Between the Haves and the Have-Nots, Snobbery Is a Two-Way Street
I prided myself on living modestly—even seeing it as a Jewish virtue. Then I confronted my envy of those who were better off.
A friend joined me in the kitchen to wash the dishes after dinner. We’d been arguing about her strong desire to have a manicure every other week and a professional massage once a month. “You don’t understand,” she said, scraping a plate and handing it to me. “I grew up with these things. It’s normal for me to want these things.”
I dropped the dish into soapy water. “But just because you grew up with them doesn’t mean they’re not a waste of money. I mean 10 bucks, twice a month! That’s, like, $250 a year!”
My friend handed me several more plates. “You are a reverse snob,” she said. “You take pride in having less than other people. I’ve seen you: You look down your nose at people with designer clothes, a big house, or a new car.”
I thought a minute. Was it true? “Yup,” I admitted. “That about sums me up.”
For years, I had struggled against my family’s modest circumstances. I’d eyed my neighbors’ homes, clothes, and vacations with envy. As a religious Jew, I’d eventually accepted our financial situation as part of G-d’s plan. And now: I’d become an anti-materialist. After all, I thought, if G-d thought that it was in our best interest to live on a tight budget, wasn’t it in everybody’s?
Like many kids growing up in a single-parent home, I was plagued by financial insecurity throughout childhood. The nice things we did enjoy—pieces of antique furniture, a Swatch watch, a real gold necklace, a trip to the beach or even the movies—were gifts from my mother’s parents or brothers, or remnants of my parents’ life before they filed for divorce when I was 4.
In my teens, I went to public schools my mother had hand-picked for quality, even if attendance required a zoning variance. Many mornings, I left our apartment dressed in last season’s fashions and braced myself for the stares of my better-off classmates because my glasses were patched together with tape or a hole had worn in my shoe. I watched with envy as other girls squeezed into their Guess? jeans and sported bright white Keds. While they signed up for the annual school ski trip over spring break, I planned for many extra hours of TV viewing.
I fantasized about reaching adulthood and finally having “enough.” What would be enough? The ability to afford the comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by my friends, classmates, and the teenage characters on TV. The adults in my life told me college would guarantee my future financial success and not to worry about the grants and student loans that I’d need to pay for it; I’d be able to pay back the borrowed money later, once I was gainfully employed.
After college, I attended graduate school at a private university. While I did have an assistantship and a side job, I paid for most of my tuition and rent with more student loans. A stint in Teach for America helped alleviate a small amount of my debt burden, but I expected that the rest would be paid off either through years of work by myself, by my future spouse, or a combination of the two. I still had this hope when I met my husband—also a teacher, with his own student-loan debt.
For the first four years of our marriage I continued to teach, but once we had a child 11 years ago, my husband and I soon realized that the amount of money I was bringing home hardly offset the costs of childcare, a professional wardrobe, and the takeout we occasionally splurged on after a particularly exhausting day. Becoming a full-time stay-at-home mom, however, would require serious belt-tightening.
The mitzvah of baal tashchit—not to waste resources—added an air of sanctity to our quest. We accepted hand-me-downs or purchased clothes at thrift stores. The careful application of duct tape extended the utility of items that happened to break. We bought only used cars and didn’t repair any body damage that was merely cosmetic.
I baked most of our bread, rarely served meat outside Shabbos or holidays, and grew vegetables in the backyard. Like our neighbors, we ate pizza every Thursday night … only we made ours from scratch. Splurges—just like when I was a child—were typically supplied by extended family members.
To this day, we live in the cheapest apartment we can, squeezing four kids into the same two-bedroom apartment we lived in when we first married. For many years, we actively engaged in Jewish outreach. When guests would come to our home, they’d look around at our kids and our 850-square-foot apartment in Los Angeles, paste smiles on their faces, and tell us, “Wow, it’s just like Jerusalem!” People would ask if we planned to move—or worse, if we planned to have more kids. Other guests turned our invitations down in favor of ones extended by families who hosted large, lively, multicourse meals in spacious houses. Eventually we stopped doing outreach.
Over time, G-d expanded our income—but sent additional demands on it, too. Our delightful children require clothes and food and Jewish educations. One of them has special needs. Cars break. Rent increases. And the student loans never seem to go away. We have food to eat, clothes to wear, and a roof over our heads. But finances are tight, and when you live surrounded by affluence, you feel the pinch.
At first, our financial situation depressed me, but over time, I channeled my frustration into a spiritual exercise. I would accept G-d’s decision to pay teachers little and make student loans and day-school tuitions big. As Ben Zoma tells us in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers), “The truly rich person is one who is happy with their lot.” If making do with (relatively) little was a test sent by G-d, I would pass the test.
I counted blessings, writing lists of them in my journal so I could appreciate what I had. Maybe I didn’t have what I wanted, but I had what I needed. I reminded myself that the sage Hillel would say, “The more property, the more anxiety ” if I was confronted with a friend’s diamond eternity band or a neighbor’s Porsche Panamera. When a study came out that indicated the children of the wealthy were more likely to leave Orthodox Judaism, I took a perverse pleasure in it. “There’s one less thing for me to worry about!” I thought.
But when my friend put a label on my attitude—“reverse snob”—it forced me to reexamine my mindset. To my dismay, I noticed several ugly things about myself.
When my friends—friends often younger than me—bought a house, I assumed the role of judge: Did they really need a house or not? If a neighbor’s daughter showed up at synagogue with a different outfit each day of Sukkot, I considered: Is she growing fast enough to require four new “Shabbos” skirts?
I had conveniently embraced parts of Pirkei Avot while overlooking others that urged us to judge people in their entirety, or at least not to judge them until we are in their shoes.
Why was I so motivated to put down the people around me? After some serious introspection, I realized that I still resented my neighbors’ affluence. I wanted everyone to live in financially straitened circumstances—not because it was good for them, but because it made me feel better. Deep down, I was still bitter.
All my self-righteousness wasn’t very righteous at all. It’s not enough to accept what G-d sends us; we have to accept what G-d sends other people, too. If a perfect G-d has given someone else more money, nicer clothes, or a bigger home, clearly that is what is good for them—because G-d doesn’t make mistakes. If I expect to be a person of faith, I have to be as happy for my friend’s bulging pocketbook as for my own sagging one.
Our Jewish tradition doesn’t require that we scorn wealth—the Talmud tells us Moses, King Solomon, and Judah the Prince were all fabulously wealthy. Just as G-d has sent my family the test of poverty (relatively speaking), G-d sends others the test of wealth. They’re expected to use their money for good instead of becoming corrupted by it.
Looking around, I see friends who host a dozen guests every Friday night. Neighbors provide space for Torah classes in their homes, or let strangers stay in their house, rent-free. Others donate scholarship money so children from less-well-off homes may attend day school or camp. Or they offer interest-free loans. Would I do so well if I had their test?
The local day schools will start winter break this week. My neighbors have made reservations for Big Bear and Palm Springs while I’ve planned yet another staycation. As they depart, I’ll wave goodbye to them with a smile on my face. And, hopefully, a smile in my heart, too.
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