Life & Culture

Why I love Pesach cleaning (yes, really)

Sara Elias shares the secrets of happy scrubbing


I need to come clean (pun intended). When this time of year rolls around, I do, I admit it, become just a tiny bit obsessed with getting ready for Pesach. I have even wondered how acceptable it would be to appropriate my daughter’s Purim-costume broomstick as an actual cleaning implement. And yes, I’m completely aware of how extreme that makes me sound.

Yet Pesach cleaning is extreme — the requirement to rid one’s home of even the most minute scrap of chametz is enough to turn all of us slightly obsessive and compulsive.

It can also, I have noticed, make the most mild-mannered women (and it is usually always a woman) competitive. Friends will enquire, casually, how well the Pesach cleaning is going, and there will ensue an increasingly intense game 
of conversational ping pong in which we try to outdo each other in terms of what has already been achieved.

As with anything like this, the only way to survive is to keep your head down and to keep your focus away from what everyone else is doing. And in the spirit of sisterliness (because I assume I am talking mainly to the women out there) I would like to share with you the tool to help you do this — a Pesach spreadsheet.

I don’t claim to have originated this idea. I’m pretty sure I borrowed it from a friend. So whoever you are (and I really am very sorry to have forgotten), the credit goes to you.

My family think it is utterly hilarious, but I endure the ridicule because I know — I know — that this is my lifesaver.

About four weeks before Pesach, the list goes up on the fridge door. It now runs to four A4 pages (appropriately, seeing as four is such a symbolic number for this festival), and is divided into two columns: ‘What is to be done’, and the much narrower ‘Done?’, under which the ticks slowly but surely (and rather hurriedly towards the end) accumulate.

There are three sections (also symbolic?). Rooms to be cleaned, Miscellaneous and (taking up the lion’s share of space) Kitchen. It is updated every year, when the previous year’s frantic last-minute scrawls — ‘Extra car cleaning!’, ‘Remember to tuck towels in drawers!’ (nope, no idea, and I wrote the thing) — are incorporated into the clean black and white of the edited document.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a minute pretending that Pesach cleaning is easy. The first year of our marriage, I was beyond relieved that I was absolved from doing any of it. This was for two reasons — our kitchen had just been redone, and our first child was due on the first night of the festival.

After subsequently spending two less-than-relaxing Pesachs in Eilat, I decided that the time had come to see if staying at home might be worth a try. And so we did. And it wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was really quite OK.

I vividly recall the first seder night that year. I sat at the table, drunk with exhaustion. I had slept minimally the previous nights — scrubbing, rearranging, cooking — I was pregnant, and I had never done this before. I had effectively climbed my own personal Mount Everest. I looked around me and felt pure elation — not only had I done it, but I felt, to the very core of my being, the magnificence of being a link in the chain of Jewish history. Here we sat, once again, celebrating the mind-boggling story of our freedom from slavery — us, and the many Jews around the world doing exactly the same at (more or less) exactly the same moment.

I guess I must have stayed drunk for the whole of the rest of that year, because I readily volunteered to do it all again the following Pesach.

But what I found that second time around was that it was easier than the first; and as the years progress, it generally does get easier the more you (or at least, I) do it. And for that I have my beloved spreadsheet to thank.

To be honest, I don’t just have a spreadsheet — I have an entire Pesach folder, filled with recipes and lists.

There is one list marked ‘Pesach 2016 recipes - what worked, what didn’t’; there is one with menu ideas; there is another entitled ‘Pesach shopping list 2016 (bought and used)’, at the end of which is a smaller list, headed – in a terrifyingly stern manner – ‘DON’T buy for 2017!’. And so it goes on.

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that this is all about control. (I am a Jewish mother — it is always about control!) Pesach cleaning can be a massive operation. No matter how big or small the space you are dealing with, it is the psychology of going into every cupboard, meticulously cleaning and holding things up to the light, that is so daunting. It can sometimes feel a bit pointless, too — until you find those long-forgotten Chanukah chocolate coins at the bottom of the third box of toys and you think “Aha! Gotcha!”

It is as though we are climbing into our very souls armed with dustpan and mop, switching on a light and having a long, hard look at the place. Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah is a time of spiritual stock-taking, but for me that tends to happen at Pesach, too. The act of cleaning my house seems to bring with it the act of cleaning my soul.

I can’t help thinking that all of this is a good thing. And I know, when it is done, how good I feel. Not in a smug, look-at-me, I-did-Pesach-myself way (well, maybe a little bit), but in a cleansed, invigorated, ready-for-anything way.

In fact, I clearly felt so good about it last year that when I went to open my Pesach folder this year I saw that I had written myself a note. It reads as follows:

“Armed with the lists and recipes in this folder, Pesach can actually be a pleasure! Go to it, and remember — it’s only for eight days!”

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