Suburban Economics

Apr 4th, 2011

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The more I live, the more I see it’s true: There are no perfect choices, no life path that is completely right. More accurately, there are various costs, and various rewards, associated with certain choices.

The economics of living has been on my mind because people keep sending me interesting links. My friend W sent me this one, about two middle aged Jewish women in the LA area who earn their very significant living on dying. The Shiva Sisters provide bereaved, wealthy Jews with meals and the other million little shiva logistics which are so comforting not to have to think of when you are mourning.

The service is obviously essential in any Jewish community, but W does it in my community for free, as a Hesed (Act of Kindness), and I imagine many other communities like mine have their own shiva committees – kind ladies in Land’s End parkas who schlep low chairs and high candles, cover mirrors, organize meals, make sure everyone knows the time of the funeral and the times the families want visitors, get the rabbi to bring by the appropriate books. Etc.

That this is a paid service for our swankier, more secular American brethren makes me sad, mostly for W, who could be a millionaire by now. But never mind. That is the price that community pays for total religious freedom and absolute privacy: They have no strict communal standards of behavior short of lawn length (wear and eat what you like on whatever day you like!) and kids do not drop by unannounced at all hours of the day to play, thereby dirtying $50,000 hand-woven Chilean rugs. But they pay for shiva, and I’m guessing every play date must be repaid in a timely fashion.

In my mostly Orthodox, middle-class, suburban community in Israel, you are likely to get soup from a neighbor if you have the flu. If you have minor surgery, you’ll get a squadron of ladies cooking your family dinner for days. Major surgery or prolonged illness, and you are looking at a brigade. W’s committee swoops in at the first sign of a mortal event (I affectionately call her ‘The Angel of Death.’)

In health, too: You will never have to ask more than two people before you find someone willing to take your 6-year-old for the weekend while you go away for a Bar Mitzvah. Small kids wander freely looking for friends; play “dates” within the community are rare because playing just happens ad hoc, wherever a mother or babysitter is home to let you in. Oreos (thankfully, now Kosher, and heavily imported) ensue. Twelve-year-old boys take the local bus to get burgers, and the street is a sea of pre-teens every Friday night, socializing in the warm evening with few concerns about weirdos and cars (very few people drive on the Sabbath where we live), and too many concerns about their hair.

All of this caring and freedom for younger kids comes with a price: Very little privacy, very little personal space, very little room to declare more than minor theological or practical religious differences – best to keep those to yourself or among very close friends. Our community is Modern Orthodox – people work in very advanced sectors of the real world (engineering, medicine, law, academia) and many of the women learn religious texts on a level that exceeds that of many of the men. Still other women walk around in jeans and a bunch of the guys get together to play poker. Most people are aware of (or even actively engage in) popular culture. We read mostly everything.

And yet, discrepancies between the genders certainly exists, and it also takes very little to create a scandal, as the borders of acceptable behaviors and utterances are quite deliberate, mostly as outlined in the system of Jewish Law and Tradition. It keeps our kids safe and earnest (reward), and keeps creative, free-thinking adults somewhat less autonomously operative than they would be elsewhere (price….although some would strongly argue: another reward.)

I have a recent example, but the local Orthodox among my readers would be mad at me for talking about it, and the non-Orthodox among you wouldn’t believe me, anyway. Let us just say that even on Purim, the most permissive day of the Jewish year, it is best to remain tuned to a Disney frequency if you don’t want to get in trouble. In general, I spend a good bit of time just trying not to get in trouble. Maybe I care too much about what people think…But as words and reactions and observations are large chunks of my job, it is hard to ignore them.

Striking a balance where kids grow up with a real knowledge of and pride in their heritage; where the community is supportive; where acts of kindness are second nature and yet – individuals have total freedom, significant privacy, and ultimate independence – is fairly impossible. These costs and rewards are pretty much at odds. I must say that Modern Orthodoxy does a much better job at balancing these values than the Ultra-Orthodox; religious coercion is certainly at a bare minimum here.

But still – one must know that communal warmth comes with communal heat, just as residential cool comes with a lonely chill.

Some choices help you fulfill your job in the world, and some help you avoid doing so. A person’s central challenge is to choose a life based on an accurate assessment of whether she can afford the price for the sought after reward, and, perhaps, to identify if the reward is keeping her at her most productive, or simply keeping her quiet.

And sometimes, a person’s job is to identify that none of it is about you any longer at all. That is a conclusion that bears an enormously high price, but hopefully, an equally high reward…apparent sometimes only later. Much later.

Ask W about the things she’s seen and heard after someone is gone, and you know it’s true. I suppose it’s mostly worth it.

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  1. 6 Responses to “Suburban Economics”

  2. Not mostly worth it – totally worth it. It may not always seem that way and there may be small episodes here and there, but the big picture tells a VERY positive story. Those of us in the “situation” you beautifully detailed above should consider ourselves among the lucky ones.

    By Your Bro on Apr 5, 2011

  3. As usual, this is a beautiful piece. I feel bad for the recipients of the “shiva ladies”. I remember eating baked ziti for a week when helping out with other kids, when my daughter was laid up from knee surgery..they were all delivered so lovingly from friends, neighbors…
    or when I came back to Baltimore from shiva on erev Rosh Hashanah, and meals were arranged, but people kept coming over with food saying, “I’m not on the list, I just wanted to make sure you had enough”…it’s almost like Purim with mishloach manot…ish l’rayahu…you find out who your good friends (and sometimes just acquaintances who want to do a chesed) are…In that suburban locale…you are right…even though the climate is must be so cold living there.
    About your description of your community and modern orthodoxy..right on…I wish I could personally reflect on living in Israel, maybe and hopefully sometime in the future that dream will come true!!
    You are a great writer and continue…you express yourself (and what others think) very profoundly..and I am personally proud of you (third grade was NOT so long ago)

    By BubbyT on Apr 5, 2011

  4. Excellent as always.

    I totally want to hear the purim story you are referring to… :)

    Perhaps because of your readership, you have equated modern orthodoxy with the Dati Leumi movement. In my mind they are separate and supremely distinct.

    Curious if you share that perspective and used MO for lack of a better, relevant translation, or if you disagree with my assertion…

    By Noah Roth on Apr 22, 2011

  5. Noah – just saw this now. I am not sure if I agree or not. So many fractions that I prefer united theories when possible, altho I know that is not the most intellectual answer. Either way, my community is American enough for it to stick.

    By Sara K. Eisen on May 6, 2011

  6. I’d like to comment in honor/memory of Rifka Rosenwein, who must have “fulfilled her job in [this] world”…. To anyone who enjoyed this post, I recommend Rifka’s book which comes to mind — Life in the Present Tense: Reflections on Family and Faith. (And it’s Thanksgiving weekend… let us count our blessings!)

    By Sharon Ainspan on Nov 25, 2011

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