To shop or not to shop, that is the question

The royal blue dress caught my eye as I rummaged through racks at the second-hand store. In the fitting room, I tried it on and twirled. The soft cotton material rippled around me. I smiled, imagined myself dancing in some dimly lit Mission bar while heads turned toward the blue flame in a sea of black.

My closet didn’t need the dress. I bought it anyway. Along with (oops) a few other shirts. OK, six.

Shoes and jewelry don’t make me swoon — clothes do. This gives me guilt. Shopping has a superficial reputation, and superficial I am not.

I do like to feel beautiful, however, and cute new clothes do the trick in the image-conscious world in which we live.

It’s human (and yes, Jewish) nature to want beautiful things. Step into any Judaica shop and you’ll see hand-dyed silk tallits, hand-painted Kiddush cups, menorahs in an array of heavy metals. While we certainly can practice Judaism without dropping hundreds of dollars for handcrafted objects, there is a certain comfort that comes from the aesthetic of our tradition.

No one would ever accuse me of superficiality when buying a menorah. The beauty of Judaica brings us joy — is that so different from finding beauty in a blue dress?

Before I looked for the answer in Jewish text, I considered what my friend Elena Aronson might say. Last year she started a personal shopping service called Shopping Made Simple after dropping out of a doctoral program in Jewish history at U.C. Berkeley.

Why did she do such a thing? She found more meaning in helping people feel good about the way they looked and lived than she did hunkered down in the library conducting research alone.

Elena is not the kind of person I’d peg for a fashion maven. She inhales 19th century Russian literature, yet she also worships Vogue magazine. She sees nothing contradictory about this.

“For some reason people have this idea that if you’re really smart, you shouldn’t care or bother with your appearance. I think that’s a horrible way to live,” she said. “Looking good demonstrates that you feel good about yourself.”

Interesting theory. People often assume it’s the other way around — that a person feels good because they’re well-dressed, instead of considering that looking good is an expression of their confidence.

Religion has much to say about wanting, say, a fabulous new outfit (which Elena once helped me buy — what a fun afternoon).

Buddhism suggests desire is at the root of suffering. Stop craving things — be happy. Similarly, in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Church, monks take a vow of poverty.

Living a simple life is complicated in our consumerist society. Watch QVC for five minutes, and you’d think happiness can be found by calling toll free now.

But poverty is not a virtue in Judaism. “Without the acquisitive impulse, our rabbis said, no productive activity would take place: no building, no planting, no creating,” said Rabbi Janet Marder of Congregation Beth Am in a 2000 sermon, available on the synagogue’s Web site.

Yet the rabbis knew the pursuit of more is circuitous — the more we have, the more we want — and so our tradition gives us boundaries.

Judaism insists we earn our money honestly, that we don’t flaunt the way we spend it and that we give some of it away — to those who have less, to the Jewish community and toward making the world a better place.

In her sermon, Marder told the story of a group of rabbis asked to consider: Who is wealthy? The person with a thriving business, one said. Others cited a loving marriage and a luxurious home.

Then, one rabbi said a truly wealthy person is “one who derives peace of mind from his or her wealth.”

By which he meant, Marder says, you are a wealthy person “if your possessions — whatever they are — are a source of contentment.”

I’ll have to remember this next time I’m surrounded by racks of cute clothes and am tempted to buy … a red dress. I already have one of those.

Stacey Palevsky lives and shops in San Francisco. Contact her at [email protected]

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.