Sometimes, cleanup comes before holiday

Passover: As part of preparations, many observant Jews go to great lengths to rid their homes of bread and other leavened products.

April 07, 2001|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

All week, Fran Sonnenschein and her family have been obsessed with crumbs. They have emptied their coat pockets, vacuumed between their couch cushions, swept behind the stove.

After almost a week of cleaning, they have banished every piece of bread from their home - in theory, anyway - and are ready for the most widely observed Jewish holiday of the year: Passover, which begins at sundown tonight.

During the eight days of the holiday, observant Jews are not allowed to eat or even see bread or other leavened products, called khametz. That's because thousands of years ago, as the Jews fled Egypt, they did not have time to let their bread rise. To commemorate that journey, observant Jews around the world will spend the week eating matzoh instead of bread and cooking with cookware reserved for this holiday.

Some of the more observant Jewish families spend weeks preparing for Passover - but Sonnenschein, who is modern Orthodox, did not go quite that far. She did most of her cleaning in two days.

"I'm not someone who can do this for weeks," she says. "It would drive me crazy."

Sonnenschein and her husband, Rabbi Gershon Sonnenschein, moved to Pikesville from Massachusetts about seven months ago. He is a rabbi at Beth Tfiloh, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Pikesville. She stays home and takes care of their four children, who range in age from 4 to 13.

He loves Passover, which celebrates God's freeing the Jews from Egyptian slavery.

It's not her favorite holiday.

Sonnenschein begins her cleaning Tuesday. She gathers all the bread products in the house, to be burned later in the week. She has the children scour their rooms for candy and leftover gum wrappers, considered khametz. She vacuums, sweeps and mops the floors. When she was first married, she would scrub the walls, too - some Orthodox Jews go so far as to repaint them - but 15 years and four children later, she has relaxed her standards a bit.

But only a bit. As she attempts to clean behind the refrigerator, Sonnenschein is dismayed that it will not come out from the wall more than 3 feet, thereby making it impossible for her to get the crumbs she knows are lurking behind it.

Her 11-year-old daughter, Orlee, comes to the rescue. She offers to climb atop the refrigerator, lower herself between it and the wall and sweep the floor. All goes without a hitch - until Orlee realizes she has no way of getting out.

The family debates what to do while Orlee, who is claustrophobic, fights tears. Finally, they tie a rope to a folding chair and lower it behind the refrigerator so she can climb out.

But still, the work is hardly done.

Breads are not the only foods considered khametz. Forbidden, also, are any foods containing fermented flour, such as cakes and pasta; dough made from wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats; alcoholic beverages using grain products; and makeup, toothpaste and medicines containing grain derivatives.

Sonnenschein removes all bread from the house during Passover and destroys it, but it would be too expensive to remove toothbrushes, makeup and spices. Instead, she and the children place these items in cupboards and closets and tape them shut. Another rabbi at their synagogue will sell these items to a non-Jew in a legally binding agreement, since Jews are not allowed to possess khametz during Passover. After the holiday ends, the rabbi will buy the products back.

Still, the work is hardly done.

On Wednesday night, Sonnenschein converts her kitchen for Passover. That requires cleaning the oven, microwave oven and sink according to Jewish law. She packs her everyday kitchenware into cupboards, taping them shut, and unpacks eight boxes of Passover kitchenware. She covers the countertops with linoleum and the stove with tin foil so that surfaces that have seen khametz will not contaminate her Passover dishes.

But still, the work is hardly done.

Thursday and Friday, Sonnenschein spends cooking for the Sabbath, which begins Friday night at sundown, and for Passover.

Hard as Sonnenschein works, she knows some families work harder. This time of year, Jews like to swap Passover-preparation stories. They talk about one family who changes the kitchen piping in their efforts to rid the house of khametz. Others are known to repaint their entire homes. Some go away for the week to kosher hotels, avoiding housecleaning altogether.

"I have a cousin who checks all his books," says Rabbi Sonnenschein. The cousin likes to eat while he reads.

But he does not encourage fanaticism: "It's eight days," he says. "Put it in perspective."

Thursday night, the family holds a ceremony called "searching for the khametz," usually held the night before Passover. This year, because Passover begins on a Saturday, the family holds the ceremony a night early so as not to interfere with the Sabbath.

At dusk, Sonnenschein hides little pieces of sesame bagel in every room except the bathrooms. Then the family turns off all the lights and the four children search for the bread by candlelight.

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