In Search of Jewish Minimalism

I have probably been a minimalist my entire life, before I knew what to call it.  I’ve never been much attached to heirlooms or possessions and I’ve always found a great pleasure in getting rid of things.  Even as a child, when my mother would decide it was time to cull the herd of stuff animals or children’s books in my room, while I might experience a little discomfort choosing what was to go, there was this blissful feeling of freedom once they were gone.  As an architecture student, the spartan lines of modernism spoke to me far more than anything more decorative.  I loved things that were simple, but well-designed.

My minimalism, though, reached a peak when I left my ex-husband, who was coincidentally a hoarder.  I left rather dramatically, by necessity, in the middle of the day while he was busy at work, taking only what I could fit into my truck to my new, empty 2-bedroom apartment with white walls.  For months, the kids and I, along with 2 cats, had no furniture besides our beds.  We ate dinner each evening like it was a picnic and played hide and seek in the emptiness.

That minimalism definitely gave me a profound feeling of freedom that I never again wanted to fill up.

Since then, our family has moved often, but even when we do not, I generally go through the house like a tornado both in Spring and Fall, sweeping up what has gathered up over the past year and sorting through it.  I always feel a great relief when I drop off a pile of donations.  There is little in our home that is purely decorative.

So, this Fall, I’ve begun that bi-annual sweep of the house as I prepare for the High Holidays.  I do my spring sweep as part of my Passover prep and I find that the clearing out of clutter really brings a physical side to the clearing out within I’m doing during each of these seasons.  As they say, “As above, so below,” and as I prepare my spiritual house for these two very important Jewish holidays, I’m usually also busy with preparing my physical home.

This time, as I looked for inspiration for what projects to tackle, I was surprised to find that there is a growing movement toward minimalism among Christians and I began to look for something similar among Jews.  To me, minimalism is a perfect fit with a Jewish lifestyle.  Often, Jewish neighborhoods are tough to find a lot of space in, with smaller apartments or homes.  Families prioritize paying for education and having more children, so it would seem that paring down possessions and simplifying life would fit naturally.  Tzedakah is also a high priority, so donating to charity or gemachs would seem to fit right in.  Spiritually, simplifying what you own and your lifestyle would seem to open up more space for Torah study and mitzvos.

And yet, I really didn’t find the kind of spiritual, minimalist blogs, podcasts, or youtube channels made by Jews that I had seen other people of faith creating and I began to wonder why.

There often seem to be two opposing urges within Judaism, at least from my own semi-outsider perspective.  There is one I very much relate to, the idea that a life lived simply is a spiritual life, perhaps best embodied in Baal Shem Tov stories, where simple, poor people receive great spiritual blessings through simple faith and mitzvahs.  One of my favorite stories is of a couple who can only afford beans for Shabbos.  However, because they are good people with a great attitude, they celebrate as if each course of beans was a feast, which in their eyes, it is.  I think I relate to these kinds of stories because in my own life, I have definitely had those times when just having beans was worth celebrating.  Then there is the other urge, which also comes from a good place, which is to beautify every mitzvah we can, to elevate it when we can.  It’s this principle that tells us that if we can afford a nicer havdalah set or kiddush cup, we should buy it.  Judaism doesn’t embrace asceticism in the way Christianity has, but instead acknowledges that beauty is good.

So…which is right?  Simplicity or embelishment?

I think either can be taken to unhealthy extremes.  There are communities where if you don’t have the correct brand of stroller or the “right” shoes, you will be looked down on, even if you are at shul and working hard on being a good Jew.  There are Jews who go into debt trying to maintain a beautiful facade of success.  Still, there are people who go to far toward asceticism, failing to prioritize the beautification of mitzvahs or becoming too rigid in their stringencies and losing the joy and warmth of Judaism.  I think there is definitely a middle ground to be had and perhaps that is why I don’t see the wholesale embrace of minimalism as a lifestyle by Jews, let alone a rebranding of it as a Jewish ideal.

One of the things that I love about living a Torah lifestyle is that while there is a pretty rigid structure there to help provide support for a good life, there is also some room to personalize what that looks like.  For me, I prefer a simple life that revolves around my family and Torah and I seek few embellishments beyond meat on Shabbos and silver candlesticks and a silver kiddush cup.  What feels like contentment and coziness to me might feel like a denial of life’s pleasures to another.  It’s up to each of us, though, to determine what makes a Jewish home and a Jewish life for us in a way that is within halakhah, but also within who we were created to be.  As I grow and hopefully draw closer to conversion, I find myself more and more comfortable with my Judaism not looking exactly like my neighbors as long as it fits me and the Torah.

Perhaps that authenticity and comfort is exactly the simplicity and minimalism I’ve been yearning for.

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