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Pennies From Heaven

I used to find pennies all over the place. For a time, they seemed to be everywhere: on sidewalks, in crosswalks, in the subway, on cab floors, and even in my own stairwell. Wherever I went, if I cared only to look down, there was a cash bounty at my feet. I pocketed those tarnished babies over the months and ritually deposited them into a special red vase on my dresser. It was a singularly lonely and traumatic time: I was a refugee from a crushing divorce and resultant humiliating eight months spent living with my mother. I had put my graduate degree to use waiting tables and dropped off the face of the earth for almost a year before finally moving on and out and starting a new, terrifying life. I had come back to Brooklyn to begin again. I saw those pennies as some sort of benediction. They were small reminders that the universe hadn’t forsaken me, that, after a hellish year, things were looking up. When the red vase was full, I told myself, everything would be different, better, and ultimately okay. This is a very Jewish—and very culturally unacceptable—attitude. Because although gratitude for wealth is a thoroughly Jewish concept, shame about it is perhaps the most pervasive cultural phenomenon imaginable. There is only one way to talk about money: impersonally. And it’s time for that to change. So to speak. And, it wasn’t just pennies! I found a bunch of nickels, a few dimes, a couple of quarters. Once, late on a Tuesday night, walking home from a disappointing blind date at a bar, I found a neatly folded five-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk on the corner of Hoyt and Dean. I looked around at the empty street for a moment, the wind whistling in about-to-blossom trees—half-afraid I might be on some heinous new incarnation of Candid Camera wherein my greed and gullibility would be played as villainous—before finally reaching down to pick it up and place it in a secret compartment in my wallet, good luck in safekeeping. This paradigm was serving me nicely (on top of the tiny piggy-vase savings, I truly—if histrionically—felt “fortunate”), when the Jews-and-money issue smacked me in the face. Strolling with a friend one cloudless afternoon, I stopped short at the familiar glint of copper on the sidewalk a few paces ahead. “It’s all you,” I told my pal, gesturing down at the penny and oh-so-generously sharing the bounty. “Are you kidding me?” he said. I shrugged. “You don’t want it?” “I can’t bend down to pick a penny up off the street,” he said. “Then I’m a Jew stooping to make a cent!” Whoa. This had not occurred to me. My found-fortune thing wasn’t about the money; it was about good luck. How could I not gratefully take whatever the universe saw fit to give me? Forsaking even something so small as a penny in my path would be like thumbing my nose at possibility, would it not? What could an appreciation for good fortune on the street have to do with being, coincidentally, a Jew?
I was disturbed. Because it was true: I was a Jew guilty of ascribing cosmic goodness to the scavenging and stockpiling of money; a Jew gleefully picking money up off the ground at every opportunity. My feelings of quasi-spiritual well-being evaporated. What is it with Jews and money? Historically we’re known for being traders, bankers, lenders, war profiteers, and money-minters, all of which arguably lies at the root of European antisemitism. We are supposedly the greediest bunch of motherfuckers ever to collectively darken the face of the earth. Put succinctly by early Nazi propaganda: Money is the God of the Jew. If you google “Jews and Money” you’ll have to bleach your computer to rid it of virulent internet tripe. Allegedly, Jews are genetically predisposed to make and save money while exploiting the sweat and labor of non-Jews. Allegedly, Jews care not a whit for eternal life and so grab whatever they can here on earth. Well, hey! That last part—if you decontextualize it so you’re not outright agreeing with some red-state fuckwad who has a cross up his ass—is actually kind of true. Judaism is all about striving to do well in life, not in some questionable, moot, ultimately impossible-to-define afterlife. Comfort, prosperity, and good fortune are important while you’re alive. The Talmud says, “Who is rich? He who enjoys his wealth.” Also, “Poverty in a man’s house is worse than fifty plagues.” It also stresses business ethics: The first question posed to new arrivals at the heavenly court will supposedly be “Did you conduct your business affairs in a fair manner?” And indeed, the largest of the four sections in the Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) is all about business and money. Let us compare what the New Testament has to say on the matter: “Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God,” says Matthew 19:24, Luke 18:25, and Mark 10:25. “You cannot serve God and wealth,” in the opinion of Luke 16:13. “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil," asserts Timothy 6:10.
So there’s something of a cultural/religious discrepancy here. On the one side we have the meek inheriting the earth, money as the root of all evil, etc. And on the other, an understanding that money can be pretty darn useful, and should be handled with respect and equanimity. I’m for the Jewish take, myself. But there’s no doubt which view holds greater sway over secular America. When it comes to money, the most zealously liberal blue-stater is right in line with Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John: wanting, having, earning, and spending money are all impulses completely mired in the murky depths of a cultural shame so great that, as one of those zealously liberal blue-staters, I can attest that my palms get much clammier writing about money than they do detailing sexual misadventures. I live in a city where the rule of thumb seems to go something like: if you have a trust fund, you’d better act like you’re in debt (and, of course, if you’re in debt, go ahead and act like you have a trust fund). So I’ll say it loud and proud: the Jewish take on money is better. The notion of money-as-positive-goal is healthy. There’s no ugliness in the Talmudic dictates to enjoy and share good fortune, even if a long history of polemical persecution has somehow persuaded us otherwise. An old Yiddish saying has it that “the Torah lights, the Torah shines, but only money warms.” Finding lost change on the street suggested an order larger than myself at work: If I just diligently put one foot in front of the other while being careful to keep an eye out for things of value in my path, prosperity and happiness could be mine. The accumulation of coins in that red vase was a metaphor, people. I was not scavenging pennies to pay the rent. A few months back, walking in Williamsburg with friends, the cold wind blew a twenty-dollar bill directly into our path. We were ecstatic (“Omigod, a twenty! A twenty! A twenty!”). Clearly, everyone agreed, it was a good omen.
“Maybe we should pass it along,” it was suggested. “Like, to someone in need?” A very righteous, very New Testament, very sensible, very Two-Minute Mitzvah proposition. “Fuck that,” said someone else. “We’re getting a round.” Selfish? Tight-fisted? Amoral? Nah, just keenly aware of the fleeting joys that make up our all-too-brief lives, and eager to live fully while vested with the opportunity to do so. My sweetie, buying a round of beer shortly thereafter, shrugged. “I bet that twenty came from a botched drug deal or something.” This was meant to be comforting. “To whoever lost the money,” I said. We clinked glasses, and swallowed our shame. At some point, I stopped seeing so much money on the street, or stopped looking. Life was gradually improving and good things were happening, so maybe I just felt like I had less need for random fortune. When I see stray pennies these days, I try to leave them for some other poor soul in need of cosmic fortune. Maybe you just have to be ridiculously down and out to look around quite so hard for tangible evidence of luck and plenty and hope. Sometimes the promise of eternal salvation just doesn’t cut it, you know? You have to make your own damn luck in this life.

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