The Spiritual and the Material: Wealth and Stereotypes on the High Holidays
I just came home from a trip to my local suburban mall with two friends from elementary school. The mall is looking good – the walls are an upscale beige accented with stained wood, and new stores like Coach and BCBG emphasize that those who shop here must have ample money to spend. The mall is clearly marked as Jewish, too, with shoppers wearing long skirts, kippas, or less modest clothing adorned with Jewish symbols and summer camp logos. It’s a far cry from the aqua green and off-pink colour scheme that graced the mall in our childhood, although shoppers then were still primarily Jewish. As we wandered around the mall, we felt more than a little awkward, and our conversation turned to the next awkward event coming up in our lives: the High Holidays.
Rosh Hashanah comes just after Labour Day this year, and Yom Kippur follows (as always) a scant 10 days later. The awkwardness isn’t because the holidays are so early in 2010, but rather because it’s time to get dressed up in scratchy clothes and spend long days in shul, occasionally making small talk with the folks we haven’t seen since this time last year.
All three of us were synagogue-goers in our childhood, but the High Holidays are a different ballgame from your usual Saturday morning affair. Everyone shows up dressed in their finest, and at some synagogues, people can even buy tickets that will provide them with a reserved seat near the front. While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are ostensibly about beginning the process of spiritual judgement, where God serves as the ultimate examiner, it sometimes feels like more judgement is occurring between fellow service attendees, as parents compare which degrees their children will be receiving this spring and teens check out who has brand name clothes and shoes. Ironically, Yom Kippur is the one day in a year where we are supposed to strive to move away from the physical: many observant Jews avoid make-up and perfumes, as well as the luxury of leather shoes (although these days, you can sub vegan leather, and nobody can tell the difference).
What does Yom Kippur have to do with our awkwardness at the mall? In both situations, it wasn’t just the ostentatious materialism that had me feeling uncomfortable, but the fact that the materialism was so clearly marked as Jewish. My discomfort comes from the connection of affluence and materialism with harmful stereotypes about Jews that frequently connect to material wealth. I know any affluent suburb would have a similar mall, and that folks at church on Easter judge each other just as much as folks at shul on Rosh Hashana. Yet my sense of unease remains, perhaps because I am worried that Jews and non-Jews alike will see the Jewish shoppers at the mall or the (non)- worshippers on the High Holidays as affirming specifically Jewish stereotypes. I suppose it’s food for thought this coming Yom Kippur (the only kind of food I’ll be having that day!), but in the meantime, I’ll probably just avoid the mall altogether. It’ll be kinder to both my psyche and my wallet.