Susan Weidman Schneider on learning value from a New Orleans street performer.
In the touristy areas of the French Quarter, which was relatively unscathed by Katrina, New Orleans streets are full of buskers. By the dozens, these street performers enact all kinds of feats: lumber balancing, group singing, break dancing, rapping; at least this was the assortment I took in when I was there a couple of months ago. One act was particularly stunning. Two men in eye-catching metallic costumes, their bodies sprayed silver to match, stood on a makeshift platform miming to music and moving in perfect synchronicity, human simulacra of robots.
I watched them, mesmerized, for a couple of minutes. I had nothing in my wallet smaller than a $20 bill, so I reached into my pocket for a handful of change to put into their silvered bucket. One of the robo-guys shook his head at me, and without breaking the rhythm of the act said clearly: “No change. Only bills.” Whaaaaat! I was totally taken aback. They should be grateful for anything they get, right?
And then I realized: These guys knew the quality of their work, and they were perfectly comfortable telling the crowd that they weren’t going to undersell their product. Terrific! And a fascinating lesson.
For many women, our attitudes about money often reflect what we think about our work and the value we place on our time. Our money—the ways we give it and how we ask for it and how we earn it––send a message to the world. I stood on the street in New Orleans and thought a lot about money that afternoon. I watched tourists happily buying bling (sometimes known as tchotchkes) while transferring no cash to the performers whose antics make the NOLA experience so special. I thought about a friend of mine — a person pretty impecunious — who makes no impulse purchases for less than $100. Huh? Well, she says that setting this limit imposes a discipline. You have to think several times before spending $100, whereas it’s easy to leak out many smaller purchases without noticing the flow.
Cash flow is not a new concern, of course. At Lilith, we’ve had women and money as one of our beats for many years. It’s a large category, which includes what we earn, what we inherit, what we give, and the money that we manage in our homes and communities. While I was doing informal fieldwork observing street performers and their audiences, I was really in New Orleans to meet with student journalists and to report on the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. At the G.A., one of the largest annual gatherings of Jews on the planet — more than 3,000 this time — it was clear that a serious examination of women’s finances was not front and center. Not even at the concurrent Lion of Judah women’s philanthropy meetings which followed the G.A.
There was energetic and illuminating talk about boys, and the need to keep males connected to Jewish life (who’d have thought…?), but hardly any public discussion about the economy’s effects on women, nor about the grotesque gender gap (it’s the 21st century, for heaven’s sake) in wages in Jewish organizations, reported in these pages by Sarah Blustain. The shocking $20,000 disparity in annual pay between women and men doing comparable work in Jewish organizations is a shande that sociologist Steven M. Cohen calls “the net cost of being a woman in Jewish communal life.” But the G.A., with its excellent sessions on disabilities rights, diversity, social action, Israel policies and more, managed to dim the spotlight that should have been cast on the issue of paycheck fairness — or, rather, unfairness — under our own roof.
It’s not all bad news, as you’ll read in this issue. Against the backdrop of chronic money worries afflicting every nonprofit (Lilith included), and the anxieties every individual feels about the present state of the economy, and the discouraging dispatches from people ( Jewish and non) who monitor gender issues in the workplace, we see a glimmer of hope. Where? In the collective power of freelancers. Freelancers (your yoga instructor, the graphic designer down the block, the taxi driver you rode with last week) are our generation’s equivalent of the pieceworkers with needle and thread who were exploited a hundred years ago and who managed, along with sweatshop workers, to press for protective labor laws. In 2011, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Waist Company fire, Lilith is buoyantly spotlighting a 21st-century labor hero. Sara Horowitz values workers and their work in the same way that New Orleans street mime does, asking for real bills (including in the legislature) and not just short change.