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Jewish Materialism

Gerrit Dou, The Moneylender, 1664 [1]

Gerrit Dou, The Moneylender, 1664

4,165 words

Editor’s Note:

The following essay on Jewish materialism is excerpted from When Victims Rule, chapter 5, “Yicchus (Status),” formerly on the Jewish Tribal Review website. I have removed the in-text citations for easier reading and added the title.

Jewish pride and concern for status and material affluence has a long history. There is a Yiddish word for it: yicchus, which connotes the traditional Jewish importance of personal and familial prestige, status, and a respected reputation in the community. This yicchus could be obtained for parents by their children’s marriage to a spouse of higher standing. But yicchus could be lost too, for instance, by stooping to manual labor. “In his ghetto community [the Jew] strove for yicchus,” wrote Harry Golden, “a word which has remained to this day the most important word in Jewish culture. . . . [It] is more than a thousand years old. . . . Yiddish and Hebrew are filled with words denoting the nuances of community standing.” Originally supposedly rooted in family genealogies and scholarship, it also grew to reflect upper class occupations, material affluence, and — for many — ostentatious display of ownership. As Zborowski and Herzog put it:

Historically, traditionally, ideally, learning has been and is regarded as the primary value and wealth as subsidiary or complementary. Economic pressures and outside influence have made of wealth a constant contender for first place in the value hierarchy.

David Koskoff even suggests that the idea of the marriage bond expressed as expensive jewelry has roots in ancient Jewish history, where the wedding ring had to be

large, heavy, and gold. It was expected to be of a specified value and fully paid for! Indeed, in the Hebrew stipulation that the ring must have a stipulated value, we see, perhaps, the origins of later customs which laid down that a wedding ring must be durable and of some worth — not a mere trifle. . . . The basic principle survives today. It is not the thought that counts, it is the money.

In non-religious Jewish circles, the principles of economic status (and embarrassment) are the same. “Community pressure can be exerted in many other ways,” says Yaffe,

Some [Jewish] federations publish a book at the end of each [fund-raising] campaign, in which the names of all contributors and the amounts of their contributions are listed. In Cleveland this book is mailed free of charge to every affiliated member of the Jewish community. . . . [At fund-raising dinners] the same thing goes on. . . . After the food and the speeches, the name of each guest is read out from a stack of cards, and he is required to stand up and announce how much he intends to give — and to hand in his signed pledge then and there.

Zalman Schachter was asked why many young Jews in the post-1960s era left Judaism for other faiths like Buddhism. “First,” he replied,

. . . it doesn’t feel real if it comes from their own thing. If you come to shul on Yom Kippur — this is the gross level, yah? — and you know you’re going to be hit for the United Jewish Appeal and the building fund, you can’t take your own tradition seriously.

The above kinds of expression of Jewish competitive pride, material self-worth, ostentation, and economic centeredness even at the heart of their religion — often aggravating anti-Jewish sentiment in surrounding Gentile populations — have been widely criticized. The wealthy Jewish gravitation to ostentation in Amsterdam (in the 1500s and 1600s) is noted by Jewish scholar Herbert Bloom:

If we compare [in Amsterdam] the Sephardic Jews’ luxurious and extravagant lifestyle with the simpler and more restrained ways of the average wealthy Dutchman, the contrast is striking and served to accentuate the traditional association between the Jew and money.

“In Germany,” notes Joachim Prinz,

forty Marrano [“secret” Jewish] families participated in founding the Bank of Hamburg in 1619, and by the middle of that century they were accused of having too luxurious a life style, as evidenced by their palatial homes and their ostentatious funerals and weddings. . . . Some of the finest homes in Amsterdam belonged to newly arrived Marranos.

Oscar Rank (formerly Rosenfeld), an earlier Jewish psychoanalyst and follower of Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s, complained that Jews in Vienna go “out of boredom to the synagogue and reduce it to a place of business, as if it were a branch of the stock exchange. The women show off their dresses, or what is beneath them; the men discuss petty affairs, but not what is beneath them.” Walter Rathenau, the first Jewish foreign minister of Germany, noted (in 1897) Jewish ostentatious display in Germany, where he spotted “the curious vision of a completely alien tribe of people, conspicuously overdressed, of mobile and hot-blooded gesture. An Asiatic horde here on the sands of Brandenburg!” Another Jew, Mordechai Breuer, took a harsher look at the European synagogue tradition as Jewry looked at itself during the Enlightenment: “What will the goyim say? was the question many an Ashkenazi Jew asked himself in view of the uncouth behavior, noisy commotion, and lack of formal structure that had established themselves in numerous synagogues.” Walter Lippman, a prominent American journalist of German-Jewish descent, complained about excessive expressions of ostentation in the Jewish community of New York City in the early decades of the twentieth century:

The rich and vulgar and pretentious Jews of our big cities are perhaps the greatest misfortune that has ever befallen the Jewish people. They are the real fountain of anti-Semitism. They are everywhere in sight, and though their vices may be no greater than those of other jazzy elements in the population, they are a thousand times more conspicuous. . . . When they rush about in super-automobiles, bejeweled and be-furred and painted and overbarbered, when they build themselves French chateaus and Italian palazzi, they stir up the latent hatred against crude wealth in the hands of shallow people: and that hatred diffuses itself. They undermine the natural liberalism of the American people. . . . The Jew is conspicuous, and unless in his own conduct of life he manages to  demonstrate the art of moderate, clean and generous living, every failure will magnify itself in woe upon the heads of the helpless and unfortunate.

Harold Hochschild, Jewish chairman of a mining conglomerate, noted in a private memo in 1940 that

Anyone who visits restaurants, theatre or other places of entertainment in New York especially on Saturday or holiday nights, who has traveled on large pleasure-cruise ships, or who has seen certain types of Jewish summer hotels or camps near similar Gentile resorts must admit that differences in behavior play a strong part in anti-Semitism. . . . It may not be morally wrong for Jewish women to overdress and overload themselves with jewelry and makeup, but these habits are certainly repugnant to many Gentiles.

Even Chaim Weitzmann, a pioneer Zionist and first President of modern Israel, had deep concern about many American Jews and their self-created magnetism for anti-Jewish hostility. “He believed,” says Peter Grose, “that the [American] anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s was partly the Jews own fault.” Weitzmann worried that

Along with a new generation of modest and honest workers, there is a certain part of Jewish bourgeoisie — rich, quasi-powerful, loud, vulgar, pulling a weight far in excess of their numbers, ostentatious, in the eyes of the Gentiles they and they alone represent Jewry, and this is a grave danger.

A compilation of non-Jewish observers were featured in an article about anti-Semitism in the American Hebrew of 1890, says Marie-Jane Rochelson:

Possible reasons cited for the dislike of Jews included their commercial “sharpness,” their “clannishness,” and their “vulgar” ostentation in dress and manners. It is hardly surprising that [prominent Jewish author Israel] Zangwill’s portrait of wealthy, materialistic, and family-oriented Jews in “Grandchildren” [a chapter in one of his books] evoked discomfort [among Jewish readers].

The respected Danish-American social crusader, Jacob Riis, and Lewis Hine, were the foremost photographic chroniclers of immigrant life in New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bringing to public attention the harsh urban conditions of the new poor and dispossessed from all over the world. Observing the Jewish community, Riis wrote:

Money is their God. Life is of so little value compared with even the leanest bank account. In no other spot does life wear so intensely BALD and materialist an aspect in Ludlow Street. . . . Proprieties do not count on the East Side; nothing counts that cannot be converted into hard cash.

“The great mass of American Jews,” wrote Jewish author Ralph Boas in 1917, “have sunk into a comfortable materialism. . . . The sad result is that in prosperity the Jewish self-consciousness ceases to be religious and becomes merely racial.”  “The Jew party [was] appalling,” [future First Lady] Eleanor [Roosevelt] had written her mother-in-law in 1918 after an evening with [influential Jewish mogul/politician] Bernard Baruch, “I never wish to hear money, jewels, or sables mentioned again.” Jews in early twentieth century America, notes sociologist John Higham, were popularly seen as

the quintessential parvenu — glittering with conspicuous and vulgar jewelry . . .  attracting attention by clamorous behavior, and always forcing his way into society that was above him. To treat this stereotype entirely as a scapegoat for somebody else’s psychological frustrations is to overemphasize the irrational sources of “prejudice” and to clothe the Jews in defensive innocence.

In mid-twentieth century, Judith Kramer and Seymour Levantman noted that

Lacking occupational variety and economic yichus (the prestige of old and respected family businesses), [second generation Jewish Americans] substituted money as the measure of success. Money, and what it can buy, has remained the major source of status stratifying the [Jewish American] gilded ghetto and justifying its popular appellation.

In 1998, apologist Jewish professor Judith Elkin sought to explain parallel kinds of Jewish ostentation away in Latin America, explaining that “for tourists unfamiliar with the prevailing ostentatious lifestyle of the wealthy, the expectation of Jewish wealth may appear to be borne out on first contact with mercantile and industrial entrepreneurs, especially in the Caribbean basin . . . Actually, a princely lifestyle can be sustained in Peru, Colombia, Mexico, or Brazil quite cheaply, and a household with five or six servants may be only middle class in terms of the net financial worth of the head of household.” Jewish historian Howard Sachar also notes Jewish communal ostentation in the public sphere throughout Latin America:

In Sao Paolo [Brazil], as in Mexico City or Buenos Aires [Argentina], a major focus of Jewish identity is a luxurious sports facility-country club-community center. . . . Like its model in Buenos Aires, it is called Hebraica. . . . Not to be outdone, the Jews of Rio have constructed their own modern Hebraica building on the prestigious Rua des Laranjeiras. A seven-story building, it is equipped with comparable facilities.

The sister of Jewish comedian Roseanne Barr remembers growing up in Salt Lake City and her feelings when she her family went to the local synagogue: “In a synagogue parking lot filled with Mercedeses, Lincolns, and Cadillacs, our old Chevy stood out like a sore thumb.” Barr eventually made it big in Hollywood where many famous moguls go home at the end of the work day to nearby Beverly Hills, a famed and wealthy enclave that is largely Jewish. (According to the local Jewish Federation Council, the 1990s population of Beverly Hills was 62 percent Jewish). [Beverly Hills, notes Jewish journalist Connie Bruck, is “one of the most ostentatious displays of wealth that exists in this country, a town that spawns every excess that money can by.” This city, adds Janet Steinberg, “is the quintessential symbol of opulent California life.”  As Jewish professor Barry Shain notes about this lifestyle: “I understand [President Bill Clinton’s sex playmate] Monica Lewinsky [who was raised in Beverly Hills, and is Jewish] very well. I never knew her personally, but I went to Beverly Hills High School. I understand her moral life from my experiences growing up with those wealthy Jewish women. They look upon the world as an opportunity to amuse themselves.” There are those who think that Palm Beach, Florida, is more “decadent” than Beverly Hills. One Washington DC newspaper declared, for instance, that Palm Beach is “the wealthiest and most decadent, glamorous, and self-indulgent place on earth.” Not surprisingly, the population of metropolitan Palm Beach, too, is over 50 percent Jewish. “In 1962,” noted the Palm Beach Post in 1999, “only about 3,000 Jewish people lived in the greater West Palm Beach area. Today, estimates put that number at 100,000.” The results of this invasion into a once predomnantly WASP enclave is noted by Jewish author Ronald Kessler who has written an entire book about Palm Beach, highlighting what he describes as “anti-Semitism”: “I tried to lean over backwards not to probe too deeply into anti-Semitism on the island. But I soon learned that I would be missing a big chunk of the story [of Palm Beach] if I skirted a subject that made me uncomfortable professionally and that was personally painful.” Symbolic perhaps of the changing elite guard, is the fact that The Social Index Directory, an elitist listing of Palm Beach society people, “is now owned by the family of Robert Gordon, who is Jewish.” Although Jews have their own exclusive country club in Palm Beach (the Palm Beach Country Club), with 350 members, Kessler assails the non-Jewish community, complaining that “the [WASP] aristocrats are still in charge [of Palm Beach], the upper crust intact, the future of WASPdom secure.” Melvin Urofsky notes the 1940s visit of eventual Israeli prime minister Golda Meir to Palm Beach:

At Palm Beach, Florida, she was stunned at the elegance of the dinner crowd, their jewels and furs, and she mentally contrasted the scene of wealthy men and women vacationing in their posh resorts and that of Haganah [the early Israeli army] soldiers freezing in the Judean hills. “These people don’t want to hear about fighting and death in Palestine,” she thought, but she was wrong, and before the evening had ended, they had pledged her $1.5 million, enough to buy a winter coat for every soldier in the Haganah.

How about the posh Hamptons enclave for the super-rich on Long Island, New York? “The placement of the Jewish Community Center so prominently at the entrance to the town,” notes Steven Gaines,

. . . gave [Jewish real estate baron Evan] Frankel great satisfaction over the years and had its desired effect, particularly during the Jewish High Holidays, when Woods Lane was line end to end with the luxury cars of those attending services. One year, a local man was provoked to count the number of German-made cars parked in front of the synagogue and remark in an indignant letter to the East Hampton Star that the Jews must have forgotten Germans’ war crimes.

In 1998 Jewish mogul Ira Rennert made national news and came under widespread public attack for his plans to build the largest — and most ostentatious — home in America on New York’s Long Island. His 63-acre compound would include three separate buildings, 29 bedrooms, 39 bathrooms, two bowling alleys, a 164-seat cinema, 17 acres of manicured garden, and parking for 200 cars. The Washington Post likened it all to the “architecture of egoism.”  Rennert, also noted the [London) Daily Telegraph, “is an enthusiastic Zionist and financial backer of Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has led to [neighbor] fears [that Rennert’s new home is really] a school or a conference center.” Another Jewish home builder on Long Island, Barry Trupin also engendered local wrath for his reconstruction of the Chestertown House. “What irked everyone,” notes Steven Gaines,” was the arrogance of it all — not just to tamper with a famous old house, but to tamper with it so badly. . . . The house was indeed a grotesque creation, part faux-Normandy castle, part Disneyland on LSD. It was the largest private renovation project ever undertaken in New York State.” Plans for the home included a personal zoo, a helicopter landing pad, and “an indoor barrier reef . . . a vast sunken acquarium . . . with a twenty-foot waterfall cascading down chunks of rock imported from Vermont, into a pool in which guests could not only swim but skin-dive, with hidden underwater air nozzles. The reef was stocked with 500 species, including lobster, parrot fish, sea anemones, grouper, and octopus.” Another such Jewish mogul is David Saperstein, the largest stockholder in America’s largest radio network, Westwood One. “He’s building a much-touted mansion in an exclusive neighborhood near Beverly Hills,” noted Mother Jones magazine in 2001, “the 45,000-square-foot extravagance, dubbed the ‘Fleur de Lys,’ will include a ballroom to host dinner parties of 250, according to the Los Angles Times.” Chaim Bermant notes the style of Hollywood’s old guard Jewish movie moguls:

If there was little intrinsically Jewish in the output of the Hollywood tycoons, there was something particularly Jewish in their style. The elder Selznick once told his son David (producer of Gone With the Wind): “Live expensively! Throw it around! Give it away! Always remember to live beyond your means. It gives a man confidence.”

This was not, in fact, far from the principles on which Hollywood operated, where the very cost of a film — “this multi-million dollar epic” — was often used by the publicity department as a commendation. In 1959, apologetic Rabbi Albert Goldman observed that

. . . often unable to distinguish between the real and the apparent, the substance of worth and the tawdry yet glittering imitation, their ersatz values attest to their basic superficialities. Lacking the understanding and support of their Hebraic traditions and group life, some surburban Jews fall prey to the current cultural “success system” and, in their own insecurity, scramble madly after prestige and power. They believe that the undiscriminating expenditure of money alone will assure the attainment of their life goals.

In modern times, suggested Roger Kahn in 1968, “it is only slightly hyperbolic to suggest that when a Jewish businessman feels threatened he reaches not for a gun or a club, but for a checkbook.”  And Jonathan and Judith Pearl note the common nature of the modern Jewish bar mitzvah ceremony: “While scholars debate whether this centrality is part of a historical continuum or aberration, the fact is that for many American Jews, the focus of bar mitzvah has shifted from scholarly achievement to lavish partying. . . . This focus on extravagance is all too well known.” “Many people feel that the supreme Jewish crime is materialism,” noted Jewish author James Yaffe in 1968,

Jews, under the impact of the American experience, are said to have become money grubbers and turned away from the Almighty in order to worship the Almighty Dollar. It certainly isn’t hard to find instances which seem to bear this out. . . . Spending money to make a splash to achieve status with friends and relations, has become a common game among American Jews. Everyone makes jokes about the women at Miami Beach with their mink coats and their jewelry, the women on Park Avenue with their wall-to-wall carpeting and their expensive furnishings in the style sometimes known as Brooklyn Renaissance, the men in their long black Cadillacs. (“Can your little boy walk yet, Mrs. Cohen?” “God forbid he should ever have to!”) The popularity of these jokes itself is proof that they correspond to a reality — though the people who make them always insist they refer to “those other Jews.” If you want to see that reality with your own eyes, spend a day or two at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills. . . . Even more horrible examples of lavishness and vulgarity are provided by many wedding and bar mitzvah parties. Extraordinary things occur.

Here’s an observation by Jonathan Rieder in his study about Italians and Jews in a section of Brooklyn:

Two Italian women with many Jewish friends decried the way the ostentatious show of status debased the meaning of genuine tradition: “These fancy weddings and bar mitzvahs are disgusting,” they complained. “None of that has anything to do with tradition. It’s better to spend the money and go to Israel. It’s showing off, keeping up with the Jonses. There’s a ‘Can you top this?’ attitude. It’s all show.”

In 1984 Dov Fisch complained about bar mitzvahs “with scantily clad go-go girls” and the president of the Monticello Raceway who defrauded it of nearly $5,000 for his son’s bar mitzvah. “Tragically,” he wrote, “the bar mitzvah syndrome has become a symbol of so much of what is wrong with American Jewish life today. The one-upmanship knows no bounds.” Hence, a Long Island boy was zoomed to his bar mitzvah by a motorcycle racer, another arrived home to parade beneath, literally, a “fiddler on the roof,” and a Jewish couple spent $2,000 for a “Car Mitzva” which commemorated “the thirteenth year of their Rolls Royce.” Harvey Cohen’s bar mitzvah was at the rented Orange Bowl football stadium in Miami, where

the parents shamelessly invited two hundred guests to the spectacle, featuring a sixty-four piece band, bartenders dressed as referees, waitresses dressed as cheerleaders, and pom-pom girls wearing sweaters with the letter “H” for Harvey. . . . [The] electric scoreboard lit up with the words: “Happy Birthday Harvey.”

Famous Jewish prostitute Xaviera Hollander notes one of her most memorable Jewish lovers:

Take the case of the obscenely rich young investment banker with whom I had formed what is politely termed a relationship. I had arranged romantic music, shimmering candlelight, an exquisite meal and I was wearing the most seductive perfume. Casanova Cohen, the ardent lover, rushed into bed. He gave me a perfunctory kiss and then got down to business. Literally. He treated me to a resume of his day’s dealings and then demonstrated his refinement by cataloguing his cherished possessions from Rolex to Rolls Royce. I think that he expected me to be overawed and could not comprehend that I found him boring, intellectually, not physically.

Stephen Bloom notes what happened when a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews bought a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, in 1987, and soon began to make their influence felt in the town:

Generally, newcomers are eager to assimilate to a new culture. That’s why they came in the first place. But instead of arriving at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, these Jews had arrived already on top. The Jews who settled in Postville came from cities, and many brought with them large sums of money. . . . Sholom Rubashkin built an enormous house on Wilson Street in an area of Postville thta the locals quickly labeled “Kosher Hill.” Iowans were loathe to show such material wealth. “That Rubashkin home is a palace,” Alicia [one of the non-Jewish local people] said, and no one denied it.

“In recent years,” wrote Gerald Krefetz in 1982, “some Jews have succumbed to that all-American tendency to compound braggadocio and vulgarity in touting their ability to make it. Leaving discretion and taste aside, they boast of their abilities, vanities, and riches. One observer noted that after generations of oppression, ‘it is not simply that living well is the best revenge but rather that living well is an obligation.’ And telling about it is a compulsion. Jewish leaders, particularly those of the old school, feel called upon to ask ‘followers to avoid ostentatious display, fearing it might create antagonism.’” Such requests generally fall on deaf ears: materialist “this world” consumption is championed by the Jewish religious faith itself, after all. Take the 1996 case of Jewish scholar, Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky, who laments the fact that his ex-wife expects him to economically support her enrollment in a religious school to become a rabbi, and continue payments on her BMW. (The woman eventually became Orthodox, where she was forbidden to become a rabbi by sexist Orthodox standards). Samuel Heilman notes the concern an Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbi had for the materialism of another ultra-Orthodox rabbi in America:

“I visited someone in the United States a few years ago, a ben Torah,” [said the rabbi]. Stern nodded as he spoke, as if to imply that I had caught the drift of his message. “We got into his car, a beautiful car.” He said “beautiful” as if it were two words: “beauty full.” The car had everything. Beautiful thick velvet seats, beautiful radio, lots of room, even a telephone — this was before so many people had telephones in their cars. So I said to him — we’ll call him “Reb [Rabbi] Shmuel” — “Reb Shmuel, this is a beautiful car.”

And you know what he said to me? He said to me: “Reb Moshe, bist a na’ar [you’re naive]. This is last year’s model; I’ve already ordered next year’s model.”

“Why?” I asked him. “This is a wonderful car; you could keep it still for years.” You know, it was one of those big Lincolns, a really gorgeous car.

“And he said to me: ‘Reb Moshe, my neighbor already has a new model and it’s eating me up.’”

Still, some embarrassed Jews seek to blame non-Jewish origins for the ancient Jewish propensity towards materialism and ostentation. “We [Jews],” says Hillel Levine, “woke up from the American dream and tried to discover who we really were. For many of us this now means turning our concerns inward into the Jewish community, because we are disenchanted with the crass materialism of the larger society. Yet where can we find inspiration in the multimillion dollar presences of suburbia?”