Extreme Passover Cleaning: Israel's National Pastime

On a philosophical level, it also seems to make absolutely no sense turning oneself into a slave to housecleaning in order to mark a holiday in which the Jewish people were liberated from slavery.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

It has never, ever made any logical sense - the link between clearing the house of chametz - any form of bread or bread product that violates Passover rules - and total cleaning insanity: complete, thorough, no-holds-barred spring cleaning. But for many, many Israelis, both observant and secular, extreme Passover cleaning has become a truly religious experience.

We’re talking about the kind of cleaning where plumbing components get disassembled and sterilized, mattresses get dragged out of the house and beaten within an inch of their life, where windows get pulled out of their frames and hosed down. It’s not for the weak of heart - every year, emergency room visits for inhaling fumes from cleaning fluids shoot up the week before the holiday.

So far, no one has provided me with a satisfying scientific explanation as to how microscopic crumbs of bread could possibly magically float up to the top of a window and stick to it, justifying window-washing as necessary Passover preparation.

On a philosophical level, it also seems to make absolutely no sense turning oneself into a slave to housecleaning in order to mark a holiday in which the Jewish people were liberated from slavery.

But whenever I make this argument, I feel like Don Quixote fighting against the windmill of Israeli culture, and the obsessive-compulsive clean freaks for whom Passover is an excuse to come out of the closet. This cleaning frenzy is so embedded in the mentality - and enabled by the companies selling cleaning products - that many people (and let’s face it, by ‘people’ we’re talking primarily about women) need to devote the entire week before Passover to the pursuit of a scrupulously clean house. This is the reason that Passover school vacation begins a full week before the holiday, in order to give teachers the opportunity to dedicate themselves to cleaning, because presumably, that is how they choose to spend their vacation time.

Which leaves the rest of us with a week to occupy the kids, while still working AND trying to clean the house as well. Which, if you’ve ever had kids in the house full-time, you understand is the most Sisyphysean of tasks. While you try to put one end of the house in order, they are sure to be turning the other end upside down. The best one can do is heavily bribe the children to actively participate in cleaning (and don’t even try to convince me that your kids will happily sweep and scrub just because you’ve raised them so well, I don’t want to hear it) or lift all restrictions on television and computer screen time and give them lots of money to spend at the mall - let them do anything they like, just as long as they stay out of your way.

Personally, my hatred of cleaning, my deep belief in the axim that “Dirt is not Chametz” and my helplessness in the face of entertaining vacationing children has led me to the conclusion is that the only way to survive pre-Passover week with my sanity intact is to get out of Dodge - taking vacation in what can only be viewed as a reverse Exodus - leaving the Holy Land in order to celebrate returning to it. My family has said “Next Year in Jerusalem” in at least five different countries - sometimes we celebrate the seder with family abroad, with friends, in a kosher hotel, and once, we made the seder ourselves in a clean-but-not-sterile holiday apartment in Rome after a shopping spree at a local kosher supermarkets and the one kosher butcher in the city.

What made this year’s pre-Passover week in Israel different from all other years was, of course, President Barack Obama. In my case, my long-standing ‘get out of town’ reservations meant that I - and others who flee the country this week paid the price of missing all the hoopla.

Back home, for the serious Passover sanitizers, especially in the Jerusalem area, I hear that the visit of the U.S. president was a mixed blessing. On one hand, the hellish traffic jams created by the presidential motorcades gave them even more of an excuse to immerse themselves in Windex and ammonia, On the other, if they run out of essential cleaning product, or wore out their mop, getting to the store to replace it was a hassle.

One family who faced a unique challenge getting ready for Passover were Ambassador Dan Shapiro and his wife Julie Fisher who were trying to prepare the holiday during what was their most intense period of work they would have during their entire tenure getting ready for President Obama’s all-important visit. As the visit grew closer, Fisher posted exhaustedly on Facebook: “POTUS and PESACH: Enough said.” When I asked her about it, she said that her husband’s pre-Obama-visit work schedule brought her back to the days when he worked in the White House - he was coming home at 2 am every night, so he wasn’t at all available to pitch in. And during the visit itself, he was working 24/7, and she and the kids were part of the festivities as well.

Presumably though, the ambassador and his wife had enough help in the official residence so that they didn’t have to rush back home from the airport following Obama’s departure and start cleaning out closets and scrubbing down the kitchen. The rest of us should only be so lucky.

Every year, hospital visits for inhaling toxic fumes from cleaning fluids shoot up before the holiday. Credit: Dan Keinan