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Dirty Laundry

by Malka Adler

Most experiences can teach us lessons, and from many there is much to learn. Years ago, my cousin had an elderly neighbor in her Brooklyn apartment building. Unfortunately, this aged woman was prone to seek out and dwell on the negative aspects of practically everything... Spending most of the time indoors, her "window on the world" -- literally -- was in the kitchen. The weatherman, poor soul, was often a target of her criticism, as if he alone were responsible for what fell from the heavens. The rain was too wet, the sun uncomfortably warm, the sky a shade too blue. All those stars -- how they cluttered things up! And just as the moon was beginning to look presentable -- it disappeared! There was no pleasing her.

My relative would try to redirect her attention, to change the subject, but all to no avail. Once this lady's supposedly "aged" battery was "charged up" there was no stopping the barrage: The neighbors' children were noisy and ill-mannered, the buses (which she never rode anyway) were completely off-schedule...

One day, things came to their inevitable climax. The two women were in the kitchen, the older one drinking a cup of "tasteless" tea. The usual tirade was progressing into its fourteenth minute, when those still-sharp eyes fell on a neighbor hanging laundry out to dry. Immediately, the observer became indignant, the tea cup rattled in its saucer, and the high-pitched voice reached a new elevation.

"Did you ever see such dirty sheets -- and they're supposed to be white! Those pillowcases look positively gray! And she's not ashamed to hang them out!"

At this point, the patient listener could contain herself no longer, and pointed out softly but firmly, "Take a better look, dear. It's not her laundry that's dirty, but your window!"

There was a brief silence, and then, "Oh, that stupid cleaning woman! She can't do anything right!"

No doubt, laundry has existed all the way back to Adam and Eve. Except for the Jewish people's 40-year sojourn in the desert, we've been occupied almost daily with this seemingly endless chore...

My mother-in-law had often described to me the weekly washday routine in the Jerusalem of about 1905. Each Monday, the washerwoman (in Yiddish, the vesherke; in Hebrew, the koveset) would arrive. All the women of the household, from the young girls to the bubbies, would valiantly band together to do battle against the inevitably accumulated dirt and grime. Paved sidewalks didn't exist then; mud and sand were in plentiful supply.

Huge gray metal washtubs, wooden washboards, and bars of harsh, yellow soap were the available ammunition. Buckets of water were drawn from nearby wells and boiled in readiness. Outdoors, heavy clotheslines were temporarily strung to receive the "fruits of their labor." In those years of the early 1900s, apparel was home sewn and limited in quantity. Today's abundance was undreamt of.

The linens (including the covers for the goose down quilts), shirts, blouses, towels, etc., were one color: white. Everything was literally boiled to retain its pure, pristine color. Sturdy, eager hands worked efficiently to fill the lines in shifts: the dry wash came down, the wet wash went up. The washerwoman scrubbed away.

Blustery breezes blowing through the sheets must have made them look somewhat like snowy sails against the azure skies. Walking through [the narrow lanes], one had to maneuver carefully among the crisscrossed lines in order to avoid being entrapped and entangled. But at least, at the end of that long laborious day, the laundry was finished for the rest of the week.

There's a well-known story of a Yerushalmi woman who'd spent hours washing sheets, stringing up lines, and hanging out her family's wash. A short time later, her upstairs neighbor came home and was annoyed at the lines that had been temporarily strung. Angrily, she cut them down, and the clean laundry fell onto the muddy ground. When the first woman later went to take in her wash, she was dismayed to discover a disaster -- all the clothes were dirty and would have to be rewashed. It was obvious to her exactly what had happened.

However, she said nothing; she took the muddy sheets back into her house and began the whole laborious washing process once again.

When her husband returned home, she made no mention of the afternoon's aggravation. But late that night, there was a frantic knocking at their door. There stood the upstairs neighbor, in tears. Her child had a sudden high fever, and she was asking forgiveness for the laundry incident. The husband, who had answered the door, was surprised to hear about the event. His wife immediately and wholeheartedly forgave the woman and wished her child a full and speedy recovery.

About a year later, this righteous woman gave birth to a special son -- Rabby Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who today is the leading rabbi in Jerusalem.

When I was growing up in New York City in the late 1940s, domestic washing machines, and even laundromats, were unheard of. Towels, tablecloths, and bed linen were given to the "flat" laundryman. (He could have been round, but the service was referred to as "flat.") The soiled bundle would be picked up, and delivered one week later neatly pressed and folded in a brown paper package. Men's shirts, however, were done by hand, by the Chinese laundryman. The hard-and-fast rule, repeated in his heavily accented Oriental tones, was: "No tickee (ticket/receipt), no washee!"

On one memorable occasion, after our having been steady customers for eight years, the ticket with which to claim our package was misplaced. It was one of my weekly chores to pick up the shirts, on the way home from school. All day, I'd been dreading this moment. Standing amidst the wet, hanging clothes and steamy iron, I trembled as -- in a shaking voice -- I gently broke the news to the perspiring proprietor.

He stared at me, incredulously. His hot, heavy iron was arrested in midair. "No tickee, no washee!" he solemnly declared.

At this dramatic moment, his wife emerged from their living quarters in the back of the store. She carried a round-faced, chubby baby and was flanked by two older offspring. The whole family was curious to see the "culprit" to whom this declaration was being directed. The no-nonsense, non-negotiable rule was reinforced. There would now be a wait until every brown-wrapped package, on each shelf, was claimed by its rightful, "tickee"-bearing owner. Then the lone, remaining package would be ours, by default. Fortunately, such incidents were rare.

All other items of personal attire -- dresses, skirts, blouses, etc. -- had to be hand-scrubbed in the bathtub. Smaller items, like socks, stockings, and handkerchiefs, were handled in the sink. All families owned a metal and wooden washboard on which to scrub each item. Fabrics were, for the most part, cotton or linen -- and very wrinkle-prone. Polyester and "wash-and-wear" weren't on the market yet. The starching and ironing process was a whole, time-consuming project in itself. It entailed boiling water, then stirring in a special powder until the proper consistency was reached, then adding the clothes. What a miracle, it seemed to us, when spray starch in cans made its debut...

When the first, nearby laundromat opened, in the 1950s, I'd shlep our eight-pound bundle of laundry down two flights of stairs and around the corner to its premises. Ten washing machines were chugging and sudsing away. Sometimes, there was a wait for an empty machine... After an hour, I'd return with the now quite hefty bundle of wet laundry. I'd transport it up the two flights of stairs and embark on the next, challenging chore.

This consisted of drying the laundry -- inside our apartment. There was no outdoor clothesline, but rather a "dryer" in every kitchen. In no way to be confused with an electric dryer, this device consisted of a metal frame with heavy cords stretched across it and clothespins attached. The whole gadget was suspended near the ceiling when not in use. When needed, I'd lower it by a tug on the rope, pin the wet clothing in place, and raise the entire, now-heavy contraption once more.

One busy Thursday afternoon, after school, I was simultaneously cooking chicken soup and filling the dryer. I finally completed the latter task, returned the full dryer to its lofty place, and devoted my full attention to the soup preparation. Suddenly, one lone sock, apparently in search of adventure, parachuted into the innocently boiling soup. After a shocked moment, I quickly recovered -- and hastened to fish it out with a fork. Now what to do? There was a heavy investment involved here -- chicken, carrots, onions, parsley -- to say nothing of the pot. The deciding factor was that the sock was white.

As I served that soup, I prayed -- and held my breath. "This is really tasty!" "What did you add to the soup? It's especially good this week!" were some of the enthusiastic comments. Blushing, I lowered my head in seeming modesty and mumbled something about a secret ingredient. Even doing laundry has its lighter moments... Looking back, I marvel at the progress -- from river banks to household washers and dryers. But unless there's a programmed robot in the wings, we're still going to be folding laundry and putting it away for a while. Life and laundry must go on!

Reprinted with permission from and excerpted with permission from "A SUNNY SLICE OF LIFE." Published by Targum Press, Inc. By the author of "A Second Helping of Sunshine".



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