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How Pesach Divides the Community Along Class Lines

If you want to be a religious Jew today, you have to have money — a lot of it. There’s no way around it, and it’s especially obvious at this time of year.

Perhaps it was different way back when, but in Orthodoxy Version 2010, you need two of everything in the kitchen, including two sinks, two dishwashers, two ovens and two refrigerators; a deep freezer is even better. It’s rare, but people even have two kitchens, an extra one for Pesach, which also needs to contain two of everything — causing some young married couples to request four of everything in their registries. Actually, if you’re going to do it right, you might as well get the fifth and sixth of everything because pareve really comes in handy. I can’t help but wonder how the Israelites would have lugged all their stuff through the desert had they needed six of everything.

Then there are the clothes. Sometimes it seems like the cost of typical Orthodox woman’s Shabbat wardrobe — finished with accessories and sheitels — could feed a needy family for a year.

There’s more.

Real estate, for example In order to be part of the religious community, you have to live in walking distance of the shul. In cities around the world where religious Jews live, I’ve noticed that housing prices consistently go up in price in direct proportion to proximity to the synagogue. Plus, you need rooms not only for lots of children, but also for lots of guests. No respectable young couple, it seems, can consider living in an apartment that does not have a guest room and respectable accoutrements. It’s, like, not Jewish. With so much to keep up with, how can people be reasonably expected to have any money left over for day school tuition?

Still, there is no time of year that so emphatically highlights the role of wealth in creating Orthodox social convention as Pesach.

It’s not just the constantly expanding Pesach product line that ranges from the merely exorbitant (Kosher for Passover Seltzer at double the price — $0.89 instead of $0.49 — for example) to the completely outrageous (see Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s post. Pesach definitively divides the Jewish community along the lines of social class.

It goes like this: The more disposable income one has, the easier one’s life is. It runs from the simple hiring of help (as one frantic mother said to me, “I have to hurry home to watch my cleaner do the oven!”) to the avoidance of chores altogether with an escape on, say, a Pesach cruise. Money simply makes the difference between those who toil more and those who toil less. If social class is about the unequal ways in which our labor is measured and evaluated, then Pesach is the time when those whose labor is worth more can completely free themselves up from the work by hiring people whose labor is worth far less. Put differently, the more money you have, the more liberated you can be from the pre-Pesach toil and sweat.

There is a terribly disturbing irony here. The story of the Exodus is about a rebellion against these types of social divisions. The Israelites went from being the exploited underclass to creating a utopian desert existence in which all were equals. In the desert, everyone had the same tent shelter and the same food, nobody had a bigger house or better job, and all tribes were equidistant from the divine center of the camp. The desert was the great equalizer, and the Torah was given that way, to belong to each and every member of the nation. The Jewish people have certainly changed since then. Toto, we’re not in Sinai anymore.

My wish for the Jewish people this Pesach is that we all remember our time in the desert as a moment of equality before God. Eating matzo should remind us of the basic simplicity of our existence, and return us to our spiritual roots, where we feel the pure divine spirit of goodness and generosity within our souls, and where the process of connecting to God doesn’t require so much stuff.


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