Jewish Minimalist Lifestyle: an exercise in futility

I’ve lived in small spaces my entire life.  I grew up in a 900 sq ft ranch style home built in the 1950s; my parents bought it when I was just 3 and some change.  My sister and I shared a room until middle school and I’ve only had one common area to cook, eat, and hang out in my entire life.  I don’t know if I’d even know what to do if suddenly a family room or den plopped out of the sky onto the back of our house.

Well, no, I know exactly what I’d do.  I’d run screaming, begging it to disappear.  One thing I have developed from my mother is a sense of entitlement to whatever object strikes my fancy at the moment.  The difference between her and me, though, is that far fewer things strike my fancy, and I have moved from the Bay Area to Arkansas to Houston to the Bay Area to Upstate NY to DC to the Bay Area in seven years.  I’ve whittled down my possessions to the bare minimum of what I really, really want to keep.  (Except for books—but my perspective is very different now, a year post-graduation, than it was as a college student loathe to “sell back” all the knowledge she had gained at the semester’s end.)

But my horror at the prospect of an additional room comes from the fact that we already have three shops and an attic full of possessions.  My mother is sentimental and she loves decorating for the holidays.  She overestimates what she “could get” for collections from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and she is somewhat paranoid about being audited, resulting in banking statements from the 1970s being kept in filing cabinets.  Finally, she has never developed an accurate sense of how much leisure time she has to spend crafting, yet she purchases craft supplies ad nauseam.

Her own sense of entitlement is why we have three shops and an attic full of possessions.  Well part of the reason.  The other is that my father is a tightwad who refuses to get rid of anything because he might one day need it and would hate to shell out the money to buy something he once owned.  But the problem is he doesn’t make investments with his purchases, he always goes for the cheapest thing that last for 12 days and breaks down shortly thereafter.  And then he keeps the broken down parts incase they prove necessary in the future.

Now, this is not pick on my parents day. We all have quirks and flaws.  We all determine value differently, both economically and emotionally.  I understand that my way is what is right for me and their way is what is right for each of them.  We’re allowed to be different as long as we respect our differences.

But if I’m being perfectly honest, I know my parents are the reason I find the (nascent/growing) minimalist living movement very, very appealing.  I know many are starting to make this choice out of economic reality, and so it needs to be approached from a place of respect and humility.  But I’ve stumbled upon the list of 100 things and the challenge to create my own.  I will never be able to live with just 100 things, but they definitely have inspired me to consciously think about my purchases.  Fewer possessions means easier moves, less time spent cleaning, and more savings.

But then I stopped to think.  Judaism, living a Jewish life, would make that very difficult.  It took me about 30 seconds to name only 20 things a Jew “needs” to live observantly.

Tanakh, Siddur, Machzor, Chumash, Talmud

Candlesticks, challah cover, kiddush cup, tzedakah box, havdalah set

Shofar, sukkah, menorah, grogger, seder plate

Tallit, kippah, t’fellin, mezuzah, handwashing pitcher

So, while I am not sure I will ever be able to live a minimalist’s lifestyle, I have encouraged my mother and I to take concrete steps to move toward a less-cluttered lifestyle.  I am going through my books and getting rid of half of them.  I am going through my closets and donating everything I have not worn in a year.  I am shredding all forms (minus taxes and school loans) that date beyond 12 months.  I am using the library more and the bookstore less.

But if anyone knows of a Jewish minimalist, please point them my way.  I’d love to meet them. Or at least observe them.

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2 thoughts on “Jewish Minimalist Lifestyle: an exercise in futility

  1. This has been difficult for me as well, because the accoutrements can be costly. I’m also a single guy, so it feels a bit weird buying the cool Jewish stuff for just myself. I’d really like the stuff for Shabbat and Havdalah, though, above all. Shabbat is the ritual cycle that has really spoken to me the most in my journey…but where will I put it and how do I afford it? Do I have to buy a whole new piece of furniture just for the Jewish stuff (i.e., a hutch for the kitchen)? We’ll see. Maybe I’ll just think about gradually getting stuff as I need/want them.

  2. I share your inclination toward a more minimalist lifestyle…even if I do love having lots of books around!

    I feel that most of the Judaica items you list (with the possible exception of the shofar or grogger, which are not necessarily required in the home) are very unlike most of the superfluous items we moderns fill our living spaces with. Ritual items possess a gravitas that television remote controls, decades old novelty gifts, and tax returns simply can not. It’s that sort of clutter that I try to flense.

    By the way, as a working artist (and therefore someone who should be prepared for potential IRS audits), I believe the statute of limitations for back receipts and tax records is just five years. You should pass that along to your mom!

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