Catharsis in the Kitchen
8 Ways to Prepare Spiritually for Passover
by Elicia Brown
Early in our marriage, my husband, Jeremy, learned to avoid the kitchen in the days leading up to Passover. If he dared venture nearby, he’d find a mysterious and maddening state of affairs: giant pots bubbling over with silverware instead of soup; empty dishwashers running full cycle; the oven red hot and reeking from its self-cleaning function; and me, snappish and surly, scouring shelf after shelf before taping up the cabinets for the week.
My husband, who ordinarily takes on his fair share of domestic duties, steered clear when I “changed over the house” for Passover—a ritual he didn’t grow up with in his more secular Jewish home. In recent years, I’ve learned to hire cleaning help during the week before the holiday. I feel less like a slave as we approach this festival of freedom—and Jeremy feels more at liberty to approach me.
But to actually elevate Passover preparation to a higher plane? To understand why Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, an otherwise sensible woman whose words often fill me with the joy of Judaism, giggles and says she would feel “denied and cheated if I didn’t do it myself”—that if she didn’t get to scrub before Passover without any paid help, she’d actually feel bereft?
Preparing one’s soul for the holiday is something new for me—though apparently not so novel for many rabbis, writers and thinkers. What follows are eight tips (as many as there are days of Passover) on deriving spiritual satisfaction from the vicious onslaught of cleaning and cooking.
In the wee hours of the morning, when the world outside is dark, when the house inside is quiet, when Cardin is still wrenching the last bits of grime from kitchen appliances, she suddenly finds herself empowered, rejuvenated, transcendent.
The ideas, gleaned from conversations with dozens of women and one man, draw on the wisdom of an eclectic group. My muses range from Rishe Deitsch, senior editor of the N’shei Chabad Newsletter, who upends her eight-bedroom house in Brooklyn each year, to Dani Shapiro, a Connecticut-based novelist, memoirist, spiritual voyager and yoga enthusiast who grew up in an Orthodox home, but confides that these days, her pre-Passover arrangements consist of buying matzoh when it appears on the supermarket shelves.
1. A “Prep” Party
If you’re a certain kind of host, a Jewish Martha Stewart, you aim to dazzle Seder guests with beautiful, bountiful food, to clean every inch of your home until it shines like the top of the Chrysler building. Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder’s advice: Stop.
One of the meanings of chametz, of the leavening we eliminate from our homes, she explains, is “puffery, ego.” For Pesach, “I do what I have to do to make myself comfortable, but not make myself crazy,” says the Reform rabbi, who holds a doctorate from Yale on the history of Jewish cooking. Because she realizes she can’t maintain complete control, Abusch-Magder often invites friends over to help prepare. She also suggests: Turn on loud Passover music, imbibe some schnapps and—when the house is Pesadich, ready for Passover—hold a matzoh-making party.
2. Precious Quiet Time
But if you do find yourself alone, you might consider the behavior of women in Sephardic cultures, where rice is eaten on Passover. In some traditions, the women wash each grain seven times to ensure it is fit for consumption. Mind-numbing? Perhaps. But some observers, and many of the women themselves, praise the meditative quality of the experience.
“I think we can see our own Pesach cleaning as a meditative activity: repetitive actions that quiet the mind so that we can begin to have insight and see beyond our daily thoughts,” says Rabbi Jill Hammer, a New Yorker who identifies herself as an author, educator, midrashist, myth weaver and ritualist.
While stirring chicken soup, for example, “enjoy the sensations and smells of cooking; allow the mind to take a break. It’s a precious opportunity for peace and quiet,” adds Jay Michaelson, author of Everything Is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism.
3. The Past Is Present
Even when working alone, many women describe a sense of sisterhood amid the frenzy of Passover preparations, a kinship with the ghosts of generations past. In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen writes about a young secular Jewish woman who readies the house for Passover for the first time. Wondering where she can find space to stack the Passover milk dishes, the woman suddenly feels “the presence of the many thousands of women who had ever asked themselves this very ordinary question, some young, some old, in tents, in villages, in cities.”
A deep spring cleaning, which many conduct before Passover, can also evoke memories of the less distant past. Shapiro, author of the spiritual memoir Devotion, talks about packing up her 10-year-old son’s old toys or outgrown clothing, an activity she says elicits “the full kaleidoscope of memories of that child wearing those things, of where he was and how quickly he passed through that stage.” It is a recognition that “this period of life is done.”
4. Say a Little Prayer
Renee Septimus remembers the irritation swelling up inside her several years ago as she confronted the empty pots and pans for Passover. “I get crabby when I cook,” says Septimus, who practices Orthodox Judaism. So Septimus crafted a prayer, modeled after traditional woman’s techines, or Yiddish supplications. It uplifted her spirits. You can find it at in the Passover section at ritualwell.org.
For an alternative, Cardin suggests a prayer that begins like this: “May it be your will, my God and God of my people, that you accept this cleaning of my home and kitchen even as you welcomed the Levites’ cleaning of the holy Temple years ago. By removing these hardened crumbs and this dirt, may I remove any hardening that has encrusted my heart and any dirt that has darkened and clouded my feelings...”
5. Total Immersion
Janet Buchwald, a Reform Jewish educator who lives in a Boston suburb, enjoys the weeks leading up to Passover, when she “makes totally bizarre meals” with the dwindling supplies of chametz from her pantry shelves. She also likes “cleansing the house completely, once a year,” a ritual she appropriated as an adult. But one year, toward the end of her cleaning, she says, “I cleared out my pockets, went to take a shower and realized, now I’m going to do me.”
At the time, she was in the midst of working on the show “The Mikveh Monologues” with writer Anita Diamant. Buchwald decided to immerse herself in the new community mikveh that Diamant helped found, Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, Mass. In the ritual bath, Buchwald, who has worked as a cantor, peered up at the skylights and burst into song. Afterward, Buchwald remembers, she felt “very light. When you’re doing so much cleaning, you feel dirty; you’re up to your elbows in soap suds.”
Buchwald has not been alone in linking this ritual to Passover. In the five years since Mayyim Hayyim opened, dozens of women (and 15 men) have immersed before Passover, cleansing body and soul. The mikveh has developed a ceremony for those interested.
6. Your Home Is a Mini-Temple
Deitsch, who tidies up 26 closets in the course of Passover cleaning each year, says she continually reminds herself that her home is a mikdash me’at, a miniature sanctuary. “I want this to be a holy place,” she says.
Hammer also considers this principle as she prepares for the holiday. “Pesach is a time to rededicate the home temple,” she says, so she applies extra care in polishing ceremonial objects, such as her Elijah’s cup and Shabbat candlesticks.
And when Hammer completes her physical labors, she conducts a “spiritual cleaning,” either by sprinkling water in each room or by sweeping the rooms with a dried lulav.
The first idea, the sprinkling, derives from various traditions around the world, including some Jewish customs.
The second ritual hails more directly from Jewish sources. On Sukkot, the lulav is waved in six directions. The Talmud states that, at one time, the first barley sheaf was waved in six directions on the second day of Pesach. So Hammer sometimes waves the lulav in six directions in each room of her home to symbolize spiritual sweeping.
She writes, “For me, these cleaning rituals connect Passover cleaning to the spiritual purification conducted in priestly ceremonies. I think of my house as being like a shrine or temple, and these rituals help me maintain that sense of holiness in my home.”
7. Wiping One’s Slate Clean
If you adopt the proper mindset, cleaning can be a metaphor for renewal. Or, to borrow a Buddhist concept—as Dani Shapiro notes—“You can always begin again.”
And so, in the wee hours of the morning, when the world outside is dark, when the house inside is quiet, when Cardin is still wrenching the last bits of grime from kitchen appliances, she suddenly finds herself empowered, rejuvenated, transcendent. “There’s always that spiritual cartharsis,” says Cardin. “It’s not easy to get the scum off of a stovetop. It’s not easy to get the scum off of your soul.”
8. Out of Egypt
Even if you aren’t replenished by the cleaning itself, even if you find it tricky to meditate while stirring the soup, even if all the tips in this article seem outlandish or impractical, you’ll probably understand the following concept: To fully appreciate liberty, it helps to experience oppression.
Or, in the words of Melinda Ribner, a New York-based psychotherapist, writer, educator and Jewish healer, “You have to be in a little bit of Mitzraim (Egypt) to get out of it.”
This, I immediately grasp. After all the Passover preparations are done, I am enriched by the transformation. After all the labors are completed, I can celebrate with that much more fervor. After my kitchen has been disassembled and put back together, I am in the mood for rejoicing.
(Originally published in spring 2010)
Elicia Brown is a writer living in New York City.
Passover Cleaning, Pre-Shark
If your mood plummets at the thought of preparing a house for Passover, imagine what it must have been like for women in the Eastern European shtetl — or really, for housewives throughout Jewish history. For women who couldn’t suck up hidden tidbits of chametz with their handy Shark vacuum; who couldn’t toss a box of machine-made matzoh into their shopping carts; who didn’t even have the benefit of running water.
Now that, you might think, was true bondage.
Don’t be so quick to judge, says Rabbi Ruth Abush-Magder, a scholar of domestic Jewish history, who explains that in the past, women integrated Passover preparation into the natural rhythms of their calendar more fluidly than many of us do today.
As soon as they swept away the last hamentaschen crumbs of Purim, housewives began to focus on the next big holiday, Passover. They would need weeks, for example, to prepare the beet russel, the fermented beet juice that was the basis for borscht. They would also need time to plan for the communal baking of matzoh. “It was not `I am all alone in my kitchen cleaning,’” says Rabbi Abusch-Magder, who imagines much laughter during the matzoh-making.
She also believes that without modern appliances, the women didn’t expect their homes to be immaculate. “They might be thorough, but not obsessive. It was not feasible,” says Rabbi Abusch-Magder. “What we’ve gained in efficiency, we’ve lost in terms of expectations.”
Prayer for Passover Cleaning
“May it be your will, my God and God of my people, that you accept this cleaning of my home and kitchen even as you welcomed the Levites’ cleaning of the holy Temple years ago. By removing these hardened crumbs and this dirt, may I remove any hardening that has encrusted my heart and any dirt that has darkened and clouded my feelings...”
—Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin