Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Why did we buy all this stuff in the first place?"

is the question posed by Anna Quindlen in this week's Newsweek. The answer: cheap credit, a "keep up with the Joneses" ethos, and lots and lots of advertising.

Now, though, times have changed:
Oh, there is still plenty of need. But it is for real things, things that matter: college tuition, prescription drugs, rent. Food pantries and soup kitchens all over the country have seen demand for their services soar. Homelessness, which had fallen in recent years, may rebound as people lose their jobs and their houses. For the first time this month, the number of people on food stamps will exceed the 30 million mark.
How long has propaganda in the business pages told us that we should be happy that we don't have as much of a social safety net as European countries do, because that's what allows our economy to grow at such higher rates? Of course, most of the benefits of that growth go to the upper-upper percentages. But I would venture to guess that there are now more than a few people in this country who would gladly give up gaudy salary and stock option packages for CEOs for the sake of affordable health care, the certainty that one could stay in one's home, and the availability of a college education.

For years we have been told that consumer spending is the driver of the economy. Yet that never took into account the unsustainability of that approach - in terms of natural resources, and in terms of our own resources. Now we look at our credit card statements - and our economy, and the climate - and wonder, like a drunk after a binge, where all that money went. Well, the economy better find a new engine, because I'm not sure the "good old days" are ever coming back.

Maybe trading slower growth for a more secure life wasn't such an ignorant choice after all. I wonder if it is one that we will in this country will still be able to make.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

More Hanukkah ideas

And now, for the first time on Jewish Simplicity, we welcome a guest poster. Chava Gal-Or is a very talented educator who served as the education director of Congregation Adat Shalom in Bethesda, Maryland, when I was student rabbi there once upon a time. Chava sent in some additional suggestions for "Simplifying Hanukkah":

Your kids are almost old enough to look at making candles. On one of the nights of Chanukah, my family makes a ton of volaire (sp?) candles that we give away each and every time we are invited out over the course of the year. Our goal is to spread the light of Chanukah.

We never buy gifts for the kids, but we always buy one family game or activity for us to enjoy.

Each night of chanukah, we share stories, play games, eat together. We love the book "A Jar of Fools" by Eric Kimmel; some years we share the stories of the wise men of Chelm over the 8 nights of Chanukah. Even to this day, my boys our 11 and 15, we share/create stories together as a family.

Decorating the house for Chanukah is absolutely a family affair!

[One year] we forfeited spending any money on games to replacing all of our lights with CFLs.

We always have people over, cook simply, and make latkes.

My older son, Aryeh, said that he is always so excited about the holidays because it is about being together. I hope you and yours love your time together; it is so profoundly precious to be surrounded by our kids!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Simplifying Hanukkah

Religious leaders, both Christian and Jewish, get a lot of sermon mileage at this time of year out of urging their congregants to discover the underlying values of the winter holidays and place less priority on the major way we Americans mark them – the buying and giving of lots of stuff. This year, with the downturn in the economy and the sudden unavailability of additional credit, this message might actually be heard.

Although the same commercials are on TV as every other year – giftwrapped luxury cars and the rest – this year feels different. This may finally be the year when Hanukah can be – may have to be - about more than the presents.

But how can we make it so? With a little creativity, each of the eight nights of Hanukkah can be a chance to explore our creativity, fulfill Jewish values, and express our love for our family and friends in ways that do not require the spending of lots of money.

One night of Hanukkah can be tzedakah night, when the worth of the gifts that aren’t given is donated to a charity of your or your children’s choice. Perhaps spending some money to offset some of your family’s carbon usage also would be appropriate.

Another night might be book night, when a book of particular interest or meaning is given to each family member. (And remember: Used books save money and resources!) “Homemade gifts night” can allow everyone’s craftiness and individual creativity to be realized (and there are lots of books with ideas for simple homemade items for those who don’t think they’re crafty enough), and “cheap gifts night” can be either thoughtful or funny – or both!

In our family, we often give each other coupons for a service or favor we are sure to want sometime later in the year, like the ability to sleep in, get out of a chore, or even a “get out of an argument free” card.

Be sure to have some friends over for a night of latkes and song, fulfilling the mitzvah of haknassat orchim – the welcoming of guests. Or bring some latkes over to an elder or ill shut in, which is the mitzvah of gemillut hasadim – acts of lovingkindness.

One night of Hanukkah, of course, is Shabbat, and foregoing gifts on that night is an opportunity to remind ourselves that, even on Hanukkah, the best things in life are free.

And one night can (and probably should) still be “big gift” night, if resources allow. This year our family is getting a gaming system, which the whole family will enjoy and which will hopefully add a lot to “family game night” the rest of the year.

With a little effort, your Hanukkah can be about a lot more than the unwrapping of presents – it can be a holiday that is truly creative, participatory, and memorable. Happy Hanukkah!

Additional resources: Some of these ideas are similar to those in an article that Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox posted on the Jewish Family & Life website some years ago. Also, for more great ideas check out the Simplify the Holidays section of the Center for a New American Dream website.