This Hyphenated Life, Post 6 / Gelt Trip

Maybe it's time for self-reflection on the meaning money has taken in our Jewish community.

The financial meltdown is the topic of conversation in North America. People are hurting and the ADL has already linked it to an uptick in anti-Semitic sentiment. But could the crisis actually be an opportunity to purge - or at least reduce - the rampant materialism from the American Jewish community and end our collective "gelt trip"? As the song says, 'what a long, strange trip it's been.'

Back in the early 90s, I read a one-liner on a Palestinian perspective on the conflict that still sticks with me: "It's all about the gelt," a young Arab man was quoted as saying in Hebrew. His adept use of the Yiddish word for money gave his words just the right extra emphasis.

Given the dramatic economic news we have seen recently, maybe it's time we are honest with ourselves about the meaning money has taken on in our Jewish community, as well as within the larger American society. When we say someone is "successful, we're not talking about how many degrees of higher education they've earned, the books they've published, pieces of art they've created, or even the children they've raised or the people they've helped. 'Successful' has become code for rich - and today, the richer the better.

Just to be clear, praying for "parnasa" (literally supporting yourself and your family) and financial well-being is a good thing, part of our Jewish tradition (especially charity) - unlike many other faiths that consider money a taboo.

But too many of our people - from the non-affiliated to the ultra-Orthodox, with financial resources and without - have gone several steps beyond that. Next Yom Kippur, let's include a new "al chet" (words of repentence) - this time, for worshiping the almighty dollar. Our over-the-top bar mitzvahs, weddings and McMansions, lead the nation in ostentatious displays of wealth.

It would seem I'd be pretty immune to notice, much less care, about all this by now. After all, I am a Beverly Hills High grad, and have seen fortunes made and more frequently squandered. It might sound overly sentimental or corny to some, but when I was a kid growing up in the 70s, the influences of a hippie, anti-war, and idealistic spirit were very much alive. The stock market was out and watching the sunset was in.

Sitting in the balcony of a crowded Bnai Jeshrun Synagogue in Manhattan last week gave me time to reflect. Hearing the rabbis speak in their South American accented English about the economic plunge was surreal - like what may have been witnessed in their native Argentina, but never in New York City. Their discussion of the "more" culture that has gripped America in contrast to the Jewish concept of "el shedai" - the God of Enough - made me feel that we insulated and privileged American Jews are perhaps just beginning to get our taste of tough times.

These rabbis also quoted at length from a speech given by George Washington, in which, among other things, America's first president warned against the "arrogance of prosperity."

It's an important message to hear on any day of the year, but especially on Yom Kippur, when we're stripped down to our naked essence with no food, water, leather, perfume and all other material trappings. Or at least that's the way it should be in theory. But this year, I observed people standing outside the shul locked in business conversations on their cell phones or checking their blackberry one last time before returning to services - like taking the last hit on a cigarette.

In his most recently published book, "Why We Hate Us," NPR editor Dick Meyer (yes, he's Jewish), gives important perspective on this juncture in history.

In this very worthwhile read on the cultural disconnect in America today, Meyer writes: "A wealthy industrialist of the Gilded Age had more homes, staff, cars, yachts, and railroad cars than he and his family could possibly take advantage of. So it is with today's hedge fund manager, real estate developer, or dot-com entrepreneur."

Has the time now come to write the obit for the second gilded age?

When the Wall Street Journal has multiple articles in one day comparing the sub-prime crisis of 2008 to the Great Depression (though, we're not there yet and probably won't be), you know things are serious. It's a time when in restaurants and bars, in dinner conversations with friends, and in countless e-mails, people are all talking about how bad it is, who's lost a job, how many budgets have been slashed and orders canceled.

"My grandmother was actually most happy during the Depression," a friend said to me last week. It's when people came together to help one another and focused on what matters.

My 7-year-old son frequently admonishes me when he hears the topic of money pop up in conversation. It's gross, he says.

Trying to limit talk and obsession about money is not just a luxury that people with money can afford. Can you divide the people in your life between those who incessantly talk about money and those who rarely do? I prefer to take a break and gravitate toward friends (both rich and poor), who discuss ideas, feelings, health, fun, family relationship and the state of the world - rather than solely on the state of their 401k.

Money can do much good, and making it can be a blessing, but yes, the excessive talk about the gelt, the showcasing it and failure to use it for what matters, might finally, and thankfully, be coming to an end.

Marco Greenberg is a communications strategist based in New York City.