Monday, May 26, 2014

Interview with My Housekeeper, Karla

Most Orthodox families that I know have at least some cleaning help - often on Friday, to help prepare the house for Shabbat.  I've always wondered what these women - and sometimes men - think of us, and what opinions they form living among us and experiencing our lives along with us in real time.

So I decided to interview my cleaning woman, who's been with us for about four years.  But here's the thing.  The interview isn't especially interesting, because she only has nice things to say - and because even if she didn't, she likely wouldn't say unkind things to my face as she's working in my home.  So I'm posting this interview more as a way to start a conversation about the impressions non-Jews form of the Orthodox, or of Jews in general, as they work specifically in our homes.  I encourage you to talk to the people who work in your home to find out if their experience is good or bad, and what you can do to make it better.

So, heeeere's Karla!

What is your full name?

Karla Nohemy Cifuentes Zaldana.

Where are you from?

Guatemala, in Coatepeque. I'm from the city.

Tell us about yourself and your family, and about what brought you to the US.

My mother was a nurse.  She's not working any more.  My father is a baker in a bakery.  My sister is a teacher, and my grandmother lived with us too.  I came here for work.  My cousin lives here.  I want to go back to Guatemala, but I don't know when.

How many families do you work for - are they all Jewish?  All Orthodox?

I work for seven families and they are all Jewish.  They are mostly all Orthodox.

How did you find your way into the Orthodox community?

You were the first family I worked for and then you told your friends about me.

What has been your general impression of our community?

Nice, good people.  Because you don't have in your community bad people.  In my community back home there are some people that are good, and some people that are bad.

What has been your best and worst experience working among Jews?

I like that when you make the parties for the families, the families are all helping you and everyone works together.  Everyone comes together to make one.  I like to see that.  I haven't had any bad experiences!

What have you learned about Judaism?

I learned about kosher, keeping milk and meat separate.  Don't touch electricity when working on holidays!  And I learned about the boys' caps and tzitzis.  You pray before you eat.  That's nice.

Are you a religious person?

I went to Catholic church growing up, and I go on Sundays here.

In what way is your faith different from and similar to Judaism?

Different because Jewish people are more concentrating on their religion, not like in our religion.  Same because we are looking for the same things.

Did you learn any Hebrew?

I know Ima is mom.  Abba is dad, I think.  No more.

Any closing words?

It's really nice working for Jewish families!


  1. I would have asked if there are any misconceptions about Jews which changed once she began working for them.

  2. Should be workingMay 27, 2014 at 11:50 AM

    Not about domestic workers per se, but my mother--ultra-Reform and mostly Jewish-ignorant, and as you will see, slightly paranoid--used to tell us as kids that "Jewish men are nice to their wives, like they pay for domestic help even when there isn't much money, this is why non-Jewish women want to marry Jewish men." Um, is there ANY truth to any part of this, I mean that this is something specifically Jewish and that non-Jewish women are out there to try to get a Jewish guy because he pays for cleaning help??

    1. Well now THERE'S an interesting self-directed backslap. I think Jewish guys do have a reputation - possibly deserved - of being especially mentchy. I know for sure that the more chassidic a family is the more they believe that Jewish moms shouldn't physically overtax themselves, especially after birth - and are coddled for up to six weeks after birth. And the more "Shabbos-oriented" a family is, the more that expense - on Fridays - is considered a mitzvah.

    2. Should be workingMay 27, 2014 at 11:59 AM

      Wait, are you saying *I* was backslapping, because I called this a tad paranoid?

    3. No! I just thought your mom's self-compliment was cute.

    4. Should be workingMay 27, 2014 at 12:08 PM

      Aha! I thought a 'backslap' was slapping oneself, now I realize you meant 'pat on her own back'. duh.

    5. Why should the husband decide if the household has cleaning help? Shouldn't the decision of how to spend household resources be made jointly by both spouses? (I'm not referring specifically to Orthodox households here, but to SBW's mother's statement).

    6. Should be workingMay 28, 2014 at 11:55 AM

      Tesyaa I certainly agree! To be fair, this statement was made in the early 1970s and the marriage was at that point "traditional", i.e. husband earning, wife stay-at-home, with corresponding early-1970s values and, apparently, decision-making models to match.

      Deeper into the realm of personal anecdote, irrelevant to this topic: Mother also proclaimed she would only ever marry a Jewish man. Second husband--ta daaa--was not Jewish, or only sort of, certainly not by O terms; Jewish father, family lived and raised kids totally Catholic, but somehow she said she always knew he was Jewish and a R rabbi married them. I have no problems with any of that, although I know there are big issues for most people on here with who is officially a Jew and also intermarriage. I just find it funny that there was this mix of "only marry a Jew" but then . . . things got more elastic. Again, I am more than fine with the elasticity there, and he's a great guy! But it does for me symptomatize a R sentiment that I have observed in that generation, of extreme Jewish identity but without much content.

      With that I might offend some people, and I don't mean to--if anything I'm wondering if my assessment of 1970s R Jewish identity is shared by anyone else. Maybe it was my own family's weirdness and nothing else, but in the Jewish-suburban-R milieu I was raised in I think it was not a peculiar combination of ideas about Jewishness and what is important.

    7. At the risk of offending even more people, I thoroughly share your impressions. Mind you I was a child in the 1970s.

  3. my cleaning lady seems to have very positive views of the Jews she has worked for and has a lot of respect for our way of life and family values, how we raise our kids with no TV and have family meals, festive gatherings, lots of guests etc. We have become very close over the several years she's worked for me and considers me a friend and we talk a lot about a lot of personal things. She asks me a lot of questions about differing practices that she sees from one home to the next, even things like how come the father in this family has a long beard and this family has no beard. We've even discussed hashkafic issues like the Jewish approach to suffering, Israeli politics etc. BUT we've never talked about and my friends and I always wonder what the housecleaners think of the separate beds and the spooky sheitl heads in the closet and that kind of stuff!!!

    1. I always wonder what she thinks of the styrofoam heads and wigs in the closet...I'm sure it's all figured out by now, though!

  4. I love that you did this! First, it was neat to hear her impressions. But I also really respect that you don't feel the need to make it look like you do IT ALL. You know what I mean? You do tons, of course. But your family, like all big families, even mine with four kids, takes some extra hands.

    1. Oh my gosh. I was actually at a Federation luncheon where the president of Barnard, Deborah Spar, spoke about her recent book on "Wonder Women" - she spoke a lot about "doing it all" and "having it all" - which I considered writing a post about. I could fill multiple posts with all the things I DON'T do. Cupcakes, laundry, DIY anything - seriously, it's a long list. I could never manage without the village. Paid help, kid help, friend help - I don't mention husband help because he and I are a team. Our village helps US. Thanks for mentioning that point.

  5. I have been cleaning for Jews for 18 years. I also clean for Gentiles. The difference is in the kitchen. There is much ado around food e.g. putting it away, cleaning up after. The women seem anxious are far too thin a few even I clean up in the toilet vomit due to anorexia. There is/was a type of tension in Jewish homes that I do not find in others'. They are not more or less more dirty than non Jews, but they are sloppy. Every home I've cleaned for they just drop things on the floor like kleenex, a magazine. The husband if he is there rarely talks. The wife does and always is rather following me around, not because she's fearful but again, out of anxiety. Gentile women on the other hand are completley different. They are on the phone with their friends, out volunteering, playing golf/tennis so they are never around.The main difference between the two women is Jewish women by and large seem to defer to their husbands more and demand more in the way of buying, shopping, spending on clothing, makeup, shoes. Where a gentile woman is more of a companion to her husband, not like a 'little girl'. I would say Jewish men come off like a 'daddy' where a gentile man is more interested in his hobbies, reading the paper. I hope this helps!


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