Sunday, July 08, 2007

Livin' Large

Nothing like a shabbos in the Five Towns to make a guy reflect on the role of materialism in a frum lifestyle. For the uninitiated, the Five Towns are a group of exclusive (or so they'd like to think) suburbs right under the landing pattern of JFK airport in Long Island, NY. They're also the aspiration and dream of the Brooklyn bourgeoisie looking to "move on up," ultimately hauling their street-tough one-upsmanship with them. With a zipcode more aesthetically pleasing than the 1950's architecture, it's no wonder that too much exposure to the culture out there can make you wonder how much of a frum family's cost of living is the added expenses of living a Torah lifestyle and how much of the budget is the added expenses of living up to your neighbors' lifestyle. Notice how the two don't necessarily correlate, a wider theme than what I really want to focus on here.

The role of costly consumer goods is an ambiguous one in the Jewish tradition. On the one hand, we are not an abstinence driven ascetic movement, but on the other, we are certainly intended to be living on a spiritual plane. How do we enjoy the pleasures of this world, without finding ourselves having drifted far from our religious priorities? Very simple - are we using these luxuries (and they all truly are unnecessary luxuries - wants, not needs) to further our purpose, or to take us away from it? Are we appreciating the Swiss Alps as one of the many stunning vistas reminding us of the many smaller miracles of creation, or we excited about boasting about the trip to our friends?

Curiously, Jewish law requires that a rich man who loses his fortune be supported by charity to a level that restores his lifestyle to its prior high standard. Similarly, a new husband is required to support his bride in a manner consistent with her upbringing. Both scenarios seem to imply a level of need in these luxuries, beyond questioning the reason for their material pursuit. We know that once luxury is acquired it quickly becomes a need. Is life then an endless upward pursuit of greater consumption? Will our children need to struggle even harder to achieve the level we have gained, before they even begin to explore their own world of luxuries? And how does this endless escalation of need ever enable us to restore our spiritual focus on our lives?

I believe that this is another example of halacha working with human nature in allowing everyone to achieve their potential. Halacha recognizes that we cannot legislate peoples' material happiness. While it may appreciate people choosing to reevaluate their needs, it recognizes the hardship that is caused when this change comes about not as the result of a explicit choice, such as through marriage or bankruptcy.

Materialism is something that we can benefit from, when we are in control. If somebody is blessed with money, then it provides them with an abundance of ways to appreciate the beauty of creation. And if somebody is not blessed with money, they also have the opportunity to appreciate the intricacies of the world according to their ability. And that can bring a heightened level of happiness if they can appreciate the finer items available within their means. But when somebody's need for the acquisition of material goods precedes the availability of the funds to acquire them with, then this seems to present a challenge to the individual. Are they going to reorient the energy in their life to gain more money to buy these items? Or are they going to continue pursuing their own passions, and budgeting their income based on spiritual priorities?

There are some beautiful houses in the Five Towns. But they aren't necessarily those with the wrought iron gates.

While I do agree that excess materialism can be found in the Jewish world, the recurring theme of "frum consumerism" tires me out.

In Ashrei it says "poteach es yadecha umasbia licol chai ratzon." Hashem satisfies the wants of every living thing. Why not say "needs?" Could it be that some "luxuries" are required?

In last Sunday's NYTimes there was an article written by a woman whos therapist referred to her as "the needless wonder." In her case, she insisted on having no needs in a relationship because she was intent on being "low maintenance" and caring. However, she writes, refusing everything but the most basic of attentions is not satisying or healthy. While the self-righteous may comfort themselves with a more minimalisic lifestyle, who is to say that they are more holy as a result? Devotion to simplicity covers a multitude of sins.

The evidence is inconclusive and general, however I do believe that Hashem puts a certain value on that which is beyond the basic. We beautify out mitzvos, why not beautify our existence?

Perhaps we sell ourselves short when we fail to cherish the way we serve G-d and the way we care for ourselves.
Today,being frum is about who can act more pious in front of their neighbors (than about actually BEING pious in a modest way) & about who has the most THINGS or $$$$.And,sadly the $$$$ wins over real piousness(& even over FAKE piety).The Five Towns are merely another bloated example of the peversion of what has happened to the Jewish community as the frum world attempts to out chumra one another in their alleged Jewishness & quest for the holy dollar,while all too often abandoning all efforts in our behavior & lack of compassion for others.Unfortunately,the Jewish world of 2007 doen't seem very Jewish,other than lip service & outer trappings & uniforms of materialism or alleged pious attire.This is much bigger than the Five Towns.
And,with all due respect to Beka,i didn't read Josh as trying to say that one shouldn't sanctify a mitzvah with material beauty,as when he wasn't knocking a fancy vacation--i saw him as asking where is the spirituality in the material act or item & further reacting to overdoing it---which is a calling card for the Five Towns.And,if i may add,much of the $$$$ spent could probably benefit poor people in general & the Jewish poor as well---YES,there are many Jewish poor,many ashamed to ask for help & not merely ENOUGH $$$$help for those who have no or poor health benefits,those living in squallor,those who can't pay tuitions,those who can't afford even a lesser wedding or bar-mitzvah,those who can't afford funeral costs---YES in the Five Towns are many hidden poor Jews,wiped out by family illness,losing the big bucks---but they cover it up,since WE have shamed them into theie silent life of problems...
i just checked your blog, and saw that you had posted three times since i last checked. welcome back!
Beka - the fine line between needs and wants has always a source of friction for me. I've spent a lot of time trying to develop a balanced approach to materialism. The way I would view the difference is that I can appreciate fine things as luxuries that I would want, but at the same time recognize that I do not need them. I can pray that I should have the ability to enjoy them, but I should realize that 1) they aren't the end goal and 2) they are a gift. If I start to shape my life based on chasing these desires, then I have truly lost the race.

Anon 1 and 2 (I'm assuming you're the same) - You touch on a good tangential point - that we are obsessed with fake piety. I don't necessarily think it directly tied into materialism, but I do think they both share the same root. Ultimately, everyone wants to feel successful, accomplished in life. Our society certainly teaches that this is accomplished through material wealth (on a tangent of its own - this is a bastardization of capitalism, a subject I could write a book about). Within the frum world, this is also accomplished by being frummer. Since true frumness is hard if not impossible for us to judge, it can evolve into a fake competition. I'll admit that my own discomfort with the world of materialism is also shaped by attempt to be successful, but in the opposite. By taking an extremely distanced approach to materialism, I hope to avoid being judged as successful based on my bank accounts. While this is truly a cover up of my fear of failure, I think it is just as important to balance as actually remembering what true success is. And this certainly isn't meant as a Five Towns problem, I just used my Shabbos this past week as a kicking off point at the challenge of my hostess. Using that extra money for charity is a difficult point in itself, as we are limited in how much we can give away. But we can certainly be sensitive to how conspicuous our consumption is, so that we can enjoy the finer things in life without lowering the guillotine over others.

Chans - Are you back from E. Israel? I loook fofward to being on the receiving end of all your inspiration!
well said,Josh & thanks for the response!!
Anon - Sometimes I'm slower than others, but I figure if you're kind enough to add your two cents, I am more than happy to respond. And a dialogue wouldn't get very far if it was a one-sided conversation!
cool---you seem to be a person of strong moral values...nice to have found this place!!
Anon - You seem to be a person of anonymous passion. Hopefully I'll continue writing more regularly again, so we can learn from each other. One request, though - can you make up a name so that I can distinguish you from any other anonymous'? You don't need an account or anything - just choose "Other" and make something up that I can consistently get to know you by. That way I can say we're on a first name basis!
Josh--you'll know me by my passionate points whenever i post--i assure you that!!!!!That will end when i choose the right screen name for this site.....but,hopefully the passion will remain--it's hard to be a Jew & live in this world where history has been re written & the have nots are ignored--what kind of people have we become??!!Those who have wealth shoud spend hours of their week looking to help those in need---no,not to get their name on a wall of a building,but to give lishmah--no publicity,no recognition,no tax write offs,no money laundering,etc. Pouring our money into our own needs is fine but a Jew shares his good fortune--it is God's money on loan to us to use wisely --first for our families & ourselves,& with the truly needy(not bloated institutions where most of the $$$ goes to administrative costs)who are partners in our existance on this earth....have a great day!!!
Josh -
I agree that people can be overly materialistic and lose sight of what's important - but I don't know if I think it's right of you to diss a whole (by name) community like that. I think it's a problem in many places. My guess is you're not getting invited back there any time soon :)
...sometimes the truth has to be told & the Five Towns is merely a standout for it's bloated materialism,albeit a reality of most upper crust ny/nj Jewish communities...our's is a community of silence & cover up & sometimes the harsh truth needs to be told.....& i'm certain the people in the 5 towns will merrily continue without mising a beat!!!!
Seriously, when i read you i don't know whether to laugh or cry.

For starters, you absolutely incinerate an entire community with over 10,000 frum Jews based upon your experieces there for one shabbos. Um, what a great scientific study that is. Wow, you are quite an observer of people.

Second, I constantly cannot get over your continued self righteousness. You NEVER will learn your lesson Josh. You forget, there are skeletons in your closet too, no? Oh wait, you are perfect? I must have forgotten that.

I think that you buy into all the praise you get from the people who come here, read your words, and assume you are some otherworldly type perosn - in a sense you believe your own hype (much like another back from the grave blogger who has delusions of Clooney, I mean granduer).

Please - spare us your soapbox. you are from Chicago. New York is just different than Chicago. The five towns has lots of money and more than it's fair share of idiotic, in your face rich people. But guess what. So does Kew Gardens Hill, Teaneck, Flatbush, and even, GASP, Passaic and Monsey.

Try, for once, to reach back into your own closet, remember your own lack of perfection, and stop being so damn soapboxy. It's annoying.
JOSHISABLOWHARD--chill out & cool it...Josh is not otherworldly--he's a great guy writing from his heart & daring to be candid--ya pay a price for that honesty of are correct that 5 towns are a mere microcosm of the larger Jewish community,particularly in the NY metro area.But,the 5 towns have some of the most overt despicable behavior & an almost completly upside down system of Jewish values.
Your personal vitriolic attack on Josh is merely another reflection of someone who has lost his way & has not a clue that he's lost as a Jew...too bad--if you had a wee bit of creativity & ability to control your personal rage, you could have made your point in a nice manner--but,like too many of us smug,holier than thou types,you chose the gutter....
Anon - I know something you don't know......(singsong voice)
Anon - Just keep the passion up! In my mind, I always prefer a passionate person, whether they agree or disagree with me, to somebody who goes through life without caring. As far as people's focus, I have no illusion that we can't expect everybody to put the downtrodden so close to their own heart unfortunately, but what bothers me is when those people become our role models, and not those few who are really able to do good from the bottom of their hearts. We shouldn't be talking about so and so's new car, but how big a chessed so and so did (if we even know about it - We should be as equally proud to talk about the anonymous guy who just did an amazing tzedakah). As was the theorem of the Nobel Laureate featured in A Beautiful Mind, society functions better when people consider the welfare of the community alongside their own greed greater than when individuals function soley on an independently level. That truth unfortunately has been distorted in America, which I don't want to get into now, as I said before.

MH - I absolutely agree with everything you said (except that I do expect to be invited back - hear that LL?). I can't reinforce enough that I didn't malign or stereotype an entire community. As I mentioned, I merely used my experiene there over a shabbos to write about issues that had been bothering me. I just want to make that clear that I by no means think that the Five Towns are universally material or even more material than other communities.

Anon - The only thing I wish weren't true of what you said is that the Five Towns will continue without missing a beat. I try and write my opinions on here in some farfetched desire to affect change in this world. I should only be so lucky as to have my words inspire introspection in even one individual, myself included (that was for JIAB).

JIAB - Laugh or cry as you wish - but even better, share your point of view as well. I believe I had already adressed your two most pressing issues in prior comments, but I'll reinforce again that this post was not meant as an attack on any specific community, and I have also discussed some of the background as to how I developed the philosophy espoused here based on my own personality weaknesses. Sometimes an objective third party is needed to take a fresh look at the status quo. And don't get me started on Brooklyn ;)

Anon - Um, thanks for getting my back...but don't worry, no need to get all defensive on my behalf - I prefer to keep the discussion moving along.

JISAB - Old and boring: Secret admirers. New and hip: Secret nemesis!
sorry I'm a little late in this conversation.

I think most people would agree that community is a pretty important part of a frum lifestyle. So what happens when you can't afford to live in a frum community? I think it's a really serious issue. As soon as you get enough observant homeowners to make a minyan in a given neighborhood, the housing goes through the roof. Even renting can be beyond the means of many.

What a shame.
Jo - You bring up another vital point. Aside from the keeping up with the Heimy syndrome, there is an entirely different crisis altogether, which is that it's just expensive to live in a frum community, even without any silver trim. It's interesting, because I think you can be frum in the real sense, but joining a community IS more expensive, from real estate to education.
Now THAT's an intelligent point Josh. I knew you could do it.
JISABH - Not sure if you're being sarcastic or not...but, uh, thanks?
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Rain is falling all around,

It falls on field and tree,

It rains on the umbrella here,
And on the ships at sea. 。

-------- by aoc powerlevewling
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