Like so many other things, we decide whether or not to have paid cleaning help based on outside expectations. If everyone in the neighborhood has cleaning help then we need it too, right? There are worse ways to spend one’s money, and doing without can be foolish in some circumstances. But overall, cleaning help falls into the luxury category.
Over the years I have had my share of ozrot (helpers). I went in cycles: Do without for a long period of time, get frustrated by a neglected house, have someone convince me how necessary it is for young mothers to have help, and finally, break down and hire one. She would come, “tut tut” over the state of the house, and restore it to order over a few weeks. Gradually I got frustrated again: by my house being taken over when I wanted to rest quietly with the baby, the conversation and attention these ladies so often demanded, their idiosyncrasies (more on that in a moment), and having to clean up in advance so they wouldn’t waste time dealing with clutter, only to have the house looking a short time later like they had never been.
My first ozeret in Israel was Rachel, a young Yemenite divorcee from a large family. I considered her a “typical Israeli” ozeret, but of course there is probably no such thing. She was careful to inform me of her rights as an employee. She arrived hours late, put on the “kumkum” for coffee and then ignored it for ten minutes or longer after it whistled, used massive amounts of water and detergent, and insisted that I buy specialized cleaning supplies like “St. Moritz” (an extremely toxic substance). But worst of all was her desire to chat for long periods and give advice on all subjects. One time she went too far and I snapped at her; she was crestfallen. I had fallen for her superior attitude and abused my power as an employee. When my life is replayed after 120 years, that will not be one of my finer moments. Shortly after that I calculated how much money I owed her, based on Israeli employment law and let her go. She said I gave her too much money but accepted it. I muddled on.
Several years later I decided to try again. At this stage most people I knew had gotten rid of their ozeret and hired a menakeh (male cleaner). These were mostly illegal foreign workers. Shortly afterward the government began deporting them and fining their employers. I hired Svetlana, known as Svjeta, an older, legal immigrant who barely spoke Hebrew. Svjeta was extremely cheerful and energetic, and her lack of language skills did not prevent her from trying to communicate. But we rarely understood each other. I recall putting the cleaner into a small bottle, in the hope that this would encourage her to use less as it was easier to pour from. It didn’t work; she thought I was measuring out the quantity she should use each visit. (How much cleaner you put in the water matters. Using too much is less effective and requires larger quantities of rinse water. See here for more on perfectionism.)
She ruined our area rug. In order to clean underneath she would fold it and put chairs on top, making large holes. I showed them to her but she didn’t understand. I just let it go. The rug’s previous owner had given it to us because it had belonged to her husband’s first wife. Another of Svjeta’s habits was “decorating” with items she found around the house. She made sculptures out of raw vegetables; her masterpiece involved a plastic chess piece in the antenna hole on top of the television. Svjeta left on her own; when her son left the country, she returned to the Ukraine to live with her sister.
Housekeeping used to cause me no end of anxiety, but has gotten easier in the recent years. I think it’s because I (kind of) mastered washing the floor. I’ve given up on the help (except from my kids). If the house manages to stay neat, cleaning isn’t a big deal. If it’s full of clutter, the cleaning lady’s work amounts to a drop in the bucket.
Floor-washing remains a challenge but here’s what I do:
- Remove everything from the surface of the floor. This is usually the hardest part of the job; a basket helps. I try to clean under the sofas on a different day.
- Gather supplies: Broom and dustpan, one or two large buckets, cleanser or vinegar, several floor rags or the equivalent, squeegee with long handle.
- Sweep well.
- Fill a bucket with soapy water, hot if you have it.
- Pour “puddles” of water in each area of the floor you are planning to wash. One bucket of water is enough for my kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom and two bathrooms.
- Put a “smartut,” or floor rag over the squeegee. You can cut a hole in the middle of the rag and drop it over the handle. Spread the water over the surface of the floor.
- Use a hard broom to scrub any stubborn spots. Some squeegees come with a scrubber on the back.
- Put the rag in the hamper (I have one just for rags) and use the squeegee to “sweep” the dirty water into a drain. You can open one of the holes in the bathroom floor, or sweep it into your garden if you have one. (Don’t do what the cleaner in my building does and sweep it out the front door, where everyone just tracks it back inside.) Alternatively, sweep the dirty water into a dustpan, or soak it up with a rag and squeeze it into a bucket.
- Put a few inches of clean water in a bucket, and drop in two or three clean rags. Wipe the floor with the rag and the squeegee, replacing as the rags get dirty. If you want to be really Israeli you’ll open up all the windows and doors so the floor will dry quickly, even in the dead of winter.
- Replace furniture and put away supplies.
Like anything else, it takes practice. Eventually you figure out how much water to spread and the most efficient way of sweeping it up. And there’s nothing wrong with doing it the American way. Happy cleaning!
Ma, We Live in a Slum