Tucson, AZ — The yellow caution tape put up inside Tucson’s Congregation Anshei Israel on Monday denotes a forbidden area, one that cannot be used during the eight days of Passover.
Any room, cupboard, countertop or other space that has not been kashered — properly cleansed of tangible traces of leavened products — is taboo. Cupboards with un-kashered dishes have been locked. Leavened products have been given away or boxed and placed in garages until the holiday ends.
“It’s very detailed cleaning. The idea is guilty until proven innocent — if you have to ask, then no, it’s probably not OK,” said Rabbi Robert Eisen of Anshei Israel, a conservative Jewish congregation with a synagogue in Midtown. “It’s not just a matter of wiping down the counter — you scald it with burning water or sometimes burn it with a torch. Kashered means ritually fit.”
The most celebrated Jewish holiday of the year, Passover began at sundown Monday. The holiday is well known for the special diet Jews follow — no ingredients that can leaven or ferment. What’s less known is the extensive cleaning that occurs in observant Jewish households, culminating with a symbolic “burning of crumbs.”
It’s spring cleaning with a deeply spiritual meaning, and a thoroughness that often requires weeks of vacuuming cars, scrubbing refrigerators and boxing up food.
“The idea is that leaven is the nasty stuff in ourselves, when we think we’re better than we are, instead of living in the world and connecting to God,” Eisen said. “Some people started their cleaning in December. A lot of people that are concerned about the ritual cleanliness do start very early.”
The name “Passover” is from a story in the book of Exodus. The story tells how Moses led enslaved Israelites to freedom after God sent 10 plagues against Egypt, including frogs, hail and the slaying of the Egyptians’ firstborn sons. The story says God parted the Red Sea, allowing the Jews to escape, and they wandered in the desert for 40 years before they conquered Canaan, their Promised Land.
Eschewing leavened foods is a tradition that dates to the Jews’ flight from Egypt, when their bread had no time to rise.
Anything containing wheat, oats, barley, rye or spelt that has been in contact with water for more than 18 minutes becomes chametz — something that one may not eat, own or derive benefit from during Pass-over.
Eisen’s family began cleaning for Passover in early March, around the same time Rabbi Yossi Winner and his wife, Naomi, began removing chametz from the University of Arizona’s Chabad House, where they live and hold services for Jewish students at the UA.
About 10 percent of UA students — around 3,500 — are Jewish, according to Hillel, a campus group. Tucson’s Jewish population is about 3 percent of local residents — approximately 28,000 people.
The Winners have two small children, which means they had to be extra vigilant about kashering their home — scouring pockets, clothing drawers and underneath seat cushions.
The Winners held a burning of crumbs outside the UA Chabad House, 1025 N. Euclid Ave., Monday morning, filling a steel bucket with leftover bits of crackers, cereal, pastries and bread and burning them.
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Temple Emanu-El, a Reform Jewish congregation in Midtown, burned the crumbs from his home in a chiminea in the family’s backyard.
“The spring cleaning we do as Jews is done in different degrees, with some cleaning the oven with a blowtorch and others just putting the bagels away,” he said. “It’s all about taking out those things that have spoiled your ideals and going back to your essential nature.”
Since she didn’t grow up in an observant household, 37-year-old Mila Anderson had to learn about the extensive cleaning as an adult. What helps the exhaustive process is its meaning, said Anderson, who is hoping to pass the tradition on to her two young daughters.
“We want it to make sense to them, so it’s not something that they do just because we do it,” said Anderson, whose family attends Temple Emanu-El. “Cleaning is a way of examining what you are doing, what you eat.”
Anderson does not view the Passover cleaning as a chore, in spite of the work. Not only is it a good excuse for spring cleaning, it’s an opportunity to start fresh, she said.
“To me personally, Passover is the holiday of choice,” she said. “You are making deliberate decisions, and each family decides how it makes sense for them.”
The cleaning also is characteristic of Passover in that it is worshipping through expression and action. One signature of the Passover holiday is the Seder dinner, typically held on the first night of Passover, when the story of the Exodus is told and acted out around dinner tables, and foods that accompany the story are eaten.
A 2002 census of the local Jewish population found 61 percent of local Jews typically attend a Passover Seder, and it’s most likely to be observed by Jews who don’t attend synagogue.