I’m Jewish and poor. Should I feel ashamed?

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - KAREN GLASER

When mother-of-four Danielle waits for her chil­dren at their Jewish pri­mary school, the talk around her is of hol­i­days, shop­ping and sim­chahs. “I feel com­pletely alone,” she says. “It’s as though ev­ery­one as­sumes that ev­ery­one else is al­right fi­nan­cially. But I’m strug­gling for money all the time. When there’s a bar­mitz­vah, I’m pan­ick­ing, think­ing how can we af­ford a gift, how can I buy my daugh­ter a dress? How can we look nor­mal?”

She’s not on Face­book. “I can’t take all the pictures of peo­ple on hol­i­day, eat­ing out, giv­ing their chil­dren presents. I can’t af­ford to do that. Over the hol­i­days we went out once, to the cin­ema.

It’s not that I’m jeal­ous. I’m just sad that I can’t give these things to my kids. In­stead I’m count­ing ev­ery penny. At the end of the month we’re liv­ing on eggs and whatever’s in the freezer. I can’t take my child to play­dates, be­cause we can’t af­ford to run out of petrol. Peo­ple just don’t un­der­stand.”

Danielle feels iso­lated, but she is not alone. Take He­len, for ex­am­ple. Ev­ery morn­ing while Nathan, their teenage son, is asleep He­len and her hus­band creep into his bed­room to get their clothes for the day. They sleep in the liv­ing room of the fam­ily’s one-bed­room flat but their wardrobe is in Nathan’s room.

Al­though he’s at univer­sity, Nathan still lives with his par­ents be­cause this means he doesn’t have to spend his stu­dent loan on rent. He de­scribes his home as cosy, but even this mea­sured young man was sur­prised when, a few years ago, he vis­ited a Jewish class­mate whose Hatch End house had a play room that cov­ered more square me­tres than Nathan’s en­tire Hack­ney flat.

For her part, He­len will never for­get the time she picked Nathan up from an­other school friend’s pala­tial home, and had the plumb­ing ex­plained to her by the friend’s mother. “I guess she’d ap­praised my sec­ond-hand clothes and my undyed hair and con­cluded I wouldn’t know that not all loos flush man­u­ally. She was right.”

He­len felt judged, but also feels she can judge the other woman’s ‘ma­te­ri­al­is­tic’ lifestyle. “Partly be­cause it’s not ex­actly deep and mean­ing­ful and partly be­cause it must be a pres­sure to live like that, to feel you must con­stantly keep up ma­te­ri­ally. Yes, I guess it’d be nice to book the­atre tick­ets with­out fret­ting about the cost, and nice not to be in per­ma­nent overdraft, but this is how many peo­ple in the UK live.”

It is cer­tainly how I live. Like He­len, I work full-time. And like He­len, I earn a bit more than the av­er­age UK salary of £27, 271. It means I can get to the end of the month, but I don’t re­mem­ber the last time my bank ac­count was in the black. My tight fi­nances also mean that when my kids were at a Jewish pri­mary I didn’t al­ways pay the school’s vol­un­tary con­tri­bu­tions in full, and that when my daugh­ter went on Is­rael tour last year I ap­plied for a bur­sary. I didn’t relish ei­ther thing.

It is not al­ways easy to say: I can’t af­ford it. Put an­other way, even though phil­an­thropic Jews give money to com­mu­nal or­gan­i­sa­tions so kids like mine can go on Is­rael tour, part of me feels that if I can’t af­ford to send her, my daugh­ter shouldn’t go.

I guess I am not com­fort­able be­ing the per­son you help.

Susan Ja­cobs isn’t ei­ther, and feels she suffers class prej­u­dice too. “I grew up in a coun­cil flat in Hack­ney and I now live above a shop in the same bor­ough. I’m not mid­dle-class poor, I’m work­ing-class poor. Most pupils at my chil­dren’s Jewish sec­ondary school have money or ed­u­ca­tion in their fam­i­lies, or both.

“Boys there have called my daugh­ter a chav be­cause of where we live and how she talks, which re­ally up­sets her. And last week my son came home cry­ing be­cause he’d been teased be­cause of his ‘Hack­ney’ hair­cut. He asked me why I send them to the school when we are so dif­fer­ent from most peo­ple who go there.”

Why are some of us in­sen­si­tive or sneer­ing at other peo­ple’s lack of money? And why do peo­ple like me feel dis­com­fort when we ask for a bit of help? Teacher Annabel Lerner thinks it’s be­cause of our im­mi­grant past. “Es­cap­ing poverty and es­tab­lish­ing your­self very quickly in new places is part of the Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence. For many Jews, hav­ing fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity has be­come a badge of hon­our.”

The no­tion of gen­teel poverty doesn’t re­ally ex­ist in An­glo-Jewry. Rather than do a bar­mitz­vah on a bud­get, two fam­i­lies I know ducked the cer­e­mony al­to­gether. Asceti­cism and pri­va­tion are largely for­eign to Ju­daism: the dom­i­nant note in the re­li­gion is op­ti­mism, faith in a God who de­lights in the hap­pi­ness of his crea­tures and ex­pects their grate­ful ap­pre­ci­a­tion of his boun­ties. In Chris­tian­ity ho­li­ness of­ten re­sides in poverty and chastity. Could these an­cient pre­cepts have shaped at­ti­tudes to those strug­gling in our midst to­day? Or maybe it’s be­cause of all the ex­tra costs in­volved in be­ing Jewish. From keep­ing kosher to Is­rael trips, it’s an ex­pen­sive busi­ness.

Sin­gle par­ent Claire Co­hen avoids some par­ents at her kids’ school. “I think they’d be judge­men­tal about our one-bed­room flat, and to be hon­est I’d be ashamed if they saw how we live. They in­habit a world where it’s nor­mal to go on two hol­i­days a year and in which a cleaner comes three times a week. I wish I could give my kids that kind of life.

“Many of the women I know live the good life be­cause of the money their hus­bands bring home. If they’d had chil­dren with a no-gooder, as I did, they’d prob­a­bly be in the same fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion as me.”

But even when there is no hig­h­earn­ing spouse in the frame, if you are Jewish and skint it is not that un­com­mon for your fam­ily to help you out. Al­though she de­scribes her­self as cash poor, Annabel Lerner says a fam­ily in­her­i­tance means that un­like many teach­ers she is as­set rich. And ra­dio pro­ducer Fiona Stevens is hon­est about the fact that at the age of 47, her par­ents help her fi­nan­cially. “When my non-Jewish friends say they are broke, you know they re­ally mean it. They are amazed at the sup­port Jews get.”

Since her teenage years, she has shunned peo­ple that she terms os­ten­ta­tious, pre­fer­ring “in­tel­lec­tu­als.” Some peo­ple might be dis­mis­sive be­cause she’s poor, she says “but it doesn’t re­ally bother me. It’s not un­com­mon for peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion in com­pa­ra­ble jobs to our par­ents to be worse off than them. The cost of liv­ing is higher to­day.”

It’s much harder if there is no fam­ily help at hand. This is the re­al­ity for Alan Mil­ner, a hair­dresser who works long hours for lit­tle money.

“I work very hard for my money, I just don’t make very much of it. I am not par­tic­u­larly em­bar­rassed by my sit­u­a­tion, I ac­cept who I am and what I have in my pocket,” he says.

He some­times needs to spell his sit­u­a­tion out to oth­ers. He vis­ited his daugh­ter’s school to dis­cuss re­duc­ing the vol­un­tary con­tri­bu­tions he was strug­gling to pay ev­ery month. “You can only imag­ine my sur­prise when the meet­ing be­gan and it was ob­vi­ous they thought I wanted to pay more.”

When my daugh­ter was at a Jewish school there was a brief pe­riod when the gov­ern­ing body asked some par­ents to ring oth­ers at home and ef­fec­tively shame them into cough­ing up their vol­un­tary con­tri­bu­tions. I was asked to take part but I de­clined. Never as­sume that ‘don’t pay’ is ‘won’t pay’. Some­times it’s ‘can’t pay’.

Danielle re­fuses to feel em­bar­rass­ment. “Noth­ing will change un­less we speak about this. Peo­ple need to have more un­der­stand­ing, more sen­si­tiv­ity. I’m not ashamed. I know it’s not our fault that we strug­gle for money.”

The feel­ing of be­ing judged or pa­tro­n­ised falls away when deal­ing with Jewish char­i­ties, I’m glad to say. When I ap­plied for a bur­sary for my daugh­ter’s Is­rael tour I was grilled about my fi­nances but at no point in the process did I feel looked down upon. It’s a sim­i­lar story at her kids’ sec­ondary, says Susan. “When staff are col­lect­ing money for books or the school’s an­nual cal­en­dar, they’ll say some­thing thought­ful like,

‘Oh, don’t worry, your mum has al­ready paid.’ ”

Danielle is full of praise for Jewish char­i­ties, not just for the ma­te­rial help she gets, rang­ing from Fri­day night chal­lahs to bur­saries for

Is­rael trips, but for the sheer kind­ness ex­tended by ev­ery­one from char­ity work­ers to her lo­cal rabbi.

One night, un­able to sleep, she wrote a let­ter to say thank you. “Please re­mem­ber that my fam­ily would be lost with­out all of you, your work is greatly val­ued and ap­pre­ci­ated, you are the un­sung he­roes of our com­mu­nity.”

With­out them, she says, she could have gone un­der. “It’s a huge con­trast to the ter­ri­ble way I am treated by the ben­e­fits sys­tem and the coun­cil. I can see why peo­ple out­side our com­mu­nity be­come des­per­ate and do des­per­ate things.”

Some names have been changed

I feel so alone when oth­ers talk about their hol­i­days and shop­ping and treats

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