My recent trip to the U.S. threw me for a loop.
I have tremendous distaste for Zionists who use the term "galuti" as a pejorative. In fact, almost all the negative traits they generally associate with the term -- decorousness, self-effacement, quietism -- are the kind of traits of which too little can be as bad as too much. If you've met Israelis, you know what I mean.
But still. It all began well enough. I caught a game at Shea and another in Wrigley, I ate in the requisite classy restaurants (major hat tip to MOC) and visited Barnes and Noble in three states. It was in Costco that my head began to spin. Costco is a testament to the astounding degree to which America, unlike Europe, is not a class society. Pretty much everybody can -- and apparently does -- buy pretty much everything. When I walk in there, I feel like I'm on that old TV show where you get a fixed amount of time to load your cart for free.
But after about fifteen minutes in Costco, I began to feel like I sometimes do when they bring out the Viennese table after an already too big meal. I don't really need any of this stuff and there's too damn much of it. Suddenly, I'm suffering from vertigo and the whole scene looks surreal. People the size of Sumo wrestlers are pushing around carts the size of minivans in a store the size of a hangar and buying industrial quantities of fake food and Maalox. It's beginning to look like some kind of Swiftian nightmare. There are eight different ways to zip your ziploc bags that come in six different sizes. Ralph and Norton will discover that there are now twelve different gizmos that "can even core a apple". Suddenly the local makolet seems so warm and comforting.
Well, big deal. What's actually more interesting for the point I want to make here is that there really is no classless society. There are always subtle forms of stratification. If the basics -- and more -- are now accessible to everyone, the way to show off your plumes is through conspicuous -- that is, wasteful -- consumption and leisure. I spent some very happy days in a New Jersey community that, while presenting significant financial barriers to entry, is a lot less shvitzerish than a nearby community or certain communities in Long Island. And even there a catered sholom zochor strikes people as perfectly unexceptional.
Well, still no big deal. The big deal is the particular way that frum people bridge the yawning gap between conspicuous consumption and frumkeit. Frumkeit itself becomes a form of conspicuous leisure. First, supporting married children learning in kollel has replaced supporting stay-at-home wives as the primary form of conspicuous leisure. (And, in anticipation of serving in the role of markers of class, these sons allow their, somewhat befuddled, parents to choose caste-preserving mates for them.) Second, one can announce one's ability to burn money by collecting trophy rabbanim. Rabbanim (at least American ones) can be counted on to do gigs on behalf of benefactors in which every rhetorical trick imaginable is marshaled to broadcast the message that they have no intention of threatening anybody's lifestyle. Wringing their hands, smiling sheepishly, speaking in soft - almost effeminate - tones, plucking "real-life" examples from the air in a manner that suggests (like Woody Allen eating a mess o' catfish) that somebody else's life is flashing before their eyes -- these rabbanim (not unlike kollel sons) have learned to play the role of benign icons in exchange for allowing others to display largess. From time to time, they can even be persuaded to hatch some imbecilic chumrah that will give the flock another opportunity to conspicuously burn money.
Meanwhile, back in Israel, I went to a neighbor's wedding that took place in a forest near Shiloh, deep in the Shomron. The shmorg consisted of peaches. The meal consisted of a few vats of rice and some barbecued chicken on buffet tables. The kallah and her friends were all dressed in white (it was the 15th of Av , after all) and danced barefoot in the forest. The chosson's friends, the ones with flying peyos from his yeshiva and the bare-headed ones from his commando unit, danced together energetically and enthusiastically, with only a bit of help from two guys with guitars and modest microphones. It was one of the nicest weddings I have attended.
What was impressive was not the modesty of the event but rather its authenticity. There is something amazing happening here under our noses. A generation of Jews is growing up here who are not Jews-as-opposed-to but just plain authentic Jews, comfortable in their skins without the need to score points. They make other Jews seems so -- OK, shoot me -- galuti.
I think I'm a Zionist after all.