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Virtual Talmud

I see them everywhere, in new suburban developments and in urban neighborhoods: gigantic homes that could house a tribe, let alone an average family, and sometimes contain such perks as indoor pools. Labeled McMansions in the 1980s, Jews are building them and moving into them in droves.

There is a positive and a negative to these Jewish McMansions, at least as I have seen it play out in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, and in suburban neighborhoods around the country.

In our old neighborhood of Midwood, Brooklyn, the McMansion-building craze means that families desirous of larger or more comfortable space are remaining in the neighborhood instead of moving to the suburbs. This is good for the Jews and for the city.

Particularly in the Syrian Jewish community focused around Ocean Parkway, McMansions are a sign that families are making a commitment to remain within walking distance of each other. Grandchildren grow up with their grandparents and cousins around the corner or a short bike ride away. They can spend Shabbat and holidays together, helping to cement traditional observance down through the generations. It also means that the social ties that support neighborhood institutions like synagogues and the community center remain strong.

Such stability is also good for the larger neighborhood. While it is true many of the children in these homes attend private Jewish day schools, McMansions mitigate white flight, helping to sustain an integrated neighborhood.

The down side, of course, is conspicuous consumption. McMansions represent big money. The owners are more than successful; they are wealthy (in an upper-middle-class sort of way). If our immigrant grandparents (or great grandparents) did not find America’s streets paved with gold, we, at least, can tile our bathrooms in marble accented by gold fixtures.

That is why, when I see a McMansion, I wonder how much tzedakah (charity) the family gives. In the suburbs, I also wonder what it would be like if the builder had built within the same fascade a multi-family dwelling that looked as good but provides affordable middle-class housing for the hard-working teachers, civil-service, health-care, and office workers who are being priced out of the county in which I now live by the proliferation of such McMansions.

The affordable-housing folks in my community tell me it is possible for the builders to make the same profit; all that is lacking is a commitment to try. That also used to be part of the Jewish American dream: to try to see that everyone could have the same chance to live comfortably and safely by working hard.

I hope it still is part of our dream.

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