Spring Cleaning: Our Things, Ourselves

I may be the quintessential candidate for hiring a home-organizing guru. Reuniting with a third-grade classmate on Facebook recently, I find what she most remembers about me is my messy desk. Some habits, I’ve always believed, are ingrained. Then I met Gal Yaguri. 

Gal (pronounced gull) knew better. She came into my cluttered home office without judgment or pity, and got to work organizing what was visible on the outside while understanding  deeply what was inside me. She helped me get past my shame for the messiness, transforming the space and me at the same time. 

Later, when my father-in-law passed away suddenly from Covid, our family hired Gal to clear out his apartment. She asked many questions about Seymour, and about the life he’d lived in that space. I found myself recounting story after story, as she connected physical objects with the emotional pain of our loss. It turns out that she approaches this work as if it were a holy task, just as one might perform a tahara, the Jewish ritual cleansing of the deceased. 

Juxtaposed against the austere, minimalist vibe of Marie Kondo’s organizing principles, Gal Yaguri’s work feels like  a decidedly Jewish approach to helping her clients create harmony in their lives and living spaces. Her New York-based company, Balaboste (www.balaboste.com) reflects an identity with deep Jewish and feminist roots, forginga path between the sacred and mundane that can even make organizing a file cabinet feel strangely spiritual.

There is a connection between Gal’s desire to help others sweep clean and her childhood in Israel, where preparing for Passover meant embracing the ancient Jewish practice of a thorough cleansing of the home. Today it remains her favorite time of year.

Gal’s childhood was influenced by her grandparents, whom she would visit for weeks at a time during the summers. Her grandmother Miriam (Savta Yashka) was born in Lithuania in 1913, joined a local Zionist organization in her teens, and in 1933, at 20, made aliyah; her parents perished in the Holocaust. Miriam participated in the first cohort trained and certified as early-learning educators in Israel and was a kindergarten teacher for over three decades. When her grandchildren visited, they saw Miriam as the queen of her domain, singing while she baked, putting on make-up and dressing up, all the while organizing her home and family, keeping everyone close. 

Today, Gal’s mother refers to her youngest daughter as a balaboste, the one who most embodies the special qualities of Miriam, Savta Yashka. “To me, the word represents a persona with a ton of personality. It is also a state of mind,” says Yaguri. “The term itself (which is spelled and pronounced differently depending on how your grandmother used to say it) is a Yiddish word most commonly used by Ashkenazi Jews. It refers to a “home owner” or master of the house; in Hebrew it’s a gendered adjective associated with male (ba’al ha-ba’it). The word balaboste (ba’lat ha-ba’it or bala-boste) allows the woman to be the ‘owner of the home’ – and, taking it a step further, owner of her life.”

She believes a changing season is the ideal time for letting go of one’s own personal chametz, the excess stuff that holds us back. Springtime is when her business is busiest. “I can think of so many reasons why spring is the prime season to clean and cleanse: as nature awakens from its winter sleep and a new season begins, so can we.  Spring cleaning offers us an opportunity for an annual renewal. We can also rid ourselves of the excess winter layering, the heaviness, the things we no longer need. I believe our homes and offices are sacred spaces, and are a reflection of who we are. Therefore, the potential for change is always right in front of us.”  

And sometimes one simply needs the help of a balaboste to get there.