A few months ago, the Cap’n and I were sitting and talking to friends on a Shabbat afternoon. We and they had mutual acquaintances, a young family in a well-to-do coastal city in Israel, where the husband/father is a successful businessman with a palatial house, company car, and a nanny for the children.
We were alternately intrigued and horrified when we considered what it would be like to live like that. Intrigued because—let’s face it—who doesn’t dream of having a large house, servants, full-time childcare, and all the rest? But on some level, we were also horrified. The expense of such a house in Israel where land is so costly, even modest housing is becoming difficult to afford, and the cost of heating, cleaning, and maintaining a large house is considerable, made us wonder at anyone “needing” to live like that.
McMansions are available almost everywhere now. I remember a few years ago when a McMansion in Ramat Beit Shemesh (surrounded closely on three sides by the houses around it, and a view of the road going by and a weed-covered bank on the other) sold to a Canadian businessman for $2 million. Pricey, large houses overlooking the smog and dirt of Bethlehem in Efrat (in a neighborhood I fondly refer to as Ramat Beit Lechem) are also available for purchase. The people who buy them are those headed by high-powered, single- or dual-career couples, families who sold their house in Teaneck for a fortune, or perhaps heirs to wealthy deceased parents. They were accustomed, no doubt, to having a large house before making aliyah, and were not keen to downsize when they came to Israel. A large house and garden, even if they may not have quite the square footage and acreage that they had in the Goldene Medina, is their expected standard now.
I don’t feel much resentment toward people who live in such circumstances. First of all, while it would seem that people who live in a small house in the country leave less of a carbon footprint on the earth compared to city-dwellers in larger houses, that’s untrue; cities are by far less of an infringement on Nature than those who live on farms or in small settlements outside the cities. And McMansions, while their architecture may lack originality and the houses appear indistinct from one another, are usually in cities. And in countries like the US, where rainfall is plentiful and other resources not lacking, such apparent waste is even less reprehensible. Where Israel is concerned, however—a desert country with little rainfall, little land, and an extremely hot climate (against which most people have air conditioning installed)—McMansions make me less comfortable. The government is ginger about instituting penalties for excessive water use, and the water needed to clean the house, water the garden, and the fact that many people who live in posh circumstances are less disciplined about their personal water use (taking baths or long showers, for example) drain the country’s limited resources. (And even if the penalties for water overuse are assessed, those in McMansions can easily afford the penalties.) The strain on the power grid in the summer with everyone’s air conditioning running day and night necessitates rolling blackouts in the country, and the environmental impact of air conditioning a large house is greater than that of an apartment.
I don’t deign to tell anyone else how to live. On the other hand, our choices about how we live speak volumes about us. In America, the cultural norm is to have one’s life very self-contained: every family with its own house, garden, and swing set. In Israel, it is much more common for people to live in close quarters and take their children to the local park or playground to play on shared equipment. To choose to live in a larger house than we need shows an lack of awareness, or insensitivity, to a country’s limited resources. To choose to live in a house or apartment with the minimum amount of space needed for a family (with children sharing bedrooms, multi-use common space, a garden planned with low water needs) is more economical and environmentally friendly, and is an admission that perhaps what we want and what we need are not one and the same.
I traveled through Asia and Europe for six months after college graduation (here’s a little description of what I learned) and after seeing how people in other parts of the world live, I realized that to have running water, indoor plumbing, a roof over one’s head, and all the other stuff that we have in the West, gives us a standard of living not even dreamt of by most of the world’s population. In A Night To Remember: A Haggadah of Contemporary Voices, Mishael Zion and Noam Zion include a sidebar to the text which includes some of the findings of the 2000 Statistics on the Distribution of Wealth. The Zions write, “If we could reduce the world’s population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, the demographics would look something like this: 80 live in substandard housing; 24 don’t have any electricity; 50 [are] malnourished and 1 dying of starvation and 1 with HIV; 1 with a college education and 7 with internet access; 5 control 32% of the entire world’s wealth, all are US citizens. …If there is food in your refrigerator, if you have shoes, a bed and a roof above your head, you are better off than 75% of people in this world.”
The difference in quality of life between what I enjoy and what someone in a McMansion enjoys is minimal. But the difference between what someone CAN live with elsewhere in the world (e.g. in a bamboo hut, outdoor latrine, shared well rather than running water) should give the rest of us—either in apartments or in McMansions—pause.