Because my daughter Abigail is a very clever woman, she first made it sound like a gift: “Our friend Jane just started a personal organizing service. I’m buying you a wonderful all-day decluttering session.”
“No thanks.” My blood ran cold at the thought. “I love clutter.”
Next, she made it sound like a mitzvah: “I promised Jane some business. I’ll work along with her, empty out all your drawers and cabinets, and you’ll decide what you really need or love.”
“I need everything. I love everything.”
At that, she presented me with an existential imperative. “Now’s the time to sort through everything while you’re still active and alert.”
I surrendered, for her sake. But it was a grueling ordeal, each object freighted with meaning and memories. I’m not materialistic, but I believe in the power of things to evoke people, places, days of one’s life.
Jews have a complex relationship with our things. We’re savers; we don’t throw stuff away. We save damaged Torah scrolls and holy books in a room or cabinet called a genizah (as in the famous Cairo genizah, where documents dating back to the 8th century CE were found to have been preserved), and when they overflow the space, we bury them respectfully. We don’t throw away minority (losing) rabbinic opinions; they survive in the text of the gemara and are studied alongside the decision of the majority. With ritual, we don’t subtract, we add: Witness the length of our siddur, or prayer book.
Judaism’s conflation of memory and history rests on the commandment Zachor, remember, which in turn is actualized and enhanced by objects that give physical shape to our prayers and blessings, the ritual objects we use, admire, touch, own, beautify and infuse with meaning.
Throw in the impact of American Jews’ postwar culture of acquisition, often a reaction to our forebears’ lived experience of loss, and decluttering can become incredibly complicated. My mother died when I was 15, and my father gave away most of her stuff, so I’m pretty obsessive about saving things that matter to me. I keep scrapbooks. I remember where, or whom, each object came from, what it stands for, and why I’ve kept it, even if it’s cracked, dented, dated or rarely if ever used.
I had no problem divesting myself of the 22 glass vases I’d amassed from various florist deliveries. Other objects were not so easy to let go. My 16 artichoke plates, for instance, and the little white ramekins I used to use as individual containers for salt water at seders. Since I stopped hosting seders a decade ago, I’ve used the tiny baking dishes for buttons, nuts, chocolate mousse and minuscule bits of leftovers. I don’t really need 40 ramekins. Still, they take up so little space, and they remind me of Passovers past—and they might come in handy someday.
I love such uniquely specialized objects as artichoke plates and deviled egg platters. Just as the Haggadah and its specific rituals organize our seder (which means order), or the holidays in the Jewish calendar order our year, a challah knife and a special dish for honey and apples bring an extra dimension of order to my domestic life, a relief from the chaos of today’s disordered universe.
Until decluttering day, I owned 14 baskets of different shapes, because each had its purpose (bread, bagels, crackers, rolls, croissants, fruit, pine cones, etc.) and its own back story. Ditto for my trays, cutting boards, bowls, silverware, pitchers and house plants. I presented my defense briefs to Abigail and Jane: That Italian platter came from my dear friend, Nancy. Zev and Arlo, our youngest grandsons, picked out those cactus plants. The glass dish was always filled with rugelach in my grandma’s kitchen in Shrub Oak, where I spent my childhood summers. The filigreed perfume set was my mom’s; she died in 1955, but her fragrance lasted in the bottles until the 1970s, when their cork stoppers disintegrated.
Back story is part of why I cherish my artichoke plates. I grew up in Queens. My mother, an immigrant from a Hungarian shtetl, was a good cook but had a circumscribed culinary repertoire. I never laid eyes on an artichoke until an older friend ordered one in a fancy restaurant and showed me how to eat it. I was 23. I found a recipe in The Joy of Cooking, taught myself to trim and cook an artichoke and produce Hollandaise sauce to go with it. Using the artichoke plates even three times a year makes me happy; they remind me of my coming of age as a “sophisticated New Yorker.”
In an essay for The Forward entitled “A Talmudic Debate about Ramekins,” Abigail described my deaccessioning trauma with loving humor and incisive clarity: “It had begun to dawn on me, as we excavated every last cumin bottle and whisk, that we were challenging not just a Jewish mother’s system but her core.”
I let her toss the baskets that had missing reeds. I okayed adding the chipped bowls to the giveaway pile. I didn’t fight to save her father’s bulky red ski boots from the 1980s, or the bottle of vinegar with a 2012 sell-by date, or hundreds of other items. And I’ll admit that editing a 50-year accumulation has given us some welcome breathing space (plus room to acquire more stuff). But I stood firm on the ramekins and the artichoke plates and got emotional about them besides.
Here’s what Abigail wrote about that moment: “The ramekins stayed. I put back every one. And as I made this walk of shame, from the living room to the kitchen and back, so much became clear: Clutter is history. Platters are memory. Ramekins are possibility.” Exactly.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s 12th book, Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy, will be published next year.