JEWISH WOMAN MAGAZINE
Choosing to live with less can make room for what’s really important.
By Rahel Musleah
When Betsy Platkin Teutsch counted the shoes in her closet four years ago, she could hardly believe she had 30 pairs—the precise number, she’d read, that the average American woman owned. She challenged herself not to exceed it. Now she buys new shoes only out of need—and then gives away an old pair.
Teutsch, a 51-year-old Philadelphia-based Judaica artist, hardly rates as an Imelda Marcos. But limiting her shoe quota was one small step toward simplifying her life, “consuming less to have more time, more money and an environmental dividend.”
Though never a shopaholic, Teutsch has canceled her catalogs and disciplined herself not to frequent the flea markets, craft fairs and outlets that spark her acquisitive impulse. She often makes tzedakah donations instead of buying bar/bat mitzvah gifts; provides a few hours of free baby care for new parents in her community; composts; separates different grades of recyclable plastic; walks with a friend; bikes to do errands; and doesn’t drive unless she has to.
“Living beneath your means so you have more discretionary time and income is not a popular American behavior,” says Teutsch, who got interested in simplifying through managing and streamlining her freelance career. Letting go of things, she says, has increased her generosity, sense of wealth and well-being.
Steven Leder, rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, discovered—the hard way—that possessions were worth less than he’d thought: When a real estate deal for a new house fell through, his family of four had to move into a two-bedroom apartment.
“We were forced to take inventory of all the things we owned and evaluate their value and importance to us. We found we only needed about 10 percent of what we had,” Leder writes in his new book, More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul (Bonus Books). “Could it be that 90 percent of what we spend our time and energy amassing is unnecessary?” We should be grateful, he concludes, for the “simple good fortune that pours like rich cream upon most of us each day.”
Like Teutsch and Leder, people across the United States are trying to slow down; to work more meaningfully; to make family, relationships and community a priority; to reduce wasteful consumption; to add time for contemplation; to bring more balance to their lives. The simplicity movement counts millions among its “invisible constituency.” Its umbrella organization, the Simplicity Forum, advocates “simple, just and sustainable ways of life,” works toward changing American policy and culture, and encourages downsizing our disproportionate usage of the world’s resources.
Often, however, there’s nothing simple about simplicity, nor a single formula that unites its adherents. It can be as mundane as cleaning out a closet, as obvious as working only half time, or as dramatic as living off the land. However people interpret it, “simplicity is not a deprivation movement,” says Rebecca Gould, a Simplicity Forum board member and an assistant professor of religion at Middlebury College in Vermont. “It’s not about ‘no’s. It’s a great ‘yes’—yes to time with family, yes to spiritual time. It’s about what you want to clear away so you can make room to do what’s really important. It’s about aligning your life with your values.”
Many studies now show that beyond the comfortable basics of food, shelter and health care, increased affluence has no bearing on happiness. Jewish tradition has long taught that money does not buy happiness, as expressed in the classic aphorism by Ben Zoma: “Who is rich? The one content with his/her portion.” In Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), Rabbi Hillel declared, “The more possessions, the more worry.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath remains a classic text on the sacredness of time and space. In the Middle Ages, sumptuary laws limited excess in dress, food and festivities to “decrease competitive ostentation.” The modern-day kibbutz movement was founded on simple living and anti-materialism.
Teutsch and Moti Rieber, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), have linked these and other Jewish values to simplicity, identifying seven principles of Jewish simplicity: humility; gratitude; avoiding waste/preserving nature; not wasting time; justice/tikkun olam; community; rest and renewal. If we contract ourselves to take up less space, they teach, we can walk humbly with God. If we realize what we have is a gift, not an entitlement, we can train ourselves to be satisfied with what we have. If we don’t shop as much, think of the time we can save—and with more time, we can do good for others.
The structures of American Jewish society often counteract these goals, says Teutsch; synagogue membership, day school, camp, youth groups, bar/bat mitzvahs and trips to Israel require a high standard of living. Environmental concerns have permeated mainstream Judaism, but frugality is often regarded as tacky, a throwback to a Depression mentality. Shopping has become a quintessential pastime, a mix of entertainment and self-indulgence, an antidote to isolation, even a way of nurturing, if you’re shopping for someone else, Teutsch says. “Shopping can give the illusion of companionship, intimacy and a sense of community.” Money, notes Leder, is often used to “fill a void in life that can never be satisfied.”
While simplicity advocates have created once-a-year events—such as International Buy Nothing Day (the day after Thanksgiving) and Take Back Your Time Day (October 24: nine weeks before the year’s end to highlight the fact that Europeans work 350 hours, or nine weeks, less than Americans)—Judaism has a built-in mechanism for savoring time and limiting overwork: Shabbat.
“An important element of sacred, decent, life-giving work is to pause from that work,” says Arthur Waskow, a Jewish renewal leader and founding director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia. Five years ago, he initiated a project called Free Time/Free People, which brings together interfaith and secular leaders to regain time for family, community and spiritual renewal.
“I make Shabbos even though I’m trying to save the world,” Waskow says, chuckling. “I take the time to breathe and say, ‘For 25 hours the world is perfect.’” Daily blessings (over food, for instance) offer similar pauses, he adds: “mini-Shabbatot that allow momentary consciousness and restfulness.”
One married couple, Rabbis Miriam Hyman and Michael Fessler, have acted on their concern about overwork. Instead of accepting two full-time jobs, they are sharing one rabbinic position at B’nai Tikvah in Sewall, N.J. “We are trying to plan a different kind of life,” says Hyman, by choosing to live on one salary, buying less and eliminating commuting to have more time for each other and their two children, ages three and one.
For the couple, Shabbat is not only a halachic stricture but a form of voluntary simplicity. “It’s about being commanded by the universe to just ‘be’ instead of always acting on the universe,” says Hyman, 38, who was ordained by the RCC in June. “It’s a choice to enhance the quality of our lives.”
“If God can rest, why do we think we can’t or shouldn’t?” asks Simplicity’s Gould, who comes from a “multireligious family tree with Jewish branches” and is drawn to the simplicity messages inherent in Judaism. She cautions against viewing Shabbat as drudgery or restraint, calling it a freeing, life-enriching concept. “The modern American message is that you are what you buy, you are what you own. Shabbat is about who you are, your relationship with God, with other people and the natural world.”
Gould’s interest in simplicity stemmed partly from her academic study of the homesteading, or back-to-the-land, movement in the United States, a rigorous form of simplicity. Of the estimated million people who have embraced rural life, many have Jewish names but are not living explicitly Jewish lives, she says: Everyday activities like gardening, canning and living close to nature have become spiritual practices.
Maggie Davis, 61, a writer who lives in Blue Hill, Maine, with her husband, Arnold Greenberg, built her own cabin in the woods powered by solar electricity and grows much of their food. In addition to writing and spending time with her family, she devotes several hours each day to Neighborcare, a project she founded six years ago through which neighbors offer free health-related services to other neighbors who are ill, dying, physically challenged or heartsick.
“I believe that even small actions have great repercussions,” she says. “When I pet a dog, I’m petting all dogs that are not petted; when I’m with someone who’s dying, I’m sitting with all people who have no one. The challenge of a simple life is to focus on every moment and choose what’s appropriate.”
When her parents died, Davis kept only two of their possessions—a chair and a table, in which she says their “energy” is concentrated. Giving her own things away, she finds, “lightens everything.” “When you slow down enough to look deeply into things, you don’t need as much. You can see the world in someone’s eyes or in a flower. I often ask myself, ‘What do you need, Maggie? Do you need this? Do you need that?’ I need what we all need: meaning in life, sharing love and giving ourselves away when we can manage it.”
According to professional organizer Julie Morgenstern (Organizing from the Inside Out, Henry Holt), holding on to clutter, chaos and “stuff” may serve hidden psychological purposes, like the need for abundance, distraction or perfection. Identifying the cause to find effective solutions can be liberating, she says. Morgenstern also advises clients to say no occasionally. “Just because you can work 24 hours a day doesn’t mean you should,” she writes. “Just because there are…15,000 periodicals and 50,000 books published each year doesn’t mean you are obliged to read even a fraction of them…Let the need drive the purchase, not the other way around.”
Children are brainwashed by marketing messages that promote dissatisfaction with what and how much they have, says Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children (Penguin). “The challenges of simplicity are the same as [those of] being a serious Jew,” she says. “Everything leads away from it. Everything says acquire more stuff, study more, have more things, be more ambitious. Children are entitled to beg for stuff. They don’t know what’s best.” If parents don’t set limits, the expectations of an affluent Jewish life can be destructive to children, says Mogel, the mother of a 17- and a 13-year-old.
In her forthcoming book, The Blessing of a B Minus: Raising Resilient Adolescents in a Nervous World, Mogel attacks the detrimental effects of excessive academic pressure. “We worship at the altar of the SATs. If children are brainwashed about consuming items, adults are brainwashed about college placement. If we are only concerned about achievement and moving ahead, we don’t see the simple qualities children have, we only look at them through our own projection.” What looks like loving parental devotion (scheduling karate, flute lessons and more) can be a modern-day version of Mitzrayim—the slavery of Egypt, she declares.
Simplifying life in material ways can provoke resentfulness and disappointment among children, Teutsch admits. But with time, her children, now 16 and 21, have begun to take small steps of their own, collecting and recycling toner cartridges at school and avoiding disposables at college. Teutsch adds that her own career conflicts with simplicity. “You could say creating art is different from creating stuff, but it’s a stretch.”
To those interested in simplicity, she advises reading a few basic texts. “Then I would start self-observation. Note how you make your consumer decisions, how you shop, how much you shop and why you shop. I would experiment. Let go of things and see if you miss them.” Teutsch says she has never missed anything she’s given away.
“It’s important to be positive. If you wrest extra time for yourself, do something that will make you feel very good. It doesn’t have to be a facial—it can be something like caring for a friend’s newborn, going to a lecture, talking a walk, making a new friend, cleaning off a shelf of junk that’s been bothering you. It’s a very gradual process.” She advocates checking websites such as www.freecycle.org, through which people give away and get stuff free in their own towns, or developing a similar sharing system through your own organization’s email list.
Gould warns against buying books and products to “get” simplicity, which, ironically, is now itself being marketed. “That’s the wrong road,” she says. “Instead, ask: Who am I? What are my values? To what extent is my life in line with my values? If not, what steps can I take to align them? What community can I be a part of to make it happen?” Creating a discussion group to explore these difficult questions can ease the process, she notes.
Stories, like things, can also be recycled and reused. Leder retells a story told by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who in turn borrowed it from Shel Silverstein. A circle had a large triangular wedge cut out of it. “It wanted to be whole, with nothing missing, so it went around looking for its missing piece. Because it was incomplete, it could only roll slowly as it rolled through the world. And as it rolled slowly, it admired the flowers along the way. It chatted with butterflies. It was warmed by the sunshine.”
When the circle finally found the perfect piece to make it whole, it was overjoyed. But now it rolled so fast, it had no time to savor the world. “The lesson,” Kushner concludes, “is that in some sense we are more whole when we are incomplete.”
October 9, 2004