All That Glitters

July 4, 2024

Playing the Game

The pressures of materialism are exploding. Are we doomed to play along?

Elisheva Braun

It’s the classic sad stereotype:

The diamond-encrusted woman in the $1,200 dress who gets Tomchei Shabbos boxes.

The Infinity-driving, kiddush-throwing success who begs for loans behind closed doors.

With ever-increasing social pressures and escalating prices, this trope is becoming more and more common.

Then there’s the rest of us.

Let’s face it: even among the lower rollers, upholding the façade of fiscal security and put togetherness is becoming ever more unsustainable.

With inflation on the upswing and recession pulling incomes down, the Voice took a deep dive. How are people maintaining today’s standards and pressures?


“I know that most of my neighbors are struggling,” Riva shares. “We even groan together about the insanely high prices and how nothing is affordable anymore. And even though none of us is affluent, I’m still slightly mortified when my little kids are seen in non-matching or budget-friendly outfits.”

Despite the shared struggles, the side hustles, the secret loans and silent desperation, we’re all putting on the same show for each other, wearing the same pricey outfits, driving the same ‘normal’ cars, as if we’re not all drowning.

It seems almost Orwellian, the communal pretending. (Doublethink, anyone?)

“It’s not just the stuff; the right car and home and camp,” adds Chana, nine-to-three working mom of five. “Many of us are working ourselves to the bone just to survive, yet we feel pressured to maintain the facade of leisurely affluence. There’s this expectation to appear flawless, no matter how overworked or financially strained we are. It’s like society demands we look like princesses, no matter the reality of our lives.”

Anyone who’s ever desperately riffled through tightly packed clothing racks, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of Klal Yisroel and trying to keep their panic tamped down under lots of foundation and eyeliner, knows the feeling.


Old money, nursing home manager, kollel couple—class makes no difference.

In our world, we don’t segregate based on income. That’s a beautiful thing—we know there’s more to life than what we have in the bank. The drawback is that we’re all rubbing shoulders. We see each other’s lifestyles up close. And it’s hard not to feel pressured to keep up.

So no matter how expensive—or how cheap the other options are—we’re all toeing the same fashion line.

“When my first was born, Doonas were just becoming a ‘thing.’ I remember being weirded out by how small the carriage was, how it made the parents pushing them look so small. Still, I couldn’t resist the promise of convenience—and the safety in buying what was just emerging as the carriage that everyone had.”

Is that all it is?

Is our eerie synchronization really just a reflection of pragmatic choices—items and services meant to streamline our hectic, frenetic lives?

But the indistinguishability of classes isn’t always about practicality.

When she made her first bar mitzvah, Rivky was unpleasantly surprised by the non-negotiables.

“The things I’d thought were only for rich people’s bar mitzvahs seemed to be expected. I almost felt I didn’t have a choice; my family would seem strange, ‘not typical,’ if we did something on a lower standard.”

Often, luxuries like professional hair and makeup, exquisite dresses, gorgeous photography, extensive guest list, and a behemoth of a dessert table, seem almost mandatory.

Breaking the bank

The deck is slipping. The seemingly unshakable walls of frum finance revealed as a house of cards, roof crumbling overhead.

Dovid,* the owner of one of Lakewood’s largest and oldest camps observes that this year, “I’ve gotten way, way more requests for discounts and reductions than ever before. Families who were totally fine in the past are really struggling this summer. Many of them were laid off or are bringing in less. The economy is hurting a lot of people.”

As inflation, on top of the everyday exorbitance of frum life, makes it harder than ever to make ends meet, it seems impossible to keep going.

Inside this unease, there’s an odd dichotomy at play.

Chavi Chase of Pret a Partee is intimately aware of the contrasting trends.

“Because of the economy, standards are definitely declining. Much of the very high-end clientele is trending a bit lower, while the middle-of-the-road base is opting for more budget-friendly options.”

On the other hand, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to keep up.

In this *shifting world, baalei simcha are hosting their simchos at home again.

The trend is back with a twist.

“Years ago, simchos were made in houses so they could be nice and homey—and affordable. Now, the social pressures are different. Many home simchos are being done on a very high standard, with gorgeous lighting, draping, furniture, and props.” These simchos can easily cost more than their ballroom counterparts.

“People are really not making simchos within their means,” Chavi says.

Once in a while, she will sit with a client who us overextending themselves, spending out of their leagues to impress others. In such a case, Chavi speaks up.

“You can do something beautiful without going crazy,” she assures them. “Don’t look at what everyone else is doing. Look straight ahead; do what’s good for you. Guests will be at your party for a few hours, talk about it for a few days, and then move on to the next party. The morning after the simcha, it’s you who is left with the debt.”

“I just want to be normal”

Social norms just aren’t what they used to be.

In an alarmingly short time span, girls’ wardrobes have morphed from $18 t-shirts to the prefect ensembles—each with a premium price tag.

Even boys’ fashion has undergone a drastic makeover in recent years.

“It’s become socially acceptable for acne-sporting, braces-wearing fourteen-year-olds to wear Hermes ties and Gucci belts, Lululemon pants and Moose Knuckles coats,” Miri says. “My son is way more into brands than my daughters are. Maybe because fashion is one of very few accepted outlets for bochurim?”

Whatever the underlying reason, with the decline of plaid ties and pleated pants, a certain simplicity also exited stage left. In their place emerged custom suits and a more fitted, polished, perfect look.

What happens when you refuse to play along with the charade?

Nechama Leah doesn’t do pressure. Raising a family in the heart of Lakewood, she doesn’t bow to the social influences others seem so cowed by.

Her teen girls wore second-hand clothing, neat but outdated. Until today, they don’t know the impetus, but the family’s rav called her husband down to his office. Handing her a stack of bills, he told her, “It’s time to start buying the children nicer clothing.’

Someone in the community or the family—no doubt someone concerned and deeply caring—had sounded the alarm.

Somehow, without our consciously choosing it, the act of bucking trends has morphed from healthy choice to an intervention-needing, bordering-on-dysfunction anomaly.

Kids in candy stores

As ‘want’ becomes ‘lack’ and abundance replaces restraint, kids’ needs are changing.

Camps’ indulgence is a hot topic, one longtime camp director Dovid is used to being grilled about.

“Recently, someone sidled up to me in shul,” he recalls. “‘I don’t understand—why is everything so fancy? Why don’t camps do simpler entertainment and lower the prices?’ he demanded. I asked him, ‘What type of car do you drive? What type of house do you live in? In which neighborhood? Everything in your kids’ life is over the top. When it comes to day camp, how can you suddenly expect them to be happy with less?’

“The idea that Lakewood camps should cut down is just not realistic,” Dovid asserts. “I don’t think it’s what the kids want; I don’t think it’s what the parents want. I don’t think they’re ready for a change.”

Dovid shares that in the past few years, a handful of no-frills, lower-standard day camps have opened. “Today, they don’t exist.”

He recalls his cheder years, where leaks were common, flooring was nonexistent, lunches were inedible, and climate control was backward: heating in the summer, AC in the winter.

“We all survived,” he says. “Today, school buildings are beautiful and immaculate, there are prizes and rewards all day. Kids just aren’t trained to be happy with less.”
Fitting in

“My five-year-old wants to know why everyone on the block besides him has a Segway or Hoverboard.”

“My teens are mortified when I dress my baby in Old Navy. They insist I buy those $50 stretchies,” says a woman who has to be anonymous. Obviously.

Seventh grade mechaneches Mrs. Weiss feels, “Everyone’s afraid to be different. As a teacher, I see we’re all twisting our kids to fit into the same molds, whether it’s sending them for physical therapy to perfect their handwriting or buying them the exact right hair accessories. I feel bad for kids today. We don’t let them just be kids.”

Older kids, with their own packages of insecurities and causes for cringe, are trickier than the younger set.

Mindy is in ninth grade, the height of social insecurity. “She’s a good kid,” her mother Rochie says. “She doesn’t ask for brand names, she’s not into designer stuff. She just wants to be normal. But full-price Jewish-store normal is so expensive! When the season starts, Mindy needs a whole new wardrobe. She’s embarrassed to wear clothes that everyone was wearing last year, even if they fit her. ‘No one wears last year’s stuff, Ma. It’s embarrassing,’ she tells me. Like most kids her age, she doesn’t have the confidence to buck the trends.”

Chedva, seasoned mom of teens and tweens and self-proclaimed pragmatist says, “It’s not realistic to say, ‘Give them a backbone, give over your values.’ If teenagers want to have friends, they need to dress up to par. End of story.”

Full on the inside

While it’s common advice to encourage children to be true to themselves and not follow the crowd, the truth of the matter is, we as parents can’t decide for our kids.

To psychologist Bracha Schnaidman, helping our children build rich, secure inner worlds starts at home.

“I feel the parent-child relationships is at the heart of this,” Bracha explains.

“Parents innately love their children. But we’re all busy, life is hectic, and a lot of parenting becomes focused on practical aspects of day-to-day functioning. It’s important to carve out time to have fun with your child. Find things that you enjoy doing together. Schmooze with him, hear what he has to say. When you show your child that you enjoy spending time with him and you’re interested in him as a person, he absorbs the message: I am an enjoyable, fun, interesting person. When a child feels loved and appreciated by his parents, he can develop an internal sense of self-confidence that is not dependent on ‘things.’

Bracha’s positivity philosophy extends to parents. “Parents, especially young ones, often doubt themselves. It’s easy to notice the negative and to focus on the bathtime tantrum or the teenager’s irritable comments. Unrealistic expectations, perfectionistic visions, and the fear of making mistakes all contribute to the doubt and pressure that can make parenting difficult. Parenting is a balance: we want to be thoughtful and deliberate, evaluating what’s working and what isn’t. At the same time, we want to notice the positive and take credit for doing the best we can. Just like it is important to emphasize what children are doing well in order to build them, the same is true for parents. Spouses can help each other with this by pointing out what the other person did well.”

Identity Crisis

A conversation with Rav Eliezer Gewirtzman, dayan in Coventry shul

The core issue with materialism, as highlighted by Rabbi Gewirtzman, is its tendency to define personal worth through possessions.

“Instead of focusing on who they are as people, whether it’s in ruchniyus, middos, chessed, or temperament, externals become the yardstick to measure their value. A person needs something to wake up for in the morning. If it’s not working on himself, it becomes about creating an image through buying things. Subconsciously, it becomes ‘If I have a new car, I’m a gavra. If I don’t, I’m not.’”

This mindset perpetuates a cycle where perceived happiness hinges on material goods—be it a new car or luxury items—rather than intrinsic fulfillment.

The shift is relatively new. “The previous generation centered their identities on ruchniyus,” Rabbi Gewirtzman notes. “There was a concept of a good person, an ehrliche balebos. Unfortunately, we as a society don’t give it enough credence anymore.”

Fool’s gold

Unfortunately, some of the trendsetters pushing high standards and creating pressure are doing it because they’re miserable. They’re not buying happiness; they’re buying distraction from their sad and lonely lives. They’re using materialism to fill themselves.

“Realize that there’s a big misconception in what we think people have. The Bergers are doing it because the Schwartzes are doing it, and the Schwartzes are doing it because the Bergers are doing it. Understand this could greatly alleviate the pressure.”

Numbers game

“This winter in Coventry, we partnered with Living Smarter Jewish, a financial guidance organization. We encouraged everyone to sit down with an LSJ coach to calculate how much money they were spending on discretionary expenses.

“People were shocked to see how much they were spending on extras. They had viewed them as small splurges—a few dollars here, a few dollars there—but now they saw that these decisions added up to thousands. Seeing the costs on paper, many people lost their desire for the luxuries. After realizing how much money they could save, which could help pay for their children’s weddings without debt, people started making conscious efforts to spend less in certain areas.”


“Remember that today’s luxuries are tomorrow’s necessities. When we try to make ourselves happy with luxuries, all we’re doing is requiring more and more for ourselves.

“We can be happy without a lot of the luxuries we’ve gotten used to, and we’re definitely not doing our children any favors. We have to catch ourselves.

“I urge every couple to sit down with a financial adviser to reassess their spending habits.  It’s empowering to see setting limits as a choice. It’s a decision to prioritize what’s truly important over that fancy carriage or the vacation in Orlando.”

Finding balance

To raise children with low-key needs and hasagos, modeling is key.

Bracha Schnaidman says, “Children imbibe their parents’ ideals. Be mindful to show them that you value keeping the bar low. Most importantly, let them see how you enjoy life without so much stuff, because without happiness and satisfaction, the beauty of the lifestyle is lost.”

And it’s not just about money. “Kids see what’s emphasized. If you spend very little on clothes but devote months to searching for deals online or discuss wardrobes with every sister-in-law and neighbor, your children see that.

“Our actions shape our thoughts and feelings. Even if parents find it challenging to keep the bar low, they can consciously choose not to discuss clothes, homes, cars, kitchens, or vacations in front of their children. They can also choose to buy less-expensive items than they can afford. Doing actions like this will help shift their focus from materialism to other, more important aspects of life.

Of course, modelling simplicity isn’t the answer to everything. “Some kids will always be asking to go to an amusement park. Some kids innately appreciate the finer things. It’s okay for kids to be individuals. We have to take individual needs into account, based on the context of the family, and of course seek guidance when necessary. If you feel the need for ‘stuff’ is coming from a void, the parent-child relationship is a powerful tool to build the child.”

There is no tied-with-a-bow conclusion, no easy tutorial for unselfconsciously embracing what we have.

With attunement to our true needs and to what our children ask for without words, with unwavering focus on what matters and hadracha when it’s needed, we can hope to find happiness independent of the shiny and stylish, the designer and eye-popping. Away from the loud, loud world on the outside, tucked between the safe walls of our homes, we’re free to be our true, awesome selves.