I have a particularly vivid memories of visiting New York City as a small child. We’d take a bus, my mother and grandmother and I, early in the morning, from Western Massachusetts, where we lived. We took this trip every year from third grade until high school, planning our consumer attacks on Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s to buy school clothes. We’d eat dinner in the basement of Macy’s, where it was dim, bustling and smelled like coffee. Then we’d pile our shopping bags onto the bus for a long, cramped ride home.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I learned that some people thought that all Jews were rich. In my world, they weren’t. Growing up, it had been painfully obvious to me that some Jewish communities had money, and my mother wanted to associate with people in those communities. If we didn’t actually have money, we at least had to appear to have it.
American Jews have built identity around the idea of making it, to the degree, I believe, that we push those who have not achieved academically and financially, to the margins. But money remains a source of deep shame for me, my lack of it growing up, a still-fresh wound. Because of this, I keep it close.
A year ago, I went on a weekend retreat with a group of other women who work at Jewish nonprofits. We talked about voice, family, power, body image and financial literacy. It was the financial literacy section that I approached with some dread. In our small groups, we mapped our financial lives. This was a group of women well versed in investments, stocks, credit ratings and retirement plans, and I felt overwhelmed. Not one of my colleagues seemed to lack the vocabulary for discussing this. Not one of them admitted to having financial trouble.
It made me angry, this assumption that we all had the same relationship to money — namely, that we all had it and could speak about it with confidence ad fluidity. On one hand, this moment was a feminist victory — women seemingly in charge of their own money; on the other hand, the assumption that every woman in the room was of the same financial status made me feel invisible.
Just as a certain portion of the American Jewish community has internalized the idea of it own wealth, it’s a similar story for women in an age when many believe that feminism has come and gone, that women are now unequivocally equal. We don’t need to pay attention to other realities, because they don’t exist. And if they do, it’s because people aren’t trying. When we don’t create space to talk about the realities of class in the Jewish community, we enable a culture of shame, of fear, of inauthenticity and, ultimately, of exclusion.
To this day, it’s hard for me to accumulate things. I think of the piles of clothing in their wrappers on the couch in my mother’s room, waiting for years to be worn. Regardless of her best efforts to convince me, I never touched most of them. I wore jeans, and it drove my mother crazy. “You have so many beautiful new clothes,” she’d say. “What will people think if you just wear the same pair of pants everyday?” It was hard to make her understand that everyone wore jeans, they were normal and inconspicuous, and in spite of everything, or maybe because of it, that was all I wanted to be.
Chanel Dubofsky is a writer and Jewish educator in New York City.
Searching for a Safe Place To Talk About Jews, Wealth and Class