“Rachel, do you have Jewish gold?” my colleague asked me one day, out of nowhere. Paula was a calm and soft-spoken Jamaican/Canadian woman around my age. Sometimes, she brought me homemade tamarind balls and we would chat for hours in our shared office, sucking the sweetness from our fingertips and whispering about the latest absurd thing our supervisor had said. I looked at her quizzically. “I mean, like, you know…” she said. “Do you come from money?”
“No, but I wish I had Jewish gold!” I joked, trying to diffuse the tension rising inside me. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, only that I felt that I was trying hard to chew on my words and swallow them down, worrying that at any moment, I would say something uncomfortable, which would inadvertently make her feel bad. The air was thick with assumptions of generational wealth, a key to some sort of Jewish treasure chest. Jewish gold.
I’ve brushed up against the misconception that Jews are wealthy many times. Poverty is not a Jewish issue, I once heard a non-Jewish friend say, as though all Jews are keepers of gold and secrets and inherited affluence. As with Paula, I said nothing, unable to form the right words.
We grew up working-class in Leeds, West Yorkshire. My father was a taxi driver for much of my childhood. My mother stayed at home with the kids. When I was 8, my parents divorced. It was a messy process that took years to end, and these years were fraught with financial worries. I vividly remember the look on my mother’s face when she opened the bills. She would make a hissing sound and her forehead would wrinkle. We ended up only seeing our father on weekends, and when he gave us pocket money, our mother insisted we turn it over to her when we arrived home. To this day, I don’t know if this was because she needed the cash, so small was the amount, or because she just couldn’t bear for us to have any money from our father when he was, according to her, not paying his child maintenance.
A few years after the divorce, my mother sold the house in Leeds, packed our lives and moved us to her home country, Israel. In Israel, my mother couldn’t find steady work and the money she made selling the house was gone within two years. By the time I was in my teens, the cumulative stress of the divorce and financial hardship had taken a toll on her, and she had a mental breakdown. From then on we were financially supported by our family, my grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Following her breakdown, my mother applied for Canadian residency, thinking our lives would be easier in a new country. My uncle and aunt in Toronto agreed to sponsor us. I was eighteen, my brother was nineteen, and my youngest brother was fourteen when we landed in Canada. We spent two months living at my aunt and uncle’s house in an affluent Toronto suburb. The neighbourhood was the kind of place where people had two garages for their indoor luxury cars and outdoor parking for their SUVs, where pro-Israel billboards are put up at every intersection, where if you’re brown, you’d at least better be rich. My uncle imparted some information, some life lessons, about the time he made his first million as he drove me to my minimum wage job in his BMW. We slept in the basement, in sleeping bags on air mattresses that usually deflated during the night. What I remember from those months was that I was freezing and sad most of the time.
Within six months of moving to Canada, our mother’s mental health spiraled again and she was taken by my uncle to the psych ward. And while our mother was dealing with forced institutionalization, my brother and I had to go to court to claim guardianship over our younger brother. By the time she was allowed out, she was done with Canada. She fled to Israel, leaving us behind. My uncle and aunt moved us to a condo they owned under the condition that we pay all the bills and maintenance and keep it in good shape.
In Toronto, Jewish Family and Child Services got involved in our “case.” A social worker came over and checked the fridge to make sure there was food in it and asked me intrusive questions in the most non-intrusive way, her eyes not meeting mine. The shame of it all was like a hard little rock in the back of my throat. The same social worker pulled strings to get me on an all-expense-paid canoe trip with other Jewish youth from troubled backgrounds. When excitement rose inside me like a swell, I would remind myself that my mother was in the midst of another breakdown. My poverty was such that I couldn’t allow something good to happen without feelings of guilt and shame.
At the beginning, there was no money for furniture, so we gathered on the cold beige tiles of the kitchen, wearing our too-thin winter jackets, eating pizza out of the box. My brothers didn’t know that I often stacked our kitchen shelves with items from the food bank. I spent the first child tax benefit cheque on an Ikea bookshelf. A mahogany wood stain with glass doors, very out of place in the empty condo. No couch, no art, no chairs to sit on but at least my books would have a home. Soon after the bookcase purchase, we bought a flimsy kitchen table. Then an ugly gray sectional sofa. We were settling into our new lives, one piece of furniture at a time.
It was still an incredibly lonely time, but alongside that loneliness was an unexpected liberation. We were finally living, as teenagers, without the chaos of our mother. Our aunt and uncle lived close by, but there was barely any adult supervision.
For my nineteenth birthday, friends from my minimum-wage retail job threw me a Hawaiian themed birthday party, and after drinking downstairs in the condo’s party room, we all piled drunkenly into the tiny living room upstairs. My coworker Mariana looked around, taking in the spartan surroundings. “But where are your parents?” she asked. I had drunk too much sangria and I wanted to sound together. “We live here by ourselves. We take care of our brother.” Mariana looked at me sharply. Not with curiosity but with the sort of swift calculation one makes about someone whose life is outside their realm of experience. I was exposed.
My aunt and uncle gave us our life in Canada. They sponsored us and paid the lawyer bills when my older brother and I became our younger brother’s legal guardians. My aunt took us to get our OHIP cards, she enrolled my brother in high school, she was instrumental in helping us get settled. But it was a nettled relationship. Once, my aunt took me shopping and was filling my cart with food products in the harried way a busy person tries to get through a task. As she reached for the shelf to grab something to throw in the shopping cart, I timidly stopped her. “Sheila, we don’t eat that stuff. It’ll go to waste.” “Well, beggars can’t be choosers,” she said reflexively. A second later she contorted her face in embarrassment. “I’m so sorry, that’s a terrible thing to say.”
I remained silent. Shame has a way of stealing your voice, rendering you numb to those moments that become etched into your memory like a bad dream. What struck me the most from this interaction is that I hadn’t been shocked or affronted when she said that. In my mind, she was right.
My aunt offered to buy me a gold necklace for my nineteenth birthday, but I didn’t want it. I would have felt like an imposter, wearing something so expensive. The only gold I’d ever owned was a 24k bracelet inherited from my British grandmother who passed away. My grandmother was in the ground for less than a year before I had to sell the bracelet to make rent. There was also the time I had to sell my typewriter, or the time before that when I sold my CD collection to a music nerd who responded to my craigslist ad. It was not a matter of being broke. “Broke” was what my Canadian friends called themselves when they told their parents they needed some cash after spending whatever money they had on drinks and cheap trips and concert tickets and good finds at Value Village.
I was not broke. I was poor.
Although my financial situation is very different now, money is still something that I struggle with and worry about. Shame is a difficult emotion to unlearn. Once you’ve had to borrow money or use a food bank or shortchange the bus driver because you don’t have enough fare to get to work, it is hard to identify with money in a positive way. Now, in my thirties, I am teaching myself about financial literacy so that I can pass on this information to my son, in the hopes that he will have a healthier relationship with his finances than I do with mine. But mostly, I never reveal to him my money woes. My son believes his mother is a provider who encourages him to save and teaches him about budgeting, interest rates and credit. Let him see me like this for as long as possible, until it becomes something that is true, until I am living proof that one can turn their financial identity around and become a person for whom money is not a source of great anxiety.
When my son was born, we opened a registered education savings plan. Not too long ago, on his seventh birthday, we opened another savings account for him to save his pocket money. He hasn’t spent a dime since he started saving at age five. I tell him that the only things he should save for are education, real estate, and travel. He informs me, in his most serious voice, that he will save for those things after he saves enough money to buy a real train.
A closing confession: we do, in fact, have Jewish gold. Both my Indian grandmother and my mother wear gold bangles around their wrists. My grandmother’s gold did not protect her from racism when she moved to Israel from India in the 50s and was given substandard housing. She lived with her three young children in an asbestos hut, always reminding them to be careful of the snakes in the grass. Her gold discs didn’t shield her from hard work as a cleaning lady in a local high school. My mother’s gold did not protect her from the gradual unravelling of her marriage and her mind. Jewish gold, as it turned out for the women in my family, has not been that useful. But still, I adore the clinking jingle sound their bangles make, the way the golden bracelets adorn their brown hands. There were times when I couldn’t recognize my mother, she wore the face of my mother but in all other ways, she was not my mother. But the gold bangles were a constant, the warm halos around her wrists an invitation to hold her hands for as long as I could.
Rachel Shai is a writer and an educator based in Canada. For the last decade, she has taught creative writing workshops in schools throughout Toronto, working extensively with The Toronto Public Library and The Toronto Public School Board. She is currently completing an MFA in creative writing at Guelph University and working on her debut collection of essays.