Jews Who Write About Money Talk About Being Jews Who Write About Money
Josh jokingly suggested that I title his recent post about compulsive frugality “Jews: Just as Miserly as You Always Suspected!” I vetoed that, but we acknowledged to each other that it can feel funny to be Jewish people who write about money, considering how weird this country, and hey, the world, can be on the subject. I’ve long been tempted to do a post titled “I’m a Jew Who Writes About Money AMA!” but in lieu of that we decided to have a conversation.
You are a Jew! I am sort of a Jew, in that I was raised principally by my (secular) Jewish father and his family, and not so much by my mother, who was raised Catholic, was an atheist for a while, then a Catholic again, then an Episcopalian, and now, in her dotage, is converting to Judaism (really). Anyhow, I grew up in Brooklyn and am what you might call “culturally Jewish.”
As everyone knows, Jews are reputed to by greedy, miserly, and generally obsessed with money. And here we are, practically proving their point by writing all the time about money! This is an amusing state of affairs, and worth further exploration. Go!
My dear Joshua,
Yes, I am a Jew, though my spiritual influences are less Theodore Herzl and more Shalom Auslander / Abbi & Ilana. Though I do know all the words to every song in Fiddler on the Roof. They’re so catchy!
My life until I went away to school was startlingly homogenous, including 13 years of religious education, one semester abroad in Israel, and several summers at Camp Ramah. My family wasn’t observant in a traditional way, but we were culturally Jewish: my dad cursed in Yiddish, we made shabbes every Friday night and weren’t allowed to go out, I read a lot of YA fiction about the Holocaust. That kind of thing.
Brass tacks: I’ve never been inducted into the Elders of Zion. Of course, there’s still time! Maybe you have to hit fifty or something? I can’t say my family, or any family we knew, was preternaturally good with money, though my grandpa made some good investments in his time. Growing up, I was aware that Jews and money go together in the popular imagination like bagels and lox, and I was likewise aware that saying so was both tacky and unnecessary. No one ever adequately explained to me where the connection came from. The Rothschilds? The complicated history of money lending in Europe? I don’t know. I myself have no particular expertise when it comes to money, except now I write about it. Amazing! I can only hope my bumbling attempts to contribute to the Billfold are good for the Jews rather than the opposite.
Is that something you even worry about?
That is a good question. I definitely don’t consider whether things I do are “good for the Jews” in the sense of actually helping Jews, but I am, for better or worse, conscious of the assumptions people make about Jews and I want to subvert them. (And here it bears mentioning that, relatively recent European genocide notwithstanding, the state of affairs for Jews in this country, in terms of discrimination and its effects, is not even in the same ballpark as what black people confront. We have it comparably easier for many many reasons.)
It’s weird, because the being-good-with-money stereotype is, theoretically, a good one, but like all stereotypes, it comes with a reductionist edge that is not so good. Good-with-money tends to imply greedy, tricky, conniving, and even lazy – inclined to rent-taking activities rather than “honest labor.” I also get the sense, sometimes, that there is an implication that Jews, by dint of our supposed fiscal acumen, have a corresponding lack of sleeves-rolled-up moxie. When the ex and I were picking names for our boys, I supported Max and Reuben because those sound to me like Tough Jew names: men who would not back down from a fistfight in certain circumstances. I mean, of course, it my children (neither of whom is, at present, a brawler) should find their way into economics, I hope they will thrive and be happy.
But I hate the one-dimensionality of the stereotype, and that’s what I want them to subvert. If they’re good with numbers, fine, but let them explore music too, or carpentry. Jewish boxers and gangsters used to be real and plausible. I would like for that to be the case again, even though I don’t particularly want my children to pursue those career paths. A friend of mine was once dating a Jew who was a carpenter, and I urged her to get one of those bumber stickers that says, “My boss is a Jewish carpenter,” but white out “boss” and put “boyfriend.” As a Muslim from a rather traditional family, she felt it was enough of a transgression to be dating a Jew, and declined to affix a Christian slogan to her car.
The more I think on it, the less I’m sure that my objection to the general Jewish stereotype and desire to subvert it has anything to do with its being about Jews, per se. Because when it comes right down to it, the stereotype of Jews that persists in this country is basically just People Who Are Good at American Capitalism: good with money, hardworking, acquisitive, concerned principally with the wellbeing of their own families to the exclusion of the greater good. And as you know, I HATE the implicit values of American capitalism.
On the other hand, I was once on a plane (always on a plane these things happen!) and across the aisle from a bro who was trying to chat-up the stewardess by telling her about his start-up. Along the way, he said that he was running the company with his buddy, “and he’s Jewish, so he’s really good with money,” and so on and so forth. It wasn’t at all central to the story and the stewardess, whom I surmised from a number of other clues to be Mormon, didn’t react. But I wanted to stand up to my full, fairly towering height, and say, “Hey, asshole. I’m a Jew and I’m terrible with money, but I bet I’m pretty good and beating the tar out of you.” But I didn’t do that because (1) fighting on planes is bad and (2) needless fighting in general is bad.
Fighting is indeed bad and fighting on planes will get you unceremoniously ejected somewhere over Topeka, so yeah, it’s good that you controlled yourself. The American Capitalist trope is a fascinating one, since Jews were also all over early Russian Communism. (“With the notable exception of Lenin (Vladimir Ulyanov), most of the leading Communists who took control of Russia in 1917-20 were Jews.” Even Lenin was part Jewish.) In America, too, though the official party line here was often Socialism. My dad knew people who were blacklisted for suspected Party involvement and lost their jobs; HUAC was serious shit back then and being Jewish was enough, often, to arouse suspicion of Bolshevik inclinations.
So what are we, ace capitalists or ace commies? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Both systems are obsessed with money, albeit in different ways. Gak! We can’t win.
Do you have a question about Jews & money? So long as you’re this side of David Duke, we’ll do our best to answer.