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