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Cleaning Queen

Cleaning Queen

What I learned from my Israeli cleaning lady.


I love Israelis. I grew up here and I'm an Israeli. I don't have any difficulty with the bureaucracy, with the Israeli mentality. I take personal offense when people talk of Israelis as being brash, arrogant, impatient, quick-tempered and not service-oriented. Israelis are also frank, open, caring and would go out of their way to help you if you were in trouble. They also keep immaculately clean homes and mop their floors on an hourly basis.

So when I was searching for the perfect cleaning lady to get me head-started on my Passover cleaning, I was thrilled to hear about Tzippy. An Israeli woman in her late 40s, with a few older children of her own, she started working as a cleaning lady to support her family. "She charges more per hour than any regular cleaning lady," my sister-in-law said, "but she'll clean your house for Pesach top to bottom, and she won't leave until every last surface, shelf, drawer and closet is sparkling. She's not just a cleaning lady -- she's a home organizer!"

Sounded like a dream come true. And I was happy I was supporting the economy, and a Jewish family in need.

Tzippy walked in for the first time one afternoon and got right to business. Literally.

"These are the cleaning products I will need to work with. These two special cloths cost 20 shekels each, this bigger one costs 40 shekel, and oh! You have stainless steel sinks! You need this cleaning agent I have. I import these products directly from Japan. Let me see if I have one in the car." And out the door she flew before I had a chance to close my mouth. Did she say a car? And she lives only a few blocks away, in the poorer part of the neighborhood, so I thought.

In she came with a small white container which looked remarkably like Ajax with no label. Sprinkle, sprinkle all over my sinks, rub, rub with her magic cloths, and presto! The stainless steel was shining.

She turned to me with a satisfied smile. "You see? Only 50 shekels for this wonderful product. You have such beautiful sinks and you can't even see them! Oy! What a tragedy when things aren't clean!"

I felt weak. "50 shekels? Is that yours?"

"Of course not! It's yours! I told you I was getting it for you from the car. You see how wonderful it is, right? You just can't argue with a cleaning product."

"How have you survived this long without me? Don't you do anything to maintain this place?"

Well, that's for sure. It seemed I couldn't argue with her either. The words just wouldn't come out. I shrugged in defeat. I wasn't going to let this lady and the sudden hemorrhaging of my wallet get me down. I was going to focus on the wonderful cleaning job she was doing and forget about the money. For now.

Throughout the afternoon, whenever I stopped in to gauge her progress, she would stop, show me around my now gleaming windows/doors, drawer handles, and ask me, "How have you survived this long without me? Don't you do anything to maintain this place? Such a beautiful house and you can't even see it! What has your other cleaning lady been doing? Now you can finally breathe in this room!" She sighed in pleasure, looking as if she were the only woman in the world who had discovered life's purpose: cleaning!

Three hours later, there was soapy water all over my kitchen floor, and she was on a ladder shining the top windows of the porch (windows I don't get to more than once a year). "Um, Tzippy?" I gingerly started, "Normally, I'd like you to come for about two hours each time. I understand the first time takes longer, but when do you think, um, you'll be done?"

"Two hours? In this house? You'll never finish it by Pesach at this rate! Well, whatever! It's up to you -- whenever you want, I'll leave. It's your house, right?"

Right. Somehow I'd forgotten. When she finally left -- an hour later -- her parting response to my feeble complaint about having been left completely broke was, "Well maybe you should get yourself another job. You need me, sweetheart!"

I slumped down on the couch, drained. Why did I feel so inadequate? Why did I find myself completely tongue-tied when faced with this woman who had this one skill I lacked -- the ability to make surfaces shine? Didn't I have a Masters degree and 15 years of teaching experience under my belt? And here I was giving myself a pep-talk after a few hours with a cleaning lady, for heaven's sake! I was definitely losing it.

Then I realized (after bemoaning my fate as the only sucker who would buy no-brand Ajax for $13) that the issue was this: Tzippy had mastered the art of elevating the mundane to the meaningful. She took her expertise and perfected it. She was no mere cleaning lady; she was a "home organizer." To her, every act of rubbing, scrubbing, shpritzing and washing was immeasurably important, even holy. Her life was filled with excitement and pleasure.

And that's what made me feel vulnerable. It was a lesson I needed to learn and integrate into my own life. My life is filled with many meaningful and satisfying activities. Being a wife, mother and teacher give me purpose and joy. But every day also contains those repetitive, dull, less-than-inspiring moments that I frequently find taxing. After a few hours worth of teenager rantings, children's insistent requests and demands, running around with a two-year-old in the park, changing diapers, feeding, cooking, doing laundry, cleaning up over and over again, I often feel justified in being bad-tempered. How can I feel energized and fulfilled, I reason, after so many hours of tedious, physical activities?

I often rejuvenate by doing some stimulating Jewish learning, going out for coffee with a friend, or having a phone-date with a study partner. I assume I need to escape from these mundane responsibilities to maintain my equilibrium. Seeing Tzippy take charge like a queen in her palace showed me that instead I can find purpose within the concrete activities themselves. I can choose to view every act of parenting -- even the repetitive, physical ones -- as the extremely important task of educating, molding and influencing another human being, which involves much thought and expertise. I can choose to view every moment of cooking nutritious dinners and every hour of playing in the park with my two-year-old as the creative and artful skill of developing and nurturing my family's physical, emotional, and intellectual well-being. And looking back at the accomplishments of the day, I can say to myself (hearing Tzippy's voice in my head): Do you see that happy child? Did you hear that new word I just taught him? How would anybody survive here without me?

It's not easy, but it is possible for me to reframe and review all those physical acts in my day as having immense value and meaning. In any routine, mundane moment, there exists the potential for spirituality and fulfillment.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not about to give up my teaching job to make sure I have enough time to keep the tub spotless and shining. I still can't quite connect to the wonderful joy of cleaning floors that will get dirty again moments later. So thank God for the Tzippys of the world!

February 17, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 22

(22) Efraim, October 11, 2008 4:17 AM

I Understand Tzippy

Cleaning is as Tzippy proved, meaningful for those who cannot or do not want to do it. Time is money in Israel's hectic society. If you have no time to do it yourself, employ a cleaner. I use expensive cleaners and have invested in equipment to give the best service I can in this lowly, lacklustre trade. You want a good service, pay for it. I used to be a Lawyer. I am as valuable as a Dentist but cannot charge what Dentists do. I have learned and invested in the cleaning trade which is nowdays a science not to be dismissed out of hand. The amount of US families with Asthma in the Sharon area I work for is amazing. Cleaning is important and there are not many honest hard grafting Tzippies or Efraims around so pay us what we are worth and accept honest and may be hurtful remarks about the dreadfull aspects of leaving a dirty sink full of bacteria. I am a little more tactful than Tzippy so call me - 052-3400-110

(21) Anonymous, April 13, 2007 4:16 AM

Cleaning lady

Upon reading the article about the cleaning lady someone I know came to mind: these are insecure people who have an inferiority complex and compensate by thinking themselves better than others, if only at cleaning! They feel inadequate because of their real low status in society, but feel that unknown to others they are better than them becuase they are cleaner and no one can clean like them.

The issue however is that the writer allowed such disrespect and criticism to her face and accepted it as fact.

I make that mistake many times, but am working on it and learning to see arrogant people for the sad people they are - we all need something to be proud of even if it is religious observance and arrogance in this way, or cleaning!

(20) Anonymous, April 1, 2007 3:49 PM


Where are you Tzippy? I need you too!!!

(19) Betty Rodriguez, March 3, 2007 9:51 AM

I know that Lady

We have a very good friend as she has become part of our family, and she cleans just like Tzippy, we love her and she has taught us worlds about loving, and cleaning to perfection, and when you think about it, it is quite reasonable, because everything we do in life as a task should be done as unto the Almighty, so in that case, we should do all things to perfection. Thanks for a great essay and truth.

(18) apryl, February 27, 2007 6:44 AM

it's all in the marketing

I've been wrestling with this attitude myself lately. Using Pesach as my goal, I'm tackling the accumulated filth in my house and my life. Before moving to our very first house 4yrs ago, we'd move (because of company transfers) every 18mo—for 14yrs! I'd keep a spotless house, but was more concerned with perfection than with the relationships of the inhabitants. Now, if Tzippy can instill the values of maintaining a habit of purity, she's sitting on a goldmine. Otherwise, she's merely taking advantage of another person's overcharged life.
My goal this year is to learn discover the joy in the mundaine. (I detest scrubbing up after everyone else, especially when the general remark is that 'someone needs to clean up around here'. Oops, not that I'm bitter.... We've got a straight-out battle against pride here! I call it a Joysucker attack!)

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