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.
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.
Swept into the supermarket on a blast of cold air, my momentary fright is distracted by a tower of sparkling kosher grape and a scarier thought: “What a great price! Better stock up for Pesach.” And this was almost three months ago.
Passover casts its shadow chez-nous in the darkest, shortest days of winter. Like the fashion biz, I work at least a season ahead to prepare for the holiday.
Because a lesson well-learned is usually a hard one: got sloppy once, left too much too late, and wiped out at the seder table. Failed the sobriety test too: couldn’t walk a straight line from dining room to kitchen. Had to be revived by Passover smelling salts: a box of lush chocolates waved under my nose. Came to vowing never again to find myself on hands and knees, stinking of raw gefilte fish, scrubbing the kitchen floor an hour before Yom Tov.
A veteran of some 30 holiday-cleaning runs, I knew that nothing short of a strategic overhaul was necessary to avert future crashes.
Passover — the holiday during which seemingly every Jewish family or group of friends puts its own spin on the celebration of freedom — is here. But as much as seders deviate from each other, there are some variables that remain constant. For instance, countless Jewish women have doubtless made the same joke as they sit down at the Passover table: “After days of being enslaved in the kitchen, I’ve made my way to the Promised Land of sitting and eating.” Often, this accompanies handing over the reins to someone else (her father? husband? brother?) who actually leads the seder, while she continues to fret over the tzimmes, brisket and matzo ball soup.
I bring up this generalized anecdote not to further a gender stereotype, or to criticize people who hew to those roles, but to ask readers for tales of seders that break classic patterns.
Come seder night, Jews the world over will be sharing age-old traditions, like drinking four cups of wine and hiding the afikoman. But at what seems like a growing number of seder tables, the old traditions are being joined by newer ones which reflect the lives and voices of women.
Perhaps the best-known new tradition adds an orange to the seder plate.
Many have heard the apparently apocryphal explanation that the orange was added as a protest response to a rabbi who said that “a woman belongs on the bima like an orange belongs on a seder plate.” In actuality, the ritual was started was started by Susannah Heschel — the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and herself a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth. She is said to be inspired by women at Oberlin College in 1984, who made space on their seder plate to represent all who were not explicitly present in the Passover story; for Heschel, the orange represented solidarity with women and homosexuals. This article on RitualWell is by Deborah Eisehnbach-Budner and Alex Borns-Weil, two of the women who were there and “made the space” for a potent symbol on the seder plate.
It doesn’t stop at oranges.
This post is adapted from a speech, “The Ten Plagues According to Jewish Women,” that Pogrebin gave at the Downtown Seder, held March 25 at the City Winery in Manhattan.
Plague #1: Dam. BLOOD — Women have this plague every 28 days or so, and except when we’re ready to procreate, most of us welcome it. But when it doesn’t come — as the result of a mistake or a failed contraceptive — we must be free to consult with our conscience, our partner, our doctor, maybe our rabbi, about whether to continue an unplanned pregnancy. The final choice must be ours. Yet with ever-diminishing access to reproductive services (witness the final health care bill), that choice is disappearing, which is a plague on women’s freedom.
Plague #2: Tsfardaya. FROGS — Who don’t turn into princes. The boyfriend who says he loves strong women, but whose ego gets wounded when you trounce him 6-Love, or even if you put him on hold. The men who say they’re man enough to be married to a smart woman, but shoot their wives a dirty look when they’re at a dinner party with a bunch of intellectuals and she knows who Foucault is, and he doesn’t. The prince who says he believes in equality but once he’s a husband, turns into a frog who simply can’t be bothered changing a diaper.
At this point in the Pesach lead-up, a liberated woman’s mind turns from the inside of her refrigerator, which she is examining with curiosity — what year did I buy this pesto? — to her hopes for this year’s seder. For some women, this leads to the avid purchasing of new haggadahs or the creation of art projects that simulate the 10 plagues or thinking up “homework assignments” for invited guests (“Describe a time in your life when your heart felt hard”).
Behind this flurry of activity — in the kitchen and at the crafts table — is the desire that the seder be a night entirely set apart, a taste of the world to come. In our clean houses, with our special Pesach dishes, our seder plates full of the symbolic and the evocative, and this very compelling story of our liberation from slavery in front of us, the expectations for a sense of transformation are high.
And yet the actual experience of the seder for many of us, can fall seriously short of this.
If you want to be a religious Jew today, you have to have money — a lot of it. There’s no way around it, and it’s especially obvious at this time of year.
Perhaps it was different way back when, but in Orthodoxy Version 2010, you need two of everything in the kitchen, including two sinks, two dishwashers, two ovens and two refrigerators; a deep freezer is even better. It’s rare, but people even have two kitchens, an extra one for Pesach, which also needs to contain two of everything — causing some young married couples to request four of everything in their registries. Actually, if you’re going to do it right, you might as well get the fifth and sixth of everything because pareve really comes in handy. I can’t help but wonder how the Israelites would have lugged all their stuff through the desert had they needed six of everything.
Then there are the clothes. Sometimes it seems like the cost of typical Orthodox woman’s Shabbat wardrobe — finished with accessories and sheitels — could feed a needy family for a year.
I know of women who spend weeks, and I mean actual weeks, preparing their homes to be chametz-free. Women — there may be men out there doing it too, but I haven’t encountered any — who clean out every closet long in advance, who diligently cover every kitchen surface with aluminum foil and whose couch cushions have long been free of crumbs.
Me, as the working mother of three children whose need for my assistance counter-intuitively seems to grow, not diminish, as they get older, I’m going to cram it all into two days when I have help at the end of this week. Karlene and I are going to be blurs of crevice-picking, surface-scrubbing, cabinet-cleaning, oven koshering, window washing, ceiling fan-blade cleaning efficiency. And, yes, I know that Passover prep does not require spring cleaning, but it seems as good a time as any to get it done.
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.
People go crazy cleaning their houses for Passover.
There’s an edge of competitiveness to the kvetching when they say “Oh, Sammy brought chametz into the living room after I turned it upside down to clean it for Pesach (sigh),” or “I told Maddie to stay out of the closet I already cleaned but she got in there (sigh).” And that’s just the day after Purim.
I keep meaning to buy stock in an aluminum foil manufacturer because lord knows that consumption shoots up when people use it to cover every surface of their entire kitchens, which then look like something out of an early sci-fi movie.
There is what we have to do — the minimum to fulfill the requirements — and then there are the stringencies that have worked their way into the normative expectations of what we’re going to do to prepare our homes for the holidays.
I say it’s time to dial it down, and much to my surprise, I have company in the form of one Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, a Haredi legal authority in the fervently Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood Kiryat Mattersdorf.
In an opinion posted here, he advises:
[T]oday, we seem to be caught in a trap. The average modern home is larger than formerly. Furniture, utensils and clothing are much more plentiful. The average home today could compare with the more affluent homes of previous generations. However, we do not have the servants that they had, so that, today, all the chores fall on the housewife. At the same time, she feels obligated to clean and scrub as they did formerly, even though she has laminated furniture and tiled floors, making this type of cleaning unnecessary. As a result of this, the pressure of pre-Pesach cleaning has reached unnecessary and overwhelming levels.
The good rabbi goes on to list what must be done, and what should be skipped (as in extra cleaning of pots and pans that are being put away and “sold” for Passover anyway).
There are psychological and for some, almost spiritual, aspects to the cleaning experience. I totally enjoy the purging of stale baking soda and the opened packages of crackers. I also appreciate the sense of satisfaction that comes from having a clean home.
But cleaning for Pesach has become a nearly fetishized ritual that spurs even more anxiety than we already have.
Over-cleaning for Pesach is a poor channeling of time and energy when we could be discovering cures for cancer, writing music, reading to our children, whatever.
There’s a funny short video, which can be seen below, making its way around. It shows a young girl, separated by glass from her mother, who appears to be in prison, asking, “When are you going to get out of here?” The mother answering, sadly, “In awhile,” before she turns away, saying, “I’ve gotta get back.” They both cry, “I love you.”
Then it shows that the mom was in a glass-enclosed bathtub, which she gets on her knees to clean.
The closing title says “Learn Hilchot Pesach (the laws of Passover) and make cleaning easy.”
I’m with that message, and say to my sisters enslaved by the bondage of Brillo and to the servitude of Scrubbing Bubbles, “Let My People Go.”