Real Heroines of Pesach Prep
Martyna Starosta // A woman hired to clean a Hasidic home before Pesach
“Thank God I don’t need to get a goyte this year,” I shout from the living room, as I’m adding, for the umpteenth time, another grocery item to the shared google doc titled “Orlando Grocery List” — Orlando is where my family is heading for Pesach this year.
I pause. Wait, did I just say that word? Goyte, it rings in my ears and rolls off my tongue. It’s the female version of goy, or gentile, and it carries a deeply-ingrained connotation for me — and not of the positive sort. Goytes are cleaning ladies in Hasidic communities — usually Eastern European or Mexican immigrants — who spend their days running from one designated house to another to clean its interiors. Most Hasidic households have a goyte come in once or twice a week, before the Sabbath, after the Sabbath and in between. But in the pre-Pesach madness, they are in high demand.
To be sure, cleaning ladies are commonplace in most Orthodox households, referred to by their proper colloquial title — cleaning lady. But nowhere are they as integral a part of life as they are in the Hasidic community.
As Jews everywhere prepare their homes for the first seder, goytes are laboring away in Hasidic homes, shining the candelabras and scouring away the silt off stovetop burners. They are prized this time of the year, with Hasidic women vying for the most efficient of the bunch.
A typical Hasidic community — like Kiryas Joel, Williamsburg, Monsey and others — boasts several small cleaning lady, or goyte, agencies — usually run by one woman out of her own home. Some employers provide room and board for the cleaning ladies, while others only delegate their work. The employees are hard-working immigrants, probably here illegally, not that anyone checks, who work 10-, 12-hour, or even longer days washing toilets and mopping floors. They are paid slightly more than minimum wage, in cash — around $10 an hour — part of which is deducted for commission to the agent.
Many of these women are old, with gray hair and leathery skin, and are intimately familiar with the workings of Hasidic households. They work here, in the states, and send their meager wages back home to their families in Poland, Hungary, Mexico and other countries. Eventually, after accumulating enough American dollars, they return home and leave many a Hasidic woman clamoring for her replacement.
At around 7 am in the weeks leading up to Pesach, the quiet streets of Hasidic communities fill with groups of goytes, visibly exhausted, hurrying to their first house of the day. They shuffle along with little worn handbags, carrying their entire assets. They ring bells and listen from the other end to the anticipatory “Mommy, di goyte iz du,” (“the cleaning lady is here”) and the adult sigh of relief following that announcement.
If she is lucky, the home isn’t infested with schmutz (dirt), and the housewife keeps her things in order. But this time of the year, she needs to be prepared for utter madness in every home she visits. Ridding the house of hametz is no simple feat, and she, the goyte, is tasked with the most arduous of this work.
If she is lucky, she gets a “break” while walking to another customer. The women she works for prepare lunch and dinner and coordinate who will feed her and when. Leftovers of last night’s dinner are often refrigerated for the goyte, and she is asked to take a quick bite before resuming the scrubbing or heading to the next house. It is common to throw in a goodie bag filled with baked goods or unwanted leavened food which cannot be owned on Pesach.
Often, radically Hasidic customers will demand she wear modest clothing, giving her their own washed-out housecoats and thick stockings to replace t-shirts and jeans.
No one wants to get a cleaning lady from 4:00 pm and on, when the exhaustion of a full day of physical labor sets in. But when there are only so many cleaning ladies and only so many hours in the day, women will even settle for the wearied goytes in the evening.
From 6:00 pm and on — even going as late as 10:00 p.m. in these last hurried weeks of Pesach prep — the streets fill, once again, with young Mexican girls and older Polish ladies, dragging their fatigued feet home. Tomorrow is another day, they scream, inaudibly.
When their employers and customers reach for the first cup of wine to commemorate their ancestors’ exodus from torturous labor, these cleaning ladies get to celebrate their own exodus — from the homes of the liberated.