The Festival of Freedom? Not When You Have a House to Clean

The cleaning frenzy has elements of both compulsion and competition.

If objects could speak, household utensils would tell of their terror before Passover, on their way to becoming kosher for the holiday by being immersed in boiling water. For days on end, books lie outside on the balcony, spread open in the middle to air between the bars of the balustrade.

Has an unruly crumb or any other trace of hametz (leavened food ) ever flown away from this strange position? Very unlikely. Pages become dirty and acquire odd concavities and bindings turn yellow before the books are returned to their proper places in the bookcase.

Religious man
Alex Levac

No doubt, toys, will never be restored to their original shape after energetic laundering. "Fill a pillowcase with small toys - Playmobil, Lego, blocks - tie its edges together, fasten with a rubber band for hair and throw it into the washing machine," says Dr. Rivka Neria-Ben Shahar, explaining in a phone interview about the cleaning frenzy in religious homes, while she cleans out drawers.

For many days now, to get to her desk, Neria-Ben Shahar has had to jump over a row of her daughters' dolls, all of them well-washed and combed. This was the custom in her childhood home, to launder and wash all the toys and dolls to rid of them of all traces of hametz. The bottoms of puzzle pieces were wiped, one by one, to rid them of crumbs that may have stuck to them. After all, puzzles are put together on the floor, and everyone knows that floors are teeming with hametz.

Her tiny study is already cleaned for Passover. The dolls will be returned to their drawer just before the holiday when the children's room will have been made absolutely kosher. Neria-Ben-Shahar is a young academic. She recently won a prestigious Fulbright grant and in the summer will travel to the United States to write on religious ritual for women. She finds it hard to explain why she clings to the old cleaning customs, and why radical feminists like herself do not liberate themselves from the burden of Passover.

Uphill battle

"Passover is Passover," she says. After all, this is an uphill battle against the tiniest, concealed, almost invisible particles of hametz. And war is war, and one must arm oneself with brooms, rags and toothpicks to pry the hametz out of even the most hidden crannies.

There are two unbreakable rules for Passover cleaning: One is that there are no shortcuts in koshering the house;and the other is that it is always done the way it was in one's father's home, unquestioningly. And especially when ones father is from the religious aristocracy.

Neria-Ben Shahar is a granddaughter of Rabbi Moshe Neria, a major figure in religious Zionism, and with a pedigree like that - noblesse oblige. All her life she has alternately rebelled and submitted to him. For example, as a declared religious feminist who worships at an egalitarian synagogue, she wears ultra-Orthodox Zionist style clothing and head-coverings.

"I'm the first-born in the family. When I was a child, I never left the house during the Passover vacation. This was absolutely clear. I had to do nearly everything."

She is amazed that the religious Zionist youth movements Ezra and Bnei Akiva hold outings nowadays before Passover. "The world has changed in this respect," she says, "and girls these days are not required to do the whole house." Back then, she says that "all my girlfriends and I would take breaks during the cleaning to make phone calls and compare what each of us had managed to do: 'I'm doing windows,' 'We're already in the kitchen.'" A kind of competition.

"In the house where I grew up, during the course of the year, they never put books on the dining table because maybe hametz would touch them. To this day I am in shock when I see people put something on the table that hasn't been through immersion in boiling water. On the tables themselves I put, like in my childhood, a few layers of separation. A plastic tablecloth and then a Passover tablecloth and then another plastic tablecloth so a kosher utensil will not touch a hametz table.

"When I go to teach, I tell my students that I am a liberated woman lecturing to them. Liberated from cleaning. I have a household helper. When she comes, I hug her in excitement, because most of the time she is unemployed, and I let her help me with the drawers." On Passover most of the burden falls on women and girls but at least in her case her husband is a full partner. "When I was a little girl, my grandmother did everything, and my grandfather sat and learned until the last minute, and he would show up at home like a guest on the eve of Passover to do the hametz check. In my home, we have a detailed division of labor plan for the cleaning. My partner, for example, does the kitchen. The stove, the refrigerator, the most difficult things. Would he rather I took the car to be cleaned? In return he will do the tiles in the kitchen and the garbage closet."

Neria-Ben Shahar says there is a real fear of hametz accompanied by female guilt. And in this sense it goes way beyond spring cleaning. "Women," she says, "are driven by the anxiety that 'if I had exerted a bit more effort, it would have been better.' This fear that a crumb of hametz is hiding especially there in the Lego drawer can definitely lead to obsessiveness."

Always someone who is stricter

This is a very competitive area: There is always someone who is stricter, or whose home is cleaner and, she says, "There's always the doubt - maybe the water from boiling pasta touched the walls so maybe we'll cover the walls with aluminum foil." Among the ultra-Orthodox there is a saying that is now more apt than ever: "Hametz isn't dust and women are not the Passover sacrifice." Between the lines there is general disgruntlement over the cleaning frenzy led by women, which apparently has nothing to do with koshering for Passover. But this is the way of the world: No one dares to rebel openly.

Yocheved Horowitz of Jerusalem remembers from her childhood how they would dismantle the kitchen appliances, wash every part in boiling water and go over it with toothpicks or toothbrushes between the joins to get rid of hametz. "They would give each of the children an aluminum pot that hadn't been cleaned properly all year long. Because who has time? During the course of two weeks we would scrub that pot with water and scouring powder and steel wool until we got blisters on our hands."

Horowitz rebels against the cleaning terror. She says: "It annoys me that people don't observe rabbinical law properly. They forget what is trivial and what is essential." A few years ago a page of rabbinical law in Yiddish was distributed to women in the area of Mea Shearim where she lives. It was written by an important rabbi, Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, who was a member of the Council of Torah Sages. According to Horowitz, in the handout they listed all the tasks a woman must complete before Passover, and also what isn't necessary to do. "The rabbi wrote, for example, that it isn't necessary to dust or to clean closets. There are number of things that must be done: The pots must be koshered if they are used. Before they are immersed in boiling water, it is necessary to clean the pots thoroughly. But today in any case people buy new pots and they have new utensils for Passover. "The second thing is to sweep the house well and perform a thorough hametz check, and that's it. You don't have to do all the windows, you don't have to sort out the clothes. Why now, when you're killing yourself, do you have to turn out all the closets? I laugh at those women and I pity them.

"People ask me, what's the problem with a gleaming home? It's beautiful that once a year you sit like kings at the table and everything is clean and polished. But people don't have a life. This holiday is the holiday of freedom. It's ironic that women make slaves of themselves. Women start getting anxious at Purim and the very strict are already putting pressure on themselves at Hanukkah. They phone me and say: 'I have to marry my daughter off right after Passover,' or 'I have to give birth any day now and how am I going to manage after the birth?' My house is so neglected. The children are on top of me, and they are scattering hametz all over the house. Just the anxiety causes muscle cramps, even before you've started to work." Horowitz tells of homes where they pour boiling water on the floor tiles, "as though they eat off the floor." Or they go over the floor, tile by tile, with a toothbrush dipped in kerosene.

Some put plastic sheeting over the whole floor because if a Passover fork happens to drop on the floor, it is no longer possible to use it. There are also households where all the eggs are washed before Passover and households where all the drinking water is boiled or else the faucet is covered with a cloth because even in the pipes a grain of wheat might be hiding.

There are families that use boiled sugar water during Passover lest crumbs have crept into the sugar. And this is not enough: They also filter the sugar syrup through a diaper.

"There is no end to it," she says. "For two weeks in ultra-Orthodox homes there are no toys, because it's already kosher for Passover. They go crazy and cause traumas for the children. Don't walk there, don't eat here. Hametz! They eat in a small corridor, on a rickety table, because the table is already kosher for Passover. What's the logic? Is it permissible to yell at the children, not to smile at the children? Is it permissible to kill yourself and on seder night to cry because you are so tired? This is absurd."

Horowitz is also critical of the use of the most caustic cleaning products, which are harmful to health. "There are people who don't touch the oven all year long. Along comes Passover and they spray the oven with a caustic substance that eats the grease but it also enters the lungs," she says.

If not openly, at least in the ultra-Orthodox Internet forums, people complain about this. This week someone complained specifically about a certain cleanser the ultra-Orthodox use a lot. "Eeeeenough, I'm fed up, I'm simply fed up, I can't stand it any longer. The whole house smells of this sharp odor. I breathe it and I eat it and my head is spinning ... I tried to hide the poison but the wife bought three for the price of two. I am waiting for the festival of freedom - the holiday that will free me from this cursed product" (which he mentioned by name ).

'Hallo!" replied a woman. 'Stop denouncing! This product is responsible for millions of clean and kosher for Passover homes and saves a lot of rubbing and scrubbing energy."