Jacob and Marla Berger spent four hours last week wiping, scouring and vacuuming everything in their home office and library. If it were just spring cleaning, they could be labeled fastidious.
“We don’t eat in there, and it was not dirty,” says Jacob Berger. “Four hours in that room — and that is the least of our rooms.”
The Jewish spring holiday of Passover, or Pesach, begins at dusk Wednesday, and the Bergers are on schedule to have their 3,400-square-foot home in Paradise Valley completely purged of chametz, or leavened food. The home must be kosher for the eight-day holiday marking the ancient Hebrew people’s Exodus from Egypt, led by Moses.
At the Berger home, and at many Jewish homes in the Valley, the pace will pick up in the next few days. Ovens will be turned up to the highest heat to nuke crumb remnants. Sets of dishes and silverware, pots and pans will be specially cleaned and put into proper places, some not to be used during Passover. Berger will cover kitchen counters completely in aluminum foil.
“It looks very strange,” says Marla, but Jacob Berger says, “It is just an extra buffer, an extra protection.”
The Bergers are even working hard at eating foods that shouldn’t be around come Wednesday.
And in the final hours before Passover begins, the Bergers, including daughter Rachel, 13, and Matthew, 12, will embark on a search-anddestroy mission for crumbs, the bedikat chametz ritual. With a feather, wooden spoon, and candle or flashlight, they will prowl their home. One will hold the light while another will sweep last crumbs into the spoon, remove them from the house and burn them.
In most Jewish homes, the bedikat chametz is a fun family rite. Parents often hide bread or cookie morsels so the children can race around the house to discover and remove them.
For Jacob Berger, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in New York, getting ready for Passover was always “a big deal because the house underwent a transformation.” Those were days when the city incinerated garbage, so leavened food and crumbs just went into the trash. These days, Jacob puts it into bag or cloth and burns it in his backyard.
For the observant members of the estimated 90,000 Jews in the Valley, it’s a time to spend the first and second nights of Passover in homes or temples, taking part in Seder meals, which follow an ancient order of readings, questions, wine toasts and eating the symbolic items of the Seder plate. They know the Seder tray features bitter herbs like horseradish, a vegetable in salt water, a mixture of foods like apples, walnuts and cinnamon, a bone, a bitter vegetable and a hardboiled egg. They represent sacrifice, bitterness, sweetness, tear, might and mortar.
Welcoming guests to one’s home for Passover is regarded as a mitzvah, of good deed, called hachnasat orkim. Some temples hold Passover Seders and target them to members who may be empty-nesters, widowed and others not invited to home Seders.
Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom, is the second of three pilgrimage holidays (along with Shavuot and Sukkot), and recalls how Moses led his enslaved people from Egypt across the parted Red Sea. According to the account in the Book of Exodus, the Israelites got short notice to abandon their homes. They had to grab up the kneaded bread dough before it had time to rise. Thus matzo, or unleavened bread, is a centerpiece of the Seder meal, often as matzo ball soup.
The Bergers invite Jewish and non-Jewish friends for each of their Seder meals, up to a dozen at a time for a measured evening of rituals and sharing. Meals can last four hours. At some point, the matzo always turns up missing, and Rachel and Matthew scramble to find it. Berger says he is not above putting out decoys and playing other tricks. A prize goes to the first to find the matzo.
During the Seder, Jews follow the accounts in a booklet, or Haggadah, reminding them of their forebears’ slavery, how God brought 10 plagues on Egyptians until Pharaoh agreed to free the Jews, and how the Israelites poured lamb’s blood on their doorposts so the angel of death would pass over their houses and spare their firstborn sons, while killing those of the Egyptians.
Because Jews are not to possess chametz foods during Passover, arrangements are commonly made to “sell” them or make a legal paper transfer of forbidden foods to a non-Jew.
“All the things that are not permissible for Passover you put in a pantry or cupboard, then you put a piece of tape to seal the cabinet so you don’t go in there,” says Berger. He fills out a sheet and lets his rabbi serve as the legal agent to transfer his food, and that of other congregants, to a non-Jew, or charity, for the duration of Passover, then transfer it back afterward.