seder it was clearly understood where the event should take place. For example, in my childhood, my parents lovingly prepared and led the Seder in our apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, which was filled with family members and friends. And for the past 30-odd years, the Seder has taken place at our home on Long Island, with our own children, grandchildren, my mother-in-law and friends showing up faithfully each year, celebrating amidst the cacophony of generations.
Of course, there were occasional outliers, like the year our older daughter got married and she and her husband made their own Seder. “So, are the newlyweds coming to you this year?” friends asked with a smile. I forced a smile back. “They are making their own Seder. Isn’t that amazing and beautiful?” I opined. I felt it was true, but another part of me wasn’t quite ready for the separation. (Ironically, I then remembered that my husband and I had also created our own gestalt-experiential vegetarian Seder for our friends in graduate school when we were first married.)
Eight days without leavened bread is no easy task for any Jew. No whole-wheat bagels with scallion cream cheese! No chewy chocolate chip cookies! No soy sauced-drenched rice! But it is especially trying for me; I am 29 years old and eight years recovered from a decade-long eating disorder. Each year, Passover’s food restrictions — a triggering behavior for any recovered bulimic or anorexic — challenges my footing.
I grew up in a reform Jewish home, and my parents encouraged my siblings and me to forge our own paths regarding Jewish customs and rituals. I quite liberally pick and choose from Halachic law at my leisure; for instance, I fast each Yom Kippur and keep each Passover. In order to honor these food-related traditions, I embrace pikuach nefesh (the saving of a soul or life) because, even though I am fully recovered, it lets me cut myself slack and ensure that my health takes precedence over Pesach’s rigorous demands.
While my eating disorder began as anorexia at age 11, it morphed into bulimia when I finished eighth grade, continuing until I was 21. I inhaled food as a metaphor for my emotional deprivation, then purged it in an effort to stop feeling so overwhelmed. Because this binge/purge cycle dominated my adolescent development, restricting food in my adult life — like bread on Passover — can reactivate these feelings, especially during emotionally volatile times. Fasting, on the other hand, doesn’t stimulate the now very ancient desire to starve myself.
Passover. The word itself makes me shudder. If this holiday is about celebrating the redemption of the Jewish people and the renewal of a nation, why, year after year, do I feel shackled by its very presence?
My earliest memory of Passover goes something like this: There I sat, age four, happily playing with my Polly Pocket when my mother tapped me on the shoulder, handed me a toothbrush, and ordered me to scrub the tires of our station wagon.
Years later, when I asked my mother why she burdened me with that seemingly pointless task, she explained that I needed to understand the “spirit” of the holiday. In other words, I couldn’t just sit around playing with my toys while the rest of the family slaved away.
Ironic as it is, the word “slaving” best describes my family’s Passover prep: The Jews were saved, and in celebration, we turn ourselves into slaves during the Jewish month of Nissan. Before you call me a heretic for having such cynical feelings, allow me to share a typical Passover prep schedule from my childhood.
In families, we’re often called upon to play archetypal roles — the good one, the black sheep, the fun one, the responsible one. And nowhere are those “roles” more carefully scripted and ossified than in the Passover Haggadah, where we read about the Four Sons: the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one doesn’t even know how to ask.
Of course, very few of us can wear any one label comfortably— even if my family jokingly often asked me to read the Wicked Son’s portion due to my lapsed Orthodoxy. (Don’t worry, I wasn’t at all offended. I totally relished the appellation.)
As a youngster and teen, I was never bothered by the fact that I was asked to read the male role. I hadn’t really given much to thought to the lack of female voices in the Haggadah. And I never challenged my parents by asking, “Why sons and not daughters?” I was used to the idea of a male universal and was okay with it. More than once, I played a boy in school plays. (All-girls schools’ dramatic productions reverse the rules of kabuki and Elizabethan theater.) That I wasn’t fully represented by the gender options was perhaps due to the fact that I wasn’t really represented by the character options, either. I was not wholly wicked, nor was I completely wise or simple. And hearkening to the idea that sometimes you can ask a stupid question (despite my teacher’s insistence that you could not), I sometimes kept my mouth shut when I had something that I considered idiotic to ask.
If ever there was proof positive that a once-marginal feminist Jewish ritual is now mainstream, this is it: The latest Pottery Barn catalog touts a new seder plate — holding an orange.
The modern, leaf-themed Passover tabletop accouterment has seven compartments. In addition to spaces for the ritual re-telling’s traditional symbols, there’s a leaf meant to hold an orange, which is also featured in the catalog photo.
Including an orange on the seder plate dates back to the early 1980s, according to the innovation’s creator, Susannah Heschel, a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth and the daughter of famed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
As she relates, adding an orange grew out of her experience visiting Oberlin College, where she encountered a student-written feminist hagaddah. That hagaddah suggested putting a crust of bread — prohibited, of course, during the chametz-free festival — to express solidarity with lesbians and gay men after a rebbetzin had said, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.” Heschel decided, the following year, to put an orange on her family’s seder plate.
This Sukkot, there is a religious battle going on in the city of Modi’in, Israel, and as often happens in such battles, it is being fought over women’s bodies.
It actually started this past Passover, when the open, mixed city of Modi’in was inundated with visitors from the neighboring ultra-Orthodox town of Modi’in Illit, also known as Kiryat Sefer. The primary attraction for the visitors was Park Anabe, a beautiful expanse that sits 200 meters from my house. While it’s taken 10 years to complete, the park is now filled with playgrounds, grassy knolls, treks, a bike-path, an amphitheater and most importantly, a 14,000 square liter lake with fountains, fish and a variety of boating. Park Anabe is a central part of Modi’in life — members of my family visit regularly — and contributes significantly to the sense of quiet tranquility that characterizes Modi’in.
Since the lake opened in 2010, that tranquility has been interrupted each Passover and Sukkot when thousands of haredi visitors flock to Modi’in to use the park, which offers wholesome entertainment, can accommodate large groups of people, and is mostly free (only the boating and ice creams cost money). But the masses of haredi visitors, who bring with them a culture that is anything but sanguine, often make it difficult for Modi’in residents who are not haredi to find a patch of grass to sit on.
For the most part, Modi’in residents have expressed a mixture of annoyance and understanding about the situation. They’re irritated at what feels like a major cultural disruption but happy that they are living in an open city in a democratic country. That the park is free and that it is such a great attraction is nice. Lucky us. But the holidays end up feeling like a massive invasion. For those weeks when we cannot use our own park, is this just a small price to pay for quality of life?
Such were the general sentiments until last Passover, when haredi visitors started to make demands of the women on Modi’in. Suddenly, things began to change. First, a woman who was performing in the park was asked to leave the stage by haredi audience members — a request to which she unfortunately acquiesced, setting a bad precedent. Then, a well-known local reporter went to the park dressed in her usual clothing (jeans and a tank-top), and was made to feel uncomfortable by other park-users. She then wrote about the experience in the local newspaper. Calls to charge entry or close the park to non-residents were posted on blogs and Facebook, but Modi’in mayor Haim Bibas did not heed the calls. At least, not at first.
The opportunity to interview the second-highest-ranking official in Hamas came suddenly, unexpectedly and at the very worst possible time: just before Passover. The Forward staff was shorthanded. Worse, at home, we were shifting into full Passover house-cleaning mode. I tried hard to argue for doing this any other week. But Stanley L. Cohen, the attorney for Hamas’ Mousa Abu Marzook and the midwife for this meeting with him in Cairo, relayed back that it was that week — or there would be no interview.
Ultimately, I concluded this was one of those stories that defined my sense of mission as a journalist, not to mention as a Jew who cares about Israel. So I approached my spouse, Dianne, who is a Conservative rabbi, full of apology. She stopped me in mid-sentence.
“When have you ever helped out anyway?” she asked. “Go.”
She laid down one obvious stipulation: Whatever you do, don’t miss the Seder.
So I got to Cairo late on Monday night; conducted my interviews with Abu Marzook on Tuesday and Wednesday; got back to the Cairo Marriott (a very nice place!) early Wednesday evening and left for Cairo’s international airport at midnight that same night in order to be home Thursday afternoon — the day before the first night Seder.
Abu Marzook could not believe I was leaving Cairo so fast, or understand why I’d end up divorced if I didn’t. I explained about the Seder, and about Passover, when the Jews had to…well, leave Egypt really fast. He said, “But that was 4,000 years ago when the Pharaoh was trying to kill the Jews. No one’s trying to kill you now.”
“Actually,” I said, “kind of, you guys are.” And we were off on what ended up being a five-and-a-half hour discussion over those two days.
As it turned out, he was fascinated with my wife; downright astounded, in fact, to learn she is a rabbi.
No Haggadah in recent memory — or, perhaps, ever — has generated the kind of interest that the “New American Haggadah” has. When I began looking it over in preparation for a review of it, I was surprised by the unabashedly masculine way that Nathan Englander’s compelling translation refers to God. But as I thought about the issue throughout the Passover holiday, which ends tonight, it began to make a lot of sense.
I was raised in a Reform household. Our congregation had the older version of the Reform siddur, “Gates of Prayer,” the big blue one without the neutered translations. But it was the tradition there to improvise, de-gendering the English readings on the fly, often with charmingly chaotic results. Talk of the He-God makes me uncomfortable, and I sympathize with the discomfort expressed by some here at the Sisterhood with these masculine translations.
In her recent Sisterhood post, Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes about the widespread pairing of Elijah’s cup of wine with a cup of water for Miriam. In some corners of the left-of-Orthodox world, it has become downright traditional. Then she notes: “At the same time, the ‘New American Hagaddah,’ edited and translated by young literary lions Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, seems to purposely go in an opposing direction.”
What does the path to freedom look like?
In the Haggadah it says: “Once we were slaves, now we are free.” That transition is recounted and celebrated in a “Seder” — literally an “order” of fifteen sequential steps.
Freedom means different things to different people. My great journey to freedom was wresting myself out of my ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of origin, and into life as a secular, progressive woman. But I find that I can’t recount my path to freedom in an orderly way.
The transition to freedom is chaotic. It is sprawling and muddled and ugly and glorious and confusing and difficult. In the story of Passover, the transition includes an ancient legend of a redeemer, a young girl challenging her father, another daughter betraying her father, a detour into deeper suffering and darkness, a redeemer with a speech impediment, — and, of course, plagues, journeys out, hot pursuits, persistent courage, profound miracles, dancing, singing, complaining and new troubles. It is a mess.
While some may honor the Passover story with order that counters the pandemonium, in my home we embrace it.
Google “feminist seder,” and links to articles about Seders long passed come up. Google “women’s seder,” however, and you find links to dozens of current model Seders for women, run by synagogues, JCCs and other Jewish institutions all over the country. The word feminist doesn’t appear.
Outside of the original, private feminist Seder — still going strong in its 37th year, led by “Seder Sisters,” including founders Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Lilly Rivlin, there just don’t seem to be many.
Some 20,000 women (and a few men) attended the Ma’yan feminist Seders that were held in Manhattan from 1994 through 2005. Today, though, I could only find one feminist Seder, which was held at Hartford, Connecticut’s Charter Oak Center, in March.
Pesach is one of my favorite holidays. I love the educational, creative possibilities of the Seder, the opportunity to debate, discuss and dramatize our collective history. Over the years, my family has done some wonderfully imaginative things at the Seder table — plays, original songs, games, colored dips, hand-made pillows, and even a puppet show about the exodus in which all the characters were variants of felt penguins. One year, we made our own Haggadah, using the kids’ drawings and writings connected to select parts of the book. For me, Pesach preparation is about creative education. It is the only holiday in the Jewish calendar where the whole point is to bring history to life in any and every possible way.
But you would never know it from the traditional lead-up to Pesach. When Jews meet one another on the street these days, conversations about “preparations” generally refer to how much cleaning has been accomplished. Even Shlomo Artzi, the Israeli pop star who can well afford to hire cleaning help, revealed in his column last week that memories of his mother handing him a vacuum cleaner before Pesach have remained indelibly etched on his Jewish soul. Today, he finds vacuuming to be a source of comfort, in the same category as chicken soup, the kind of activity that makes some people miss their mothers.
I have found myself trying to avoid talking to people this week because I really don’t want to hear some variety of this question: “So what are you up to in your house?” Meaning, how many rooms or shelves or chandeliers have you managed to scrub clean already. It’s so tired and predictable that I would rather run and climb up a few dozen stairs to reach the other side of the neighborhood in order to find a way not to enter into another one of the cleaning competition conversations.
Passover has always been my least favorite holiday. Those who know me well, or have simply been reading my columns and blog posts over the years, will understand why: I hate to clean.
My deep dislike of cleaning and housework knows no particular season. To me, it is the ultimate Sisyphysian waste of time, especially in a house that contains children. You put in hours of effort, you have about five minutes of satisfaction to enjoy your pristine, house, and about ten minutes later, someone has smeared ketchup on the dining room table or left their dirty socks in the middle of the living room.
But my hatred grows more intense in the weeks leading up to Passover. In Israel, it is the time that neat freaks come out of the closet, and cleaning becomes a national obsession, as everyone, religious and secular alike, aspire to a sparkling clean, perfectly organized, and utterly chametz-free home on Seder night.
I bought 24 copies of “The New American Haggadah” sight unseen, based on the recommendation of a friend and the yiches of its creators, writers Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander. The aesthetic of the books is very Zen, very Steve Jobs: It’s light — literally, the paper seems nearly weightless — and spare, with monochromatic flying Hebrew letters.
I loved it at first touch. Then I read the first line: “You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos, who has set us apart with his mitzvot, and instituted us to eliminate all hametz.” “Lord”? “King”? “His”? Oh no.
And then page after page of more of the same: male pronouns for God, and other words referencing a male God: king, father, etc. And the story of the four sons was the four sons, not even the four children. Women and girls are totally absent from the greatest story ever told in “The New American Haggadah.” I considered taking the books back to the bookstore.
While chametz abounds in my cupboard, I have a non-traditional Passover recipe for granola that I regularly make at this time of year. It doesn’t have a place on the Seder table; it is a breakfast food or snack, at best. But I make it each year to get into the holiday spirit, and because matzo farfel is easy to find on grocery store shelves right about now.
Passover granola is seriously delicious — as good or better than regular granola varieties. And it’s incredibly simple to make. You will not long for oats. In their place is farfel, along with dried fruit and nuts smothered in oil and butter and baked crispy brown. Though we’re fast approaching the end of the Passover holiday, this granola is good anytime of year. In fact, what a perfect use for that leftover farfel. Or I suppose you could pulse your remaining matzo in the food processor to use that as a base.