If you mention the word Pesach (Passover) around women who are remotely familiar with traditional observance, they might roll their eyes, laugh nervously, or groan.

It’s the Jewish version of extreme sports. Bungee jumping? Hang gliding? Cliff jumping? Feh. Try Pesach cleaning. It’s one of those special times we love to hate, but really love.

Growing up, we had a large family Seder at Bubby and Zaidy’s. We sat around the table, as Zaidy led the show with care, orchestrating and doling out parts to read. Most of the haggadah (Pesach liturgy) was from their It’s the Jewish version of extreme sportsYiddish culture circle, the Shalom Aleichem Shul, with poetic readings about freedom, flavored with bits and pieces from the traditional text. I thought my cousins Elissa and Stephen were super-religious because they could read the Mah Nishtanah (Four Questions) in Hebrew. We ate matzah at the Seder, but bread the rest of the holiday. I had heard something about changing dishes and schlepping boxes of special Passover tableware up from the basement, but that sounded completely archaic and over the top.

Fast forward to my first Pesach as a newly religious woman, and a newlywed too. How was this night, a full-blown chassidic Passover night, different from all of my childhood Passover nights? I came to the Seder table with a new focus. I was a burgeoning religious “fanatic” who knew the deep, mystical meaning of chametz (leavened food), matzah, and freedom from slavery.

Armed with these blazing insights, I was ready to tackle my first Passover in my new home. My other half balanced and tempered me in many ways, but he followed my lead in frenzied Pesach fanaticism. After all, as bachelorettes, my roommates and I had done an extreme Passover-cleaning makeover on our basement apartment, including scrubbing down the spongy layer of dust on the water pipes. I assured my husband that I was experienced.

As we cleaned the small kitchen in our cozy apartment, I obsessed. All the splatters and splotches from our gourmet Shabbat preparations haunted me. “Yankel, cake batter flies off beaters and onto these walls.” I paced the floor. “And over there by the garbage can, food sometimes splashes on the floor.”

Normal procedure is to scrub surfaces that came in regular contact with food. A once-over with cleaning solution is enough to make any remnants inedible—and if it’s not edible, then it’s not chametz. Next step, line the areas that are directly used for food preparation—counters, and maybe a few inches of backsplash too. The actual food-prep surfaces. But that wasn’t enough for me! My husband came home one day to find his eishet chayil (woman of valor) covering the walls with foil and plastic sheeting.We took him on a guided tour of Pesach on the spaceship

By the time I finished dreaming up possible places where remaining shadows and faint stains from chametz might somehow jump off the thoroughly scrubbed surfaces and into our bowls and food, our humble kitchen looked like a psychedelic spaceship. My husband considered buying stock in the Reynolds aluminum foil company.

Our guest for the second Seder was Yankel’s brother Ken. Ever the amazingly polite, good sport, he listened quietly as we took him on a guided tour of Pesach on the spaceship. Ken didn’t comment, but I imagine he must have been thinking, “Great religion you got here, guys.” All we needed was that little Martian from the Glad plastic-wrap commercial to jump out and chant, “Man from Glad, man from Glad.”

Gradually, my chametz purges became a bit more tempered. I came to realize, with a sigh of relief, that the Torah is for flesh-and-blood people. Is it humanly possible to remove every crumb, especially while raising a gang of cookie-loving children? We do our best, then “nullify,” through a halachic procedure, any chametz we miss. We can close off and sell whole dressers, closets, even rooms, for those eight days—and buy them back after Passover. So, regular people can observe Passover with a concerted, somewhat strenuous—but doable—amount of effort.

Years later, as a seasoned Passover cleaner, I now have my set routine:

  1. I procrastinate as long as possible.
  2. I indulge in mentally groaning about what a waste of time this cleaning is, and how I have more momentous and earth-saving things to do. How can I be expected to spend my precious time vacuuming the back corners of a closet, when I would otherwise be saving kids in Darfur? Or discovering the cure for cancer?
  3. (I’d possibly—okay, probably—be sitting on my duff surfing the Web if I wasn’t cleaning, but these grandiose images of picketing, protesting, and doing something big arise as soon as I pick up the dust rag.)

As the I’ve learned to relax since my early days of chassidic fervordays march on and the holiday gets a little too close to continue with Steps A and B, I finally get off the arrogant “I’m too good for this” ego train. I push myself to switch gears—and get out the vacuum cleaner. (Side benefit: This Pesach practice also helps me own my life—to take stock of those nefarious, multiplying possessions. Spiritual life here on earth means knowing where you’re at: your thoughts, your words, even your stuff.)

Although I’ve learned to relax since my early days of chassidic fervor, the message of Pesach remains the same. Chametz, which we are forbidden to own or eat on Passover, signifies puffy arrogance, being full of oneself. Flat, tasteless matzah symbolizes humility and being open to G‑dliness. And true freedom means much more than a historical or political event. It means going out of our personal enslavement—our ego, our desires, our limitations.

“In every generation [and every day] a person should see himself as if he personally went out of Egypt,” the Haggadah exhorts. And Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, also means “boundaries” and “limitations.” So, on a deeper level, Passover is about going beyond our comfort zone, pushing higher.

This Passover, while I don’t plan on converting my kitchen into an aluminum-foil spaceship, I’ll focus on growing and refining myself, and hopefully wearing down that blasted ego and laziness a bit, when I pull out that dish rag.