Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Recommendations for a Stress-free Pesach

Yom chamishi, 18 Adar 5777.

As the post-Purim panic level begins to rise among those I love, it seems it's time yet again to dust off a few facts, and to share a few good ideas that have made Pesach -- dare I say it? -- one of my favorite holidays.

Bear in mind that the following recommendations are ideas and tools that have worked for me. I would love to hear what you have found works for you. All positive inspiration at this time of year is welcome!

Let's start with something very basic. Repeat after me: Dust is not chometz. Dust is not chometz. Dust is not chometz. (If you're Sephardi, dust is not hametz.) I know you know this; but your years and years and generations of Jewish guilt training will not let you embrace it. Go ahead. Indulge yourself. If you have forgotten how to indulge yourself, go ahead and pour a glass of wine, and take that rich dark chocolate out of the drawer.

Here are a few great ideas I have learned over the years, some from a creative and cheerful rebbetzin in New York, who published a delightful tape*; some from the energetic Rivka Slatkin, who published a number of guides on getting through the holidays (which I was blessed to be able to edit):

One of our excellent mechutanim, ready to battle chometz
  • Buy beautiful or fun aprons for yourself. Why should you do all that cleaning in a shmateh? I followed this advice, and it really picks up my spirits! (This is not sexist. Guys can clean for Pesach, too; and I have seen some great aprons designed to give smiles to the Mars set as well.)
  • Build a flexible schedule on one of those printout calendars. Seeing your chores in front of you and checking them off is empowering, and keeps you from feeling quite so overwhelmed.
  • If you didn't clean out the closets and paint the kitchen and dust the ceilings before Rosh Chodesh Adar (or Adar II in years that have 'em), forget it until after Pesach. Spring cleaning is still valid in May.
  • You can't always clean in private. But during the times when the kids are otherwise occupied, listen to a Torah lecture or to uplifting music while you clean. The former will enrich your knowledge, as well as offering the opportunity to feel good about yourself. The latter can really make the exercise fun. I recommend Udi Davidi for soul searching tunes, as well as some great, upbeat me'at mikdash cleaning music! (I hope he would consider that a compliment.)
  • The holiday is EIGHT DAYS out of your year. It is possible -- though a shandeh in some circles, I understand -- to seal up all the normal cupboards, put up folding tables, and live there, as if you are camping, for a week and a day. And it's kind of fun.
  • Israelis, geniuses that they are, have devised very cool products to help us to get through the holiday. My favorite: the portable gas stove top. Mamash genius! I clean the stove top, but without breaking any nails or using corrosives on my poor, delicate hands -- and then I close the lid, and set the Pesach stove top on top of my regular stove. One week of heaven on Earth!
  • There are lots of young people around with time on their hands who are actually advertising to help you clean for Pesach. (If not, you are living in the wrong neighborhood.) Allow them to earn money for the mitzvah of relieving you of stress. Win-win.
  • And speaking of help, this is a great teaching opportunity. Since my boys were small, they and their friends were encouraged to make a competition of scrubbing the front doors of my cupboards, light switch covers, anything non-essential but icky, that they probably created anyway.
When disaster strikes -- you're sick, God forbid; you have a steady stream of surprise guests from out of the country for every day leading up to the holidays; work decides to become ironically heavy in the month preceding Pesach; all of the above, which is not uncommon (because God has a wicked sense of humor) -- the following is a wonderful reminder. Please look over Rabbi Aviner's helpful (if somewhat rigorous) guide: How to do your Pesach Cleaning Cheerfully in Less than One Day.

One of the main things that gets me through this season with a good attitude is remembering what it's all about. Why are we getting rid of all this leaven? Yes, yes... I know. Because Hashem said so. But beyond that obvious fact, what do we gain spiritually from the exercise?

Having a good, healthy ego is necessary to function in the world. But a by-product of ego is hubris, an additive to our characters that is decidedly detrimental to our ability to fulfill our God-given missions on the Earth. Chometz -- leaven -- is symbolic of hubris, an inflated sense of self-worth, excessive pride. What joy that God gives us the opportunity to temporarily flush it out of our systems once a year! If we do this internal and symbolic cleansing with the right attitude, perhaps we are permitted at least a few months of valuing ourselves for what we truly add to the world, those individual gifts each of us has to complete our fellow human beings.

I give us all blessings for as pleasant and stress-free a Pesach prep as possible. See you on the other side of the Yam Suf!

*Remember cassette tapes? I played this particular rebbetzin's tape until I wore it out. Unfortunately, I cannot remember her name. I would love to give her credit. But at least her ideas stuck, and can be shared with you.

Feel free to add your ideas in the comments section. And if this has been helpful information, please feel free to share!

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Many Perfumes of Mama

Yom shishi, 12 Adar 5777.

Mama Behind Cinnabar

Even though she married a construction worker, there was always the history of pearls and Ming vases (pronounced "vahzez," not "vayses," because that indicated breeding). She was born to be wealthy and finely educated, was my dear Mama... but life circumstances discarded her from those possibilities. Kicked out of home at nineteen with the clothes on her back and fifteen cents in her pocket, she just tried to survive. Irene aka Nana, the vicious great-aunt who raised her, stole her pearls and wore them ill on medication till they were as ugly as paste. I saw the vahz once, when I was thirteen, and wanted to kick it over, just to watch their pretensions crash.

But back to Mama, and that hidden exotic air she recreated with Estée Lauder's Cinnabar... cinnamon and bergamot, sandalwood, cloves, with hints of peach and patchouli. She was all Orient and evenings in a sarong on a stretch of sun-kissed sand beside murmuring blue-black waves. She was a jewelry box of stories, hints of wild love affairs with men who spoke no English and whispered false promises into her hair. And this impression she gave is illusory, because she was none of these things, not outside. She was a frightened girl brought up in a forbidding and crazy Catholic home, abused in too many ways to mention in polite company, married to a second generation Holocaust remnant, followed by a child abuser, followed finally by a man who never got around to appreciating her. She was externally the mother of four children whom she loved and for whom she cooked endless stew, around knitting sweaters and Barbie doll clothes. But her heart and soul were bathed in the freedom and world travel and mystery of Cinnabar.


Life Bread

Mama baked bread. Her sourdough could rival the famous San Francisco sourdough bread, the "mother" in the fridge smelling between bakings drunk from its own bacteria. Her black bread was more Russian than the Russians', full of caraway and beer, dark smells of the healthy diet of the truly poor of the Steppe who ate good natural bread, homemade cheese, root vegetables in season. Her pumpernickel would have made an old Jewish deli owner weep with memories of his childhood, his grandmother's kneading with gnarled hands turning poverty into promise. I felt as if I were in European history as I sat in her kitchen, smelling and seeing a newsreel of lives we had no reason to know.

Her bread and one-pot soups and stews spoke of an upbringing and history she lacked, as if she made herself up out of the European and Russian novels she read. An avid student of world history, an autodidact, Mama taught herself whom to be, how to cook, how to raise children, as she herself was never raised by anyone.

She was very American, was my mother. Born in North Hollywood and raised among the stars. Cary Grant used to drive her home from school. She, the "good girl" of the malt shop gang of movie star wannabes, rode in James Dean's car with him down a precipitous mountain road, because the crowd trusted only her to gauge his true speed honestly. She didn't let them down, reporting accurately the details of their daring flight down that wickedly perilous slide, two weeks before his fatal crash on that same mountain road...

Mama was always the kid in the vicinity of greatness and tragedy who lived to tell about it.



Mama's pumpkin pie, her famous dressing made with apples and bread, sage and cinnamon, smelling like childhood. My baby sister dancing the naked turkey obscenely in the pan, after cradling it, giggling "My baby, my baby..." Caraway seeds on dark brown bread browning to perfection as if to warm up the oven for its really laborious work of crisping the skin of a juicy turkey. Dish-washing liquid smelling of harmonies and laughter. Turkey roasting will always smell of sisters and mother working together to create a savory and sweet masterpiece of family love.

We don't celebrate Thanksgiving anymore, because with the passing of the matriarch, that family has splintered, lost its color, drifted to four corners of the universe, held indecisively together by a shredding thread of Facebook "likes." But those smells will always make me smile and sense a perfectly-harmonized ladies' barbershop quartet of my Mama, Diane and Carol and me, before the meat turned rancid, the pumpkin spoiled, the spices faded into memory's kitchen.


Searching to connect, to regenerate scattered ash, I single-handedly revitalize the sale of a fragrance from 1978, as Estée Lauder pulls Mama's memory from a dusty back shelf. Dabbing reminiscence on my earlobes, wrists, throat, I wrap in the essence of her, all the trampled promise and fairy tale and unconditional love of her.