A post-Hanukkah, pre-Christmas epiphany has guided me to a new understanding about Jews and gentiles: While we both love a deal, there’s a difference in how we snag it.
I arrived at this inter-religious realization at the tailend of this holiday shopping season, when newspaper circulars, emailed promotions and Facebook ads tell us to buy, buy, buy. As if we actually needed any instruction in that department. Sales promotions attempt to take the pain out of holiday spending with a promise of free merchandise — stuff we really want but really don’t need — if only we first jump through a number of hurdles.
I was ready to jump through those hurdles for three free pairs of socks offered by an outdoorsy retailer. And yes, I said socks.
It happened three nights before Christmas — a holiday I celebrate with (what else?) Kung Pao chicken and a movie. I received an e-mail alerting me I could score three pairs of socks at no cost if only I bring a copy of that very email to the store when it opens. Simple enough. And I so very, very badly wanted those socks. But more than wanting them I needed those socks; “needed” as in food, water and shelter “needed.” In fact, I reasoned that it would be irresponsible and wasteful of me to not take advantage of this deal. A Christmas steal.
Suddenly, my previous poo-pooing of holiday consumerism went the way of Santa in summertime. Certainly, it was worth getting up early to net free merchandise. The hurdle? I didn’t have a printer. How was I supposed to claim my socks at no cost without a copy of the promotion? I called the store to find out if showing them a copy of the email on my computer sufficed. (Answer = No). I phoned my local Kinko’s but learned they opened too late in the morning, leaving me little time to stake out my spot before the retailer opened its doors.
What began as a consumerist itch grew into red-hot frustration of gimme, gimme I need it now. And then just as suddenly as I entered the craze, the haze blissfully lifted.
A sense of calm prevailed: Why do I need to jump through hoops to score socks that no one sees in boot season anyhow?
And that’s when I realized the fundamental difference in how Jews and Gentiles approach snagging a deal. And, don’t kid yourself, we all love a deal — and we all make an activity out of it one way or another. For some Gentiles it involves brown-bagging breakfasts and waiting in line before stores open. For some Jews it involves searching for diamond-in-the-rough merchandise, hoarding coupons as plentiful as manna and then charming clerks (or badgering them) into a discounted sale.
We come from a culture historically saturated with peddlers who eventually became merchants, some of whom eventually became department store founders.
Jews practically invented retail. And we feel oh-so-comfortable in its hallowed halls.
A few weeks ago my mother came home from Bloomingdale’s with the glow of fresh love on her cheeks. For the cost of two pennies she purchased two bracelets: Truly a Christmas miracle of the Jewish variety. She said the scene unfolded something like this:
Out of a pile of bracelets in a clearance bin marked 60 percent off, she picked up two copper numbers. Out of curiosity, she brought the jewelry to the clerk to scan. One never knows when a deal might make itself known.
The clerk: “Oh, that’s odd,” she said. “No price is coming up in the computer. This must be very old stock.”
My mother, remembering the time I purchased a brown mini-skirt at Bloomingdale’s for one beautiful red cent (my proudest moment), since no price came up in the computer that time either, seized her opportunity to snag a deal:
“When that happens you can sell it to me for a penny,” my mother said.
“Alright,” the clerk said. “I guess it’s possible you can have one for a penny.”
My mother pressed on. “I’d like two bracelets for two pennies,” she said.
And that’s how my mother effectively got two bracelets from Bloomingdale’s for free. No lines. No promotions. No printed emails. Yet there’s something fundamentally similar, too, to the Jewish-Gentile shopping divide: And that’s perseverance. In order to score the goods, you gotta work the scene.
Even free socks aren’t really free.
Hinda Mandell blogs at Little Chicken Media. She’s a doctoral student studying Jewish scandal at Syracuse University, and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe.