‘Write about the most humiliating experience of your life” was the assignment, given as advice by a noted writing teacher I’d gone to hear. I didn’t have to dig deep for my subject even though the experience occurred more than 50 years ago.
There it was in my mind’s eye: the image of my 8-year-old sister sitting in the school cafeteria with the kids from low-income or single-parent families. All the other elementary school kids had stay-at-home moms and went home for lunch.
We middle-schoolers stayed in school at lunchtime. When my sister would spot me across the cafeteria and excitedly wave, “Hey, Ricki,” I’d cringe in shame and pretend I didn’t see her. It was too mortifying to acknowledge her at the table with the kids whose moms worked.
My sister sat at what I called “the poor kids’ table” because of the financial misfortunes of my family. My father had died a few months before, leaving behind a mound of debt. A widow left with no money, my mother, a former nurse, went to work in the local hospital where the shifts were long and wages low. We moved from our three-bedroom house to a cramped rental apartment in an old semi-detached house in another part of town where we had few friends.
Our fall from economic grace was even more humiliating because we were Jewish. In my town Jews constituted a minority; most were middle or upper class. Middle-class folk, like we had been when my father was alive, lived in religiously and culturally diverse neighborhoods while the affluent Jews lived in Jewish-populated enclaves with oversized houses, swimming pools and fancy cars. Lower-middle-class Jews and Jews who (heaven forbid!) lived near the poverty line were rare.
The Jewish community had to have known about our financial hardship because shortly after my dad’s passing, our synagogue offered my mother a position as a paid wedding coordinator. So, in addition to her nursing job, she often worked Sundays and weeknights to make ends meet.
My mother was determined not to let us “look poor.” Although I lacked the financial credentials to join the rich, popular and snobby Jewish girls clique, I was dressed impeccably. No one knew that my mother bought our clothes at bargain-basement prices and gratefully accepted “donations” from family and friends.
To hide our true financial status, my mother even gave more than we could afford to the United Jewish Appeal. I remember reading the federation’s annual report that “broadcasted” in print each family’s donation for all to see (and probably judge). Many of the kids I knew were from “big donor” families, which made me feel embarrassed and isolated because of my family’s finances. As a consequence, I grew up feeling different than and disconnected from my Jewish peers.
That “outsider” mindset was reinforced by the harsh reality that I was fatherless. I dreaded the High Holy Days when normal families with two parents descended on the synagogue — a blatant reminder of the emotional and financial loss that abruptly changed the lives of my family. I felt especially contemptuous of the affluent Jews who seemed to flaunt their wealth, making me feel ashamed of our fallen position on the economic ladder.
Surprisingly, despite the passage of 50 years and the skyrocketing fortunes of American Jews, such income disparity in the Jewish community has not been eradicated. On the contrary, as the fortunes of privileged American Jews have risen, so has the number of impoverished Jews.
According to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty’s website, “Today the number of poor and near-poor in the Jewish community [in New York City] has swelled to over 500,000.”
A “national convening” on Jewish Poverty was even held this past March in San Francisco to address this growing issue, which most mainstream Jews fail to acknowledge either intentionally (being poor and Jewish is a “shanda” in their eyes) or unintentionally (lack of knowledge and community discussion about the Jewish poor).
Who are these Jewish have-nots of the 21st century? Holocaust survivors, immigrants for whom the American dream has remained elusive, elderly Jews living on fixed incomes and charedim who are often blamed for their impoverishment for studying Torah at the expense of working, not to mention their high procreation rates. And then there are Jews, like my family, whose economic status “turned on a dime” due to circumstances beyond their control: death of a breadwinner, sudden loss of a job, divorce, illness, escalating rent and cost of living, etc.
More social services and funding resources are certainly vital in addressing the issue of Jewish poverty. To me, as one who grew up in a financially challenged Jewish family, it also behooves us, as a community and as individuals, to be more empathetic and less judgmental towards our needy brethren. Isn’t it time to embrace and welcome them back into the Jewish community?
Fredricka R. Maister is a freelance writer, formerly based in New York City, now residing in Philadelphia.