The Jewish Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up

Right up to the day before she died, my mother was organizing her closets and drawers. In retrospect, I don't know what possessed me to pick up Marie Kondo's best selling book about the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. My late mother had tried her best to teach me the Jewish version of tidying up all of my life.

Mom may not have folded her clothing to stand upright, and she certainly did not thank clothing she discarded for its service or stroke it to see if it "sparked joy," but her drawers were the neatest I've ever seen. Like Kondo, she treated her socks and stockings with respect. At age 91, she worried she was not up to the important task of rotating her winter and spring clothing.

Mom learned her art of tidying up from her mother. My grandmother was a fanatic for cleanliness, especially in preparation for the Sabbath. She insisted Mom and her sister scrub the floors every Friday with Fels-Naptha soap and then cover them with newspaper so no one would step on the freshly cleaned floors. Much as my mother claimed she hated this chore, its spirit permeated my childhood.

Growing up, we cleaned, dusted, and vacuumed the entire house three times a week. I never understood the need for this because nothing was ever very dirty. Having rebelled against this regimen in tidying my own house, I now get why it is a good thing to attend to these chores once in a while. Mom also washed clothes on a rigid schedule, hung them out to dry, and ironed almost everything. Being her only daughter, I participated in this ritual as well.

But the tidying up part was all Mom's job. Without Kondo's book to guide her, my mother intuitively embraced many of its concepts. In fact, when I read the letters she sent to my father during WWII, many mentioned that she was organizing a closet. Clutter was her enemy. We didn't have a lot of toys, but what we had was relegated to the basement "recreation room" and we were required to put everything away on a daily basis. In later years, she worried that as her grandchildren married, she would not have enough room on her living room side table to display all of the portraits without it looking messy.

My mother missed her calling. When we cleaned out her apartment after she died, every closet and drawer was organized. The items in her kitchen cupboards were neatly arranged, often in zip lock bags to keep them clean. She had two plastic boxes on the top shelf of her coat closet, one for gloves that were matched and rolled up together and one for hats. Mom should have written the bible for tidying up long before Kondo's book was published. Here's one chapter I know she would have included:

Nine Jewish Rules for Tidying Up (there are many more)

  1. When cooking or baking, clean up as you go. When you are finished, there should be no dirty bowls or measuring spoons or spatulas to clean.

  • Wear an apron in the kitchen to keep your clothes clean.
  • Make your bed the minute you rise in the morning (perhaps I was allowed to use the bathroom first -- I don't remember).
  • Put all dirty clothes in the hamper and clean clothes neatly folded in drawers or hung up in the closet.
  • Never leave dishes in the sink. Wash and dry them right after use, and put them away where they belong.
  • Always sew up holes in clothing -- "a stitch in time saves nine."
  • There is no such thing as a stain that cannot be removed. Try toothpaste or hairspray or check in Hints from Heloise.
  • Keep up with fashion trends, especially regarding hemlines. Discard items that are out of style, even if they bring you joy.
  • Never throw things away. Foist them on your children or grandchildren. If you can't guilt them into taking these things, then it's permissible to donate them to charity.
  • I must admit I can't finish Kondo's book. Much as my closets are too full and my drawers are pretty messy, I lack my mother's passion for tidying up. So I have decided to embrace the clutter in my life and put my energy into things that really "spark joy."