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Downsize to Upgrade

Michal Eisikowitz

A table, some chairs, a folding cot — our succahs pass the minimalist test with flying colors. And for good reason: one of the themes of the Yom Tov is redefining our relationship with the physical. And the lessons we learn need not vanish once we take down our succahs; downsizing can enrich our life both physically and emotionally.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On January 12, 2005, Raizy Censor’s* bedroom fixture exploded. Though firefighters fought hard to contain the flames, she watched from the street corner as an electric fire ravaged the entire second floor of her home.

Traumatized — yet deeply grateful the loss was only material — Raizy numbly set out to build a wardrobe and furniture set from scratch. Once the dust settled and the shock subsided, she made an astonishing discovery: apart from two sheitels and a cherished set of her children’s baby pictures, she wasn’t missing much.

“Virtually nothing destroyed was really valuable to me,” she relates. “Most of what was burned, I never used.”

Surprising? Not for someone like ardent minimalist Everett Bogue.

“It’s like ‘What do I actually use in my daily life?” Everett exclaims while revealing a totally empty cabinet in his stark-would-be-an-understatement kitchen.

A devotee of the “100 Thing Challenge,” a group whose members aim to own no more than one hundred items, Everett owns a total of fifty seven items, including a bed, a couch, and a laptop computer. His raison-d’etre is “less is more” — and he’s awfully proud of it.

“Two pots, two pans, a pair of shoes,” says a smiling Everett as he shows off five of his paltry panoply of possessions.

Readers may be wagging their heads, wondering why yet another nutty fellow is being gloriously wheeled into the spotlight. But statistics show Everett may not be as loopy as you think.

According to the National Association of Professional Organizers, the average person uses only 20 percent of what he owns, and wears 20 percent of his clothing 80 percent of the time. If that’s the case, we stuff-lovers might be the fools around here, insisting on cluttering our homes — and our brainspace.

“I began to feel lighter and freer,” attests Jenn DiPiazza, a former packrat who embarked on an all-out downsizing campaign after an eye-opening stay in a Spartan Navajo reservation. “I was no longer weighed down by all this stuff.”

Everett and Jenn are not alone in their quest for simplicity. The “buy no more” mindset is gaining momentum, asserts professional organizer Peter Walsh, due in large part to the recession. While not everybody is downsizing voluntarily, almost everyone is trying to make do with less.

“We’re moving to a deeper level of contentment and happiness that’s not tied to the accumulation of stuff,” says Mr. Walsh.

Personal downsizing is “in.” That’s good news for the Jews, since Chazal have long enumerated the virtues of simple living. So while you may not be ready to slash your  possessions to the double-digit level, downscaling offers unique benefits that adherents claim have greatly enhanced their quality of life — both physical and spiritual.

Why Downsize?

On hearing of the stuff-slimming trend, the first question for many individuals is ‘why bother?’ Downsizing takes time and effort — and emotionally, it’s not always a breeze.

But fans of the practice insist that the liberating feeling engendered is worth the price.

“It’s a catalyst for freedom,” writes “Simply Stephen,” a personal downsizing guru. “One can enjoy the things they have more. Cupboards have space. Life has less clutter. It takes less time to maintain everything.”

Directing energies towards downsizing can also change personal spending habits: stuff doesn’t make you happy anymore.

“An abundant life can be spent doing things instead of acquiring things,” says Stephen.

Mrs. Zlata Press, principal of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Bnos Leah High School, takes this a step further with a thought from the Netziv (HaEmek Davar, Devarim 4:1).  “Materialism stresses the importance of ‘things’ and devalues the importance of spirit,” she paraphrases. “Downsizing, on the other hand, allows one to focus on life’s real pleasures.”

Still others find that downsizing offers enormous practical benefits: more space, plus the peace of mind knowing the location of each of your possessions.

“It’s the nachas of a clean, clutter-free desk,” muses Edna Deblinger*, a mother and grandmother. Edna — owner of a spacious but furniture-filled home — can’t claim to have downsized on the scale she’d like, but she’s trying. “Over the years, I’ve learned that not having to struggle to find what you need each morning is a huge thing.”

The case for downsizing becomes even more compelling when you face the facts that most of what we have, we don’t use.

Shlomo* came to this realization by accident. Before a move overseas, he got rid of 10 percent of his stuff and stored the rest. When he returned, he realized that most of it wasn’t missed.

“I hadn’t needed it; it served no purpose,” remembers Shlomo, who since became a hard-core downsizer.

Indeed, some individuals discover that the magic of minimalism lies in the economical distribution of resources.

“Our joy comes from the fact that we’re not wasting,” writes one aficionado. “We could buy the best laundry detergent and it wouldn’t break us. We could eat gourmet meals every night and our budget could handle it. We could just buy our kids new stuffed animals instead of making them. But we take a lot of pleasure out of frugal choices and frugal projects in our life.”

A Lakewood mother of three, Rena Kellner* echoes these sentiments. She and her husband grew up in financially comfortable homes where they never felt the pinch. As their family grew, however, and resources dwindled, reality hit hard.

“At first, the downsizing and lowering of our hasagos was extremely difficult,” she admits candidly. “But after a while, we got used to the new routines and even started liking some.”

Which brings us to the most common, irrefutable rationale for downsizing: not enough cash. Instead of ending the month in the red, many money-strapped families choose to take charge of their financial destiny by downgrading — in a variety of ways. The results? Hundreds more dollars left in their pockets — or the serenity of soul that comes with staying clear of debt.


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