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Hiring Passover Cleaning Help Woke Me Up To The Realities Of American Poverty

Passover is around the corner. This year, as I begin to prepare in Jerusalem, where cleaning products went on sale the morning after Purim and municipal posters wishing everyone a happy spring holiday decorate the streets, I think back to preparing for Passover four years ago, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

It was still winter and I was trying to balance preparation with full-time work in an environment, Michigan State University, where almost no one else knew when Passover fell or what preparation entailed.

Speaking to a non-Jewish colleague, I try to explain why I am up so late every night as the holiday nears: In addition to scouring the entire house for any crumbs of hametz (unleavened materials), the kitchen must be practically reconstituted. Cleaning the stove, oven, and refrigerator, and covering the countertops is just the first step. Then we have to switch all our dishes, both those for dairy and for meat (the ordinary dictates of keeping kosher demand this separation), to Passover dishes. Cartons come up from the basement with Passover versions of all the kitchenware we need, and since the seders and the eight days that follow involve a great deal of hosting and eating, we have a great deal of kitchenware. We switch the dishes and return the ordinary kosher dishes to the basement. I have not yet even begun to shop for ingredients—all of which need to be kosher for Passover—or to cook for the many guests we will have.

At the same time, I find the old tunes and phrases of the Haggadah, the central text of the seder, running through my mind. Ha lahma ania, “this is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who lack, come to eat.” We hold up the matza as we say this opening phrase, and we think of the bitter struggles of slavery and its aftermath. Since I have become a parent, I think of how best Ori and I can teach our three children the responsibilities of freedom, the tasks that fall with remembering and imagining an intensity of need that is our collective history, but not right now, thank God, a lived daily reality.

I go back and forth between these lofty ideas and the nitty gritty of the kitchen cleaning -— and I realize I’m not going to make it alone. I need help with the stove, the refrigerator, and cabinets—things that someone else can do while I do the more particular tasks connected to the holiday (my husband Ori is under a deadline and the kids are too young to do much). I post an ad on Craigslist explaining that I need a one-time worker to help me in my kitchen. After considering for a few minutes, I list the pay as approximately twice the minimum wage, fourteen dollars per hour. Within moments of posting the ad, e-mails are flooding in. After eight minutes, I have twenty e-mails; I hurriedly remove the post because I hate the idea of raising people’s hopes for nothing.

A retired nurse whose pension “is not going far enough” gets in touch: “I may not be young, but I do know how to work hard,” she writes. I read e-mails from an office worker who is looking for extra hours to help support an ailing parent; a teacher needing more income; a number of people whose English is so weak I can barely understand their messages; a laid-off truck driver who says he doesn’t have house-cleaning experience but is a fast learner; a home health care aide who tells me no job is too difficult; three factory employees out of work; and people who do not specify their circumstances but promise devotion to the task, promptness, and excellent references.

I am overwhelmed by Michigan, its sea of need that I appear to have tapped into with my simple request for Passover help at double the minimum wage. I skim this list of petitions and feel myself in the unwelcome position of having to refuse all but one applicant. In the end, I respond to the e-mail of a young man who writes that he will work extremely hard. He knows what Passover is, he’s managed a cafeteria, and he knows how to get the job done. I phone him and within a moment, we discover that the cafeteria he has managed is at Michigan State. Not only that, but it is the cafeteria in Case Hall, the building in which I work. I ask him if he is a student and he says he is not, but he used to be. He is from Flint and is the first person in his family ever to go to college. His entire family helped put together money to get him started, but the funds have run out, so he is looking for work and hoping to be able to return to college once he has some savings. He has applied to McDonald’s in Lansing as a dishwasher, but it is very hard to save any money on minimum wage. I ask him for a reference and he gives me the name of his supervisor at Case Hall. When I google him and his supervisor, the story checks out entirely and I have no anxieties. In fact, I feel happy to have found him and imagine keeping him on if it works out well.

The night before the scheduled day arrives, he e-mails me to confirm. But then that morning, I see a new message telling me that his ride fell through. Apparently, he lives in Lansing. But he promises me that he will find another way to Ann Arbor, approximately fifty miles from Lansing. I get back to my work at home, but after an hour and a half with no word, I text him and he texts back that he has borrowed a friend’s bike and is on his way.

A bike?

I write back concerned about whether he can actually bike fifty miles and then do the job I need done. He tells me it will be fine. First of all, he set out at 6 A.M., so he shouldn’t be too, too late, and he reassures me that he will have plenty of energy for the work. With the money he makes, he can take the bus back any time before midnight. He says he didn’t have money for the bus fare out—about fifteen dollars one way—but not to worry, he’s an experienced biker.

I look out the window. It is not a promising day. In fact, the gray sky is lower than it had been minutes earlier, and rain is beginning to fall.

Another fifteen minutes go by; then a half hour passes, and an hour, and it is pouring.

I call my sister and ask, “What do you think about this?”

“It sounds totally crazy,” she says. “How’s he going to bike fifty miles in pouring rain?”

I call him. He says he has made it to Howell — about halfway — but that there are areas that are very difficult to ride through because of the mud and water, so he is not sure of his ETA. I am growing increasingly anxious. The whole plan seems to weigh on my shoulders. I don’t know this kid and he’s biking in increasingly bad weather. Time is passing. By the time he arrives, my kids may be home anyway and the job will be an impossibility. Should I tell him to turn back? Is something wrong with a person who takes on such an impractical, possibly dangerous, project?

I google “fifty miles, biking time,” and find out that any less than five hours would be a very good time. That estimate presumes no driving rain and good terrain. I also note how many entries concern “how to prepare for a fifty-mile ride.” Apparently, it’s not something you just do.

But I go back over our conversation in my mind. He sounded entirely normal, reasonable, personable, logical. His reference checked out when I called. And his rationale for this bike trip clarifies some matters. He doesn’t have fifteen dollars available for bus fare and I was promising to pay him at least sixty dollars, probably closer to seventy-five dollars, for one day’s work. A bike trip in the rain must have seemed worth it to him.

But now I look outside and the sky is nearly black. It is four and a half hours past the time he said he would come. I call him—texting has outlived its usefulness—and he says he took a wrong turn, but I shouldn’t worry, he will make it no matter what.

Now I call Ori. He says: “No way can you let this guy in the house. He sounds unhinged.”

I sit at my dining room table, all thought of Passover beside the point. Now I am just consumed by thoughts of Jamie and his bike. I turn on the radio to hear that a tornado watch has just been issued. This is not good news. Just a week or two ago, a tornado touched down in the neighboring town of Chelsea and there was massive damage. I cannot leave this kid on a highway or a back road with a tornado coming. He’s already been biking for hours and I don’t know how practiced a biker he really is. Whether or not he will ever clean my house, I need to end this story.

I call him back and ask him where he is. He says he thinks he is a few miles from Chelsea, but he is not really sure. I tell him to find any sort of place marker and call me back. I am coming to pick him up. “Oh, you really don’t need to. I’ll make it, I promise.”

“No, the weather is dangerous. I think we need to put you back on the bus to Lansing. I’ll pay the fare.”

“You don’t need to do that, ma’am.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just call me when you’re somewhere.”

Ten minutes later I am in the car with two-year-old Tzipora on our way to Chelsea. As I turn off the highway, I consider how far he actually came. He was close to making it.

But as I head down the main thoroughfare, my thoughts are diverted by what I see before me. I had read about the tornado, but what I see before me is appalling. Trees are literally pulled from the ground, as if by the hand of a giant. Huge trunks, the evidence of decades of growth, lie sprawled across roads and lawns, with roots spiraling into the air. I see a house inside out, its roof upside down. I see furniture piled neatly at the side of the upside-down house. Red and yellow police ribbons block off areas from entry. Branches, some truly massive, and untidy mounds of earth and debris greet me everywhere I turn.

I am on the phone now with Jamie as he guides me toward the rural intersection where he waits. Driving here is the closest I have come to driving in a movie set. This is an apocalyptic vision.

There is no one else on the streets, although the sky is now lighter and it looks as if the storm has passed us by. The day seems to shed hours and Jamie’s crazy scheme to arrive by bike seems less impossible and disturbing. As I drive slowly through this maze, I see a bike leaning up against a twisted stop sign. I slow even further and see that it’s Jamie behind the bike.

He is sitting on the tall grass at this intersection, with a small backpack and plastic bags attached by rubber band around his shoes. He is a tall, lanky, good-looking kid, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, a baseball cap. He waves me down.

I lean out the window, “Jamie?”

“Ms. Blumberg, yeah. You found me.”

“Hop in.”

Jamie gets in. Apologies begin to flow from him, but I stem them, simply saying we can try again another day if he can find time before Passover.

I bring him directly to the bus station in nearby Ann Arbor and hand him a twenty-dollar bill. But in the meantime, I have learned that of the subjects he studied, he is most interested in film. He loved college. He seems like a truly intelligent, curious young man. He is forthright, asking me questions about my work, about literature. He carries himself well.

My heart sinks over the course of this ride as he tells me he will see if he can get the manager at McDonald’s to give him an extended shift tomorrow so he can make it back to us two days later. This bright, African American kid, the first generation in his family to begin college, is making about seven dollars per hour there. Who will be the first generation to finish?

While we talk, Tzipora sits alert in her car seat, watching Michigan pass by her window.

At the bus stop, Jamie assures me he will pay me back, and I give him another ten-dollar bill, just in case he needs it to make it back to Ann Arbor a few days later.

And indeed, two days later, he shows up at my doorstep, and does a full day’s excellent work. When five-year-old Shai returns home from preschool, he follows Jamie around the house, up the stairs and down, talking to him and asking questions. They seem poised for friendship. Jamie returns my thirty dollars when I take out my checkbook, but when I pay him, I round upward, knowing it will not make the difference he needs.

Passover is coming. As I continue with my own cleaning, as I go back and forth between home and the university, I am full of questions about slavery and freedom, about roots and transplantations, about generations of souls waiting for revelation and arrival.

The holiday approaches, and I fill my arms with the many Haggadot I have collected over years of celebrating this sacred holiday. The morning before the holiday begins, Ori and the children and I burn the hametz, the unleavened bread, that signifies tarrying – having more than enough time to let things rise, and resting comfortable, sometimes far longer than we should, lulled by comfort and stability, sometimes by fear. Now, we open the boxes of matzah; matzah, that signifies haste and hurry, seizing the moment, rushing into freedom because if we miss the chance, we miss the chance. This is the meaning of need.

Four years later in Jerusalem, transplanted because we grabbed a chance, that was, like all chances, risky, even somewhat foolhardy, I think of Michigan, I think of Jamie, and wonder where he is today. I think of how he jumped on his bike, and I think of the different forms need takes and the different paths to freedom in Michigan, in Jerusalem, in Egypt, in the desert, then and now.

Ilana Blumberg’s forthcoming book, Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American, will be published November 2018. Ilana is Director of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University.

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