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Hoarders, Passover Edition: Cleaning Out Chametz, and Letting Our Clutter Go

Every year, we sweep away crumbs from our cabinets. But we’re often afraid to sweep away stuff we’d be better off without.

Paula Jacobs
April 11, 2014
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Betsy/Flickr and Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Betsy/Flickr and Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Betsy/Flickr and Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Betsy/Flickr and Shutterstock

With the approach of Passover, we begin our annual ritual of cleaning out the chametz in our lives, as we sweep the crumbs from our cabinets. It’s a yearly exercise in letting go.

But as we clean out the literal chametz, we should do a bit of soul-searching to see if we can get rid of our metaphorical chametz—things we value and keep in the cabinets of our hearts but that we should really let go. It’s not easy to toss stuff that evokes special memories, whether it’s an object with sentimental value or just plain clutter.

Why is it so hard to let go?

“All of us like to have connections to objects because it’s part of everyone’s personal life,” explained Dr. Daniel Rosenn, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., and instructor at Harvard Medical School. “Oftentimes it is difficult to draw the line between normal possessive behavior and pathological.”

A multiyear study conducted by the UCLA Center on Everyday Lives in American Families found that clutter in American households has reached epidemic proportions. From magnet-covered refrigerators to overflowing storage bins, we’re drowning in stuff.

Me included. Gazing around my living room I see porcelain miniatures, glass vases, and tchotchkes from vacations past. In the china cabinet there’s an assortment of Kiddush cups and hanukkiot. As for the bookshelves, let’s not go there. The words of the Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina come to mind. In his nostalgic novel Sepharad he writes: “How can I throw anything away when everything has its own story?”

Our possessions provide a link to our memories and personal identity. For those who have experienced personal losses, throwing something out becomes both a loss of their personal identity and what has become a loving anchor point in their lives.

“There’s a fear that we lose a piece of who we are. Having the object in hand bridges the distance,” said Rosenn. He recalls when the Susquehanna River flooded in the 1970s in his native Pennsylvania and thousands of homes were destroyed. What struck him most was that people did not grieve the loss of expensive material possessions such as jewelry, but photographs that evoked family memories.

Rosenn points out that Judaism is about memory—passing the Torah from one generation to another and transferring values from parents to child. He takes pride in his books and Judaica and still derives deep personal meaning from the tefillin bags which he inherited from his late father, grandfather, and uncles.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping and displaying objects such as Judaica, books, and other prized collections. Where it gets out of hand is when people start hoarding items so they lose their intrinsic meaning and become unable to distinguish between the value of an old newspaper and a siddur.

We all have emotional chametz cluttering our closets and drawers—from Bubbe’s china to old theater stubs. Does our tenacious desire to hold on to possessions reflect a Jewish obsession to keep memories alive? After all, remembering the past is central to Jewish history—especially at Passover. The Seder evokes our collective memory as a people. As we read the Haggadah and tell our story, we often share our personal family stories. Some of us use Seder plates and other ritual objects passed down over generations. Others recount poignant stories of their families packing up and quickly leaving their homes with just a few possessions.

Dr. David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary and author of The Jewish Family: Metaphor and Memory, tells me that all ethnic groups want to keep their memories and preserve their stories but it’s more complicated for Jews because we are living in the aftermath of the Holocaust: “In the Jewish community today, we live in a world that was destroyed. There is a severe sense of discontinuity.”

Meanwhile, Passover is fast approaching and that clutter still remains. In the back of a basement closet, I find an old copper fry-pan (my grandmother’s, perhaps?), vintage Israeli posters, and some random family stuff. I can’t help hearing my daughter’s voice: “Just throw it all away.”

But if we take seriously the obligation to tell our story as the Haggadah teaches us, can we still preserve our identity and Jewish memory when we dispose of objects linked to our family history? Do we really need to hold on to those old family dishes?

I wonder whether we should incorporate de-cluttering into our Passover cleaning and relate it to the Passover themes of freedom, redemption, and spiritual growth. I can’t help but think of clutter as a form of chametz in our daily lives.

I call Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and author of Preparing Your Heart for Passover. He reminds me that we have a collective memory of the Jewish people and where we want to place ourselves in the ongoing journey of Jewish history. I raise the issue of liberation from Mitzrayim or Egypt, which derives from the Hebrew word tsar, or “narrow.” In addition to the physical slavery in Egypt, mitzrayim also is a metaphor for the various forms of narrowness that constrict each of us personally. Think clutter.

I ask Olitzky about the biggest obstacles to eliminating “mitzrayim” from our lives. He explains: “It’s the recognition that it exists in the first place. We are attuned and socialized in American culture to look for the peak. Those peak experiences are found in the everyday, and our challenge is to raise the everyday to holy. Otherwise we find ourselves in narrow places.”

So, if we elevate the process of de-cluttering to something holy, then maybe we are on to something. Imagine cleaning out that stuff and calling it a sacred act. Can it be our first step to redemption?

“Passover reminds us that we have our anchor and we have some kind of way of navigating this world,” Olitzky said. “For example, if our world seems out of control and we decide to clean the garage, we can at least believe that we have some control over our lives.”

Getting started is easier said than done. The first step is to prioritize what holds lasting importance and reflects personal values. If we remember that Judaism was born out of a reaction to idolatry and worshiping objects, it becomes much easier to donate that stuff or sell it on eBay. In addition to cleaning our homes, we’ll also cleanse our souls.

“Our obligation is to take the best of the past and combine it with our hopes and dreams for the future,” said Olitzky. “Passover is the greatest gift the Jewish people have given to the world, and it is a message of hope.”

That’s an important message. Let’s think about it as we perform the traditional ceremonies of searching for leaven on the night before Passover and burning the chametz the following morning. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll even be one step closer to redemption.

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.