The Tsuris of Gelt
Until I was 12, c. 1958, my family lived first in the Jewish American heartland, the Bronx, and then in an immigrant enclave of Queens. During those years I never once heard any denigration of Jewish people. If that seems impossible, I concede I might just have forgotten it—but I honestly don’t remember a single slur, anti-Semitic incident, or hurtful comment.
When we moved to Long Island, all that changed. Suddenly people were asking me if I rolled around the aisles in synagogue. Jewish in spirit only, we didn’t go to synagogue, so I had no idea if people rolled around in them. Nor did I know why I was being asked. On the first day of school, my sister and I were called kikes, and when I asked her what it meant she, staring straight ahead, hissed furiously, “Shut up!”
As for money—gelt—I didn’t know that, as a Jew, I was supposed to love it more than life itself. I noticed that most adults wanted more of it, but this was true of them all, Jewish or not. I didn’t know I was famously “cheap,” especially since I was always buying my friends candy and cigarettes (or, more often, shoplifting and distributing them). I didn’t recognize an anti-Semitic remark when I heard one; in fact, the stuff my new friends said seemed really stupid, so I pretended to be dumber than I was in order to fit in.
On the way home from the bus stop one day, two girls and I were speculating as to what we were each probably having for dinner; I said I expected Campbell’s soup. I didn’t realize that in their households, which were poorer than mine, soup was frequently served for the full meal; in our family it was just a first course. I told the girls that my mother added extra water because there were five in my family, causing them to start laughing and exchange knowing glances. I stared at them blankly. What were they laughing at? Years later I got it: they thought my parents were cheapskate Jews and we lived on diluted soup. At the time I understood none of these cryptic clues about miserly Jews.
I don’t know why or how it happened, but when I finally put the pieces together and saw what they thought I was–a money-hungry Jew–I had a visceral reaction. It was as if I literally reached down inside myself and flicked a switch: then and there I became someone who would never, ever, make money a priority. I would never, ever do anything, purely for the sake of making money. I would never base any of my choices on their financial ramifications. I tell you, I kept these vows more faithfully than I’ve stuck to anything else in my life. I was a Jew for sure—but I’d show them a Jew could be generous, or not even care about money. I was a Jew, but never, by g-d, a Jew who loved money!
I trained myself to despise the filthy stuff. Any time I accidentally got my hands on a substantial amount of cash, I spent it as quickly as possible. Other people sell stuff they no longer want, but I give old cars, furniture, and electronic gadgets away when I upgrade. Bills get crunched up and stuffed carelessly in my purse; coins float around in my pockets, bags, and the cushions of my furniture. I throw pennies away. You’ll never catch me saving money, and the only valuable thing I own is my computer. I take great pride in being unattached to things, so unattached that I break, stain, mar and maim everything I own. I’m proud, on a political level, of not being “materialistic.”
I set out to live my life by these principles. I knew nothing about the way money worked. Stocks and investments were a complete mystery. Even interest on savings was inscrutable. At 24 I left my (Jewish) husband, in part because he was making a lot of money selling life insurance, and using it to buy new suits and fancy cars. Vietnam was raging, rock&roll was in its ascendancy, and I was trotting about my big bright kitchen, supervising pots on the automatic pudding stirrer and staying up late to oversee my miraculous self-cleaning oven. When I began smoking pot and saw I’d turned into the ultimate Suburban Housewife, I swore to get out. I took enough child support from my ex- to get by, but not a penny of alimony. By then I fancied myself a Marxist and a feminist, and I was going to be a self-supporting independent woman.
We all know how that turned out.
I don’t know about other people, but to me it seems natural, at 66, to look back and analyze the narrative of my life. I admit that, being obsessive, I might’ve gone overboard; I’ve been doing this for at least ten years already–but what the hell, I write the same way, constantly revising. The more I revise, the more clarity I gain. Thinking and writing about how being Jewish affected my relationship to money, I feel pretty foolish for being such an idiot–but I also see the damage done by anti-semitism. No, I wasn’t so unfortunate as to live in Nazi Germany, nor have I been prevented from doing anything significant because of my religion/ethnicity. But fighting against nasty stereotypes helped push me into poverty and placed serious limitations on my life. I’m not making excuses for myself, believe me; I’m just examining all sides of the issue.
Now I live in a dirt poor neighborhood, and I’m constantly being hit up on the street. People assume I’ve got money–but more than half my clothes were inherited from a wealthy friend who left me her Fifth Avenue wardrobe when she died of lung cancer, and my teeth look good because I sacrificed car ownership to get them fixed. I guess I look like a stereotypical American Jew : loaded. Well, get a load of this: the other day I walked over to the Alameda County Food Bank to pick up the fixin’s for dinner. Of course, I still cook like a suburban party hostess, so the casserole I threw together was excellent—except I kept wishing I had a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup to toss into it. Like they say, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.