Chometz and Prustkeit

Bais Yaakov High School (in Boro Park) lets out on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, to give all the girls time to help their mothers clean and cook for Pesach.

My main job was cleaning the dining room chairs. They were wooden upholstered chairs, with plenty of crevices for crumbs to fall into around the seat. I had to use Q-tips sprayed with Windex to get into the creases and pull out all the crumbs that had fallen in over the year, or at least render them not “ra’oy l’achilas kelev” – fit to be eaten by a dog. I would sit on the floor and work, at a pace of three or four chairs a day (there were 12 chairs).

I took frequent breaks, because my fingertips got numb after so much squeezing of Q-tip stems, and my back would hurt after so much time sitting on the floor and concentrating on removing all remnants. And on those breaks, I would read.

Some years, I would keep my book on the couch and when I took breaks, I’d stay in the living room and read for a bit, then slide back down to the floor and get back to work.

But when I was in eleventh grade, the book I had gotten from the library was Gone with the Wind. The cover was an image of a man bending a woman backwards over his arm. Her dress was pulled down to show some cleavage, her neck extended as she turned her head away. It looked like a bodice-ripper cover, a passionate embrace.

I couldn’t have that book cover out in plain sight.

So I hid it under my pillow, and took my breaks in my room that year.

My mother unexpectedly came into my room while I was reading at one point, and she saw the book. She didn’t mind that I read during my breaks – that was already established practice. But she objected to this book.

“Is this really how you should be preparing for yom tov?” she asked me. “With Gone with the Wind? With this schmutz? We have so many haggados with wonderful meforshim and midrashim. Read one of those. That’s much better preparation for z’man chairuseinu.”

It may have been z’man chairuseinu, the time of our redemption and freedom – but I didn’t feel free. I felt mad, because I was made to feel dirty for reading a book that gave me joy.

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