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Excerpts from "Who Cleans Your House?"

When Jews hire people to do household jobs—anybody who cleans, cooks, does the laundry, cares for children or elderly parents—we are the ones who represent a privileged class, with funds to hire help. Jews today are generally wealthier and better educated than most other Americans. But the widespread practice of having “help” goes all the way back to our grandmother’s day, when even Jewish families in modest circumstances very often had cleaning ladies, perhaps because the wages for domestic work were so low that even working-class families could often afford this small luxury… Our relationship with the women who work in our homes is still inherently an unequal one… And it’s time to talk openly about the relationship between Jewish women and “the help” (almost always female) we employ in the intimate settings of our own homes and families, especially in the context both of the global discussion of immigration laws and the more local desperation of working mothers juggling many needs. According to Domestic Workers United, virtually all domestic workers today (and “domestic workers” is the term they prefer) are immigrants, the vast majority of them undocumented, which makes it all too easy for employers to exploit them, wittingly or not. The good news is that there’s movement to encourage Jews to treat those who work for us with fairness…

Money, of course, is a real issue. Many domestic workers are badly paid. According to Domestic Workers United, some day workers receive as little as two dollars an hour; some live-ins are paid 250 dollars a month. Domestic Workers United recommends a living wage of 14 dollars an hour. Even though labor laws technically protect all workers, documented or not, in reality the laws fail domestic workers. Domestics do not have the right to unionize, and most are undocumented immigrants, which makes them doubly vulnerable. These facts make it nearly impossible for them to demand such rights as health care, severance pay, paid vacation, sick days, notice of termination—all things that we would likely assume were due us if we were the employees ourselves. But how domestic workers fare depends entirely on the will, good or ill, of their employers…

[Gayle] Kirshenbaum [of JFREJ] described hosting a [“living room”] meeting at a home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where a majority of the women pushing strollers on the streets look to be other than the babies’ mothers. “There were perhaps 11 people there. We raised issues like the fact that if you go on vacation, you need to pay your domestic worker. And people said, but no, if I’m going away, I shouldn’t have to pay.”

“But then,” Kirshenbaum continued, “I could see people shifting categories, for the first time. It was like light bulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual baby sitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, ‘We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn’t they?’”

“There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The only shame is in not treating them well.”

Alice Sparberg Alexiou, “Who Cleans Your House?” Lilith (Summer 2006): 10-14. To read more, and to subscribe, visit the Lilith website.
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Date / time
June 28, 1905
Alexiou, Alice Sparberg
Summer 2006
Date published

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Excerpts from "Who Cleans Your House?"." (Viewed on January 21, 2018) <>.


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