April 21, 2010
From Alef: Labeled Goods
By Sarah Pumroy
The first time I realized that Jews had money was when I began attending Hebrew school at my synagogue in fifth grade. I remember staring at Lindsay Stein’s maroon wool sweatshirt that said “Fitch” in white letters and having no idea what it meant. I thought that maybe it was a bad word, since it rhymed with one.
But no, it was a brand name, Abercrombie & Fitch, of course, and it was the first time I realized there was a such thing as a “brand name.” Suddenly it seemed like everyone but me was wearing brand name clothing. I began noticing how lame my Kohl’s bootcut jeans looked next to their A&F flares. When I asked my mother to buy me these expensive lines of clothing, she laughed.
“What do you need those for?” she said.
“You want me to pay $90 for jeans that come with holes already in them? They’re shmatas – I don’t think so.”
That was when I started feeling inadequate.
Once the bar and bat mitzvah years approached, the differences between my background and theirs became even more apparent. I remember the after-parties: artists hired to draw caricatures of guests, photo booths where you could take a photo that would be transferred to a button that said “Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah – July 10th, 1997″ around the border, entire buildings of country clubs rented out and elaborately decorated to look like a “winter wonderland.” My bat mitzvah party was in the synagogue social hall. It was nice, but certainly humble compared to my peers’.
We’ve never been poor. My parents both have masters degrees and good jobs. We’ve never had financial assistance from the government as far as I know, not that there’s anything shameful about that. We took vacations, went out to eat every Thursday, and my parents paid for my entire college education. But we were simply always middle class, like most of my peers that attended public school with me in St. Paul, MN. And I never felt bad about that until I started my Jewish education. My peers at Hebrew school were all from the suburbs, had huge houses, their mothers all had plastic surgery–you could simply tell they just came from money.
If it were just that they were richer than me, maybe I would have gotten over it. But these girls were also snobby, cliquey, and simply not that nice. I never became good friends with any of them. I remember crying one Sunday morning on the way to the synagogue because of how much I dreaded feeling like an outsider when I was there.
I would have eventually figured out that there were people out there who were much wealthier than me. But I regret that it had to be Judaism that introduced me to it. It put a bad taste in my mouth — one that took many good Jewish experiences for me to get over. As I became older, I started life guarding at the Jewish Community Center. I volunteered with little kids for the JCC plays. The summer after 9th grade, I became a camp counselor at Jewish day camp, where I made a ton of friends and had one of the best summers of my life, and great experiences over the three summers that followed. I went on a Birthright Israel trip my senior year in college, which gave my perception of Judaism a new richness, and eventually led me to where I am now, working at an exciting Jewish organization that does follow-up for Birthright Israel alumni and their peers.
I want to excel in my career and become successful to the point where I don’t have to worry about money, where I can go out to eat whenever I want, own a nice home, and take vacations. I value money to the extent that it can help me live a comfortable lifestyle. But my views on money will always be informed by the way my parents raised me and the things they taught me – that I shouldn’t flaunt my money, that I should follow a budget and pad my savings account, and as for brand names, they can be overrated.
Check out Birthright Israel NEXT’s Alef: The NEXT Conversation. It is a webzine that explores Jewish identity. From memoirs on “Why I Eat What I Eat” to a soul-searching narrative on serving jury duty during the High Holidays, Alef showcases the diversity of Jewish identity through stories, pictures, poems, music and more.