Friday, November 07, 2008

Who am I?

I hate it when people I don't know casually ask my name, because I don't know what to say. Do I give my English name, which I don't generally use but is on all my legal documents, or do I give my Hebrew name, which I invariable have to spell for them and they won't remember it anyway?

I thought about this today when I read The Brooklyn Wolf's post about some shenanigans in Chicago concerning Hebrew voters:

...E-Kvetcher has a post today about frum people in Chicago who voted twice for McCain in the recent presidential election -- once under their Hebrew name and once under their legal (English) name...

...But we tend to pay a great amount of lip service to the idea of honesty. We say that the seal of HKBH is truth. We're taught to be scrupulously honest -- even with non-Jews. And yet, time and again, we see examples where we fail to live up to the very ideals we profess to hold as the highest values.

I'm not suggesting that we should be perfect. I understand that Jews, like everyone else, are only human. We're all subject to temptations and failings. We all (myself included) find that sometimes we fall short of the mark. But that's fine -- as I said, we're human and not meant to be perfect. However, when it comes to the measure of a person's character, I sometimes feel that what's more important is the subsequent actions that a person takes...

I agree completely with Wolf's remarks, but I think he might be making his definition too narrow. This thought comes from reading an entry this week at SephardiLady's Orthonomics Blog entitled Hachnasat Bar Mitzvah Bochur. This post tells about an email she received from someone wanting help to put on their son's Bar Mitzvah in grand style, followed by a guest-post regarding champagne taste and beer income.

The list of things the family wanted "help" with was lavish and excessive, to say the least. SephardiLady laments:

...tzedakah funds are limited and are bound to become even more limited. We cannot be providing prizes for kids and music for a bar mitzvah boy at the expense of helping a family get back on their feet, budget, etc. We need to straighten out our priorities and quick. Last I checked, there is no mitzvah of hachnasat bar mitzvah bochur...

Her guest commentary, by Ariella, says:

You've heard of people with champagne taste and beer budgets? For some people there is a definite gap between what they could afford and what they want. In the past, wisdom dictated that such people get grounded in reality and learn to like the beer they could afford and give up on hankering for what was beyond their financial grasp. But that is not the attitude I see today. Instead, those who can only afford beer insist, not only on champagne but on the finest imported French bottles and only from the very best years of vintage, metaphorically speaking, of course. So if the drinkers of champagne cannot afford to pay for it, who is to foot the bill? Other people, of course.

On the neighborhood email list, I am constantly seeing requests for money or other types of handouts from people who are not destitute but who just don't want to do without. And those who are getting married seem to have the greatest sense of entitlement...

Amein. People think that who they are is tied to how they appear to others. Their sense of entitlement makes them believe that because some wealthy persons can afford lavish simchas, then they should be able to have one, too. Where they got this idea is way too easy to see - right in their own shuls and their own homes. It is related, in a bizarre way, to the idea that we have discussed in depth in the Decline of the West. There is only one "right" way to do everything - if you do it differently, you're doing it "wrong." And the way the Ravs have chosen to do things is the most expensive and burdensome way possible, with a wink and a nod to responsibility but no real substance in that regard.

Granted, there was a posek(or a group, I forget) that within the past year or two sent out a document that supposedly set limits on the expenses of weddings - but that document, as I recall reading it, was pretty much a joke. It still presumed thousands of dollars of "required" expenses which the vast majority of people in real life simply can no longer afford. I suppose it is sort of a step forward that the couples are no longer trying to bankrupt their families for these outlandishly expensive weddings - or their parents put their feet down, I don't know which. But it's a step backward to presume that people should dedicate any of their charitable contributions to extravagant simchas of any kind. As SephardiLady pointed out, people need that money for food, medicine, heat and clothing - it's shameful to waste charity on "wants" instead of true "needs." Amein to that.

A real step forward would be to acknowledge that simchas are going to have to be scaled way, way down. My own weddings, both to my late husband and to my current husband, were very frugal affairs. We did buy a wedding cake. I and my sister and mother made hordeurves, and only family and close friends were invited. My dress came off the clearance rack, and we didn't rent a big hall, have a band, or serve champaign. My son's benei mitzvot were done in similar manner - low key, family and close friends, two done in our home and one done at a small hall that was volunteered free of charge to us by the parents of a good friend of that son. I am no less married and my boys are no less bar mitzvah because we did these things in a manner we could actually afford.

Did people talk? I'm sure they did. Did they think less of me because my simchas weren't bank-breakers? I'm sure some did. But do I really want to make who I am dependent upon the opinions of these people?

No, I do not. Nor should you.

Easier said that done, I realize. It takes some strength of character and dedication to economic sensibility to take this stand, and our young people have not been brought up to have either. What other people think of them has been the focus of their lives since early childhood - their peers, their Ravs, etc., has been paramount, their own judgement never, ever considered reliable. If everybody else does something, then they have to do it, too. Even if it bankrupts themselves and their parents.

This cannot and should not go on. No, it's not "fair" that "Everybody Else" got a big wedding and you aren't going to, we have to tell our kids, but you'll just have to get over it, because I'm not made out of money and contrary to popular belief, it doesn't fall from the sky, either. It's time for tough love. This is the real world and we have to live in it - with integrity and with honour and with intelligence. If that's not who you are, then you aren't going to survive in these troubling times. The past is gone. If the future gets better - great. But we have to live in the present, and in the present, extravagant simchas are irresponsible and selfish.

And that's not who I want to be. Hopefully, it's not who you want to be, either.

1 comment:

SephardiLady said...

Great post. Like I've said before, "cake and punch" meet the Jewish community. Jewish community, meet cake and punch.