Once the shalach manos were quarantined to a cardboard box on the floor of the kitchen, it always meant one thing — Pesach preparations had begun. My mother, a master of the art of subtlety, would drop small hints that it was time to shift Pesach preparations into high gear. She’d take out her supplies — like a chemist in an advanced science lab — and suddenly the games had begun. No, this was not the Olympics, though these games had their fair share of torches. The stakes in this competition were far higher. Here are the 5 ways my mother let me know that the Pesach Cleaning Olympics was underway.
Recently a video has been circulating depicting a beis medrash covered entirely in tin foil. It’s a humorous Purim prank, with shtenders, tables, and chairs entirely covered in tin foil. But for me, those sparkling surfaces were a familiar sight. In our home, every year Pesach was brought to you by our perennial sponsor: Reynold’s Tin Foil. Let Manischewitz sponsor the wine, Maxwell House can have the Haggadah sponsorship, but the Pesach home was always brought to us by our shiny friend Reynold’s. Faucets, soap dispensers, door handles — all were swaddled in tin foil like a newborn baby in a blanket. Discover a random non-food-related item wrapped in tin foil? It’s not a prank. Mommy is letting us know this stapler is Pesach-ready.
2. String Cheese
It’s not pre-Pesach season until our freezer and Pesach food pantry look like they're being stocked for the impending Apocalypse. There are certain items that announce pre-Pesach planning: Macaroons. Off-brand Pesach cereals no one asked for and no one eats. But nothing broadcasts the upcoming Yom Tov like a freezer full of string cheese. And I’m not talking five bags of string cheese; those are three-day-Yuntif numbers. What are Pesach string cheese numbers? Are you sitting down (preferably with some Ha’Olam string cheese to relax you)? Pre-Pesach my mother buys approximately 20 bags of string cheese. That’s 360 total individual string cheese packets. She’s not just getting ready for Pesach. She’s starting a string cheese gemach.
When I was growing up there was this popular kids book called Labels for Laibel by Dina Rosenfeld, about a little boy who has trouble sharing and labels his toys with his name to avoid having to share. I’m not going to spoil the ending for you — but if they gave a Pulitzer for Jewish children’s books, this would be on my shortlist. Aside from the importance of sharing, this book had other lessons, namely the vision of what a properly prepared home for Pesach looks like. If tin foil was the official sponsor of Pesach in my home, painter’s tape was the Olympic torch. Cupboards, drawers, napkin holders — everything got a label. My mother’s labels, however, were not just the wimpy binary of “Kosher for Pesach” and “Chometz.” Everything was cross-referenced by Rabbi Blumenkratz’s Pesach guide. My mother’s Pesach signs had footnotes and updates depending on the Pesach guide. Fresh citrus mouthwash could have a label with countless endnotes and a small bibliography. Viva Glam MAC Lipstick? Instead of a label, my mother just taped on a small pamphlet of its recommendation history from the last two decades of Pesach guides. Everyone step aside, Mom has a label maker — and she is not afraid to use it.
4. Dining Room
In an oft-circulated teshuvah, the Noda B’Yehudah writes before Pesach, “I don’t have any space in my house available — I’m wandering from room to room and from corner to corner” (Sheilos U’Teshuvos Noda B’Yehudah, Tinyana Orach Chayim #57). The Chasam Sofer similar wrote, “I am outside of my office since my holy wife banished me as she prepares for the holy Yom Tov” (see Sheilos U’Teshuvos Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim #136, see also in vol. 6 of Likutim #30). No one in my family wrote responsa, but if we did, they would have similar caveats. In the weeks leading up to Pesach, our home resembled a slowly spreading quarantine zone. First the upstairs was closed like an active crime scene with yellow police tape. As Pesach approached, the crime scene grew. Until Erev Pesach we were enclosed with chicken wire onto a small portion of the porch. Pesach was wasn’t just a Yom Tov, it was an active criminal investigation.
“You know Rita already turned over her kitchen?” Pesach preparations were not underway until we got a play-by-play of the rest of the neighborhood’s progress. Like Harry Caray reporting on the pennant race, my mother would give us live updates on everyone else’s kitchens. And no one gave my mother more pre-Pesach competitive angst than Rita. Like the “Saran Wrap Heard ’Round the World,” my mother would announce, “I don’t believe it! I do not believe it! Rita already kashered her counters! She’s picking her family up and carrying them out of the kitchen.”
Baseball may be America’s national pastime, but Pesach anxiety was ours.
With thanks to my holy brother Elie for willingly reliving pre-Pesach trauma to help detail my mother’s mysterious ways.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 754)
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