Invoking the Yiddish word haimish (or heymish), which translates to “homey” (in the non-ghetto meaning of the word) David Brooks describes a phenomenon familiar to many of us: “Often, as we spend more on something, what we gain in privacy and elegance we lose in spontaneous sociability.” He terms this “crossing the haimish line.”

Brooks describes a family vacation to Africa, and contrasts his family’s stays in simpler settings with those in more luxurious accommodations: the simpler camps featured communal dinners, unplanned activities, and the stuff that makes life interesting. The luxury places, which catered more to individual and family tastes, lacked the color and memorable qualities of the more rustic environments.

Brooks generalizes this phenomenon, invoking–get ready, Jews–Hillel and Chabad to prove his point: “I once visited a university that had a large, lavishly financed Hillel House to serve as a Jewish center on campus. But the students told me they preferred the Chabad House nearby, which was run by the orthodox Lubavitchers. At the Chabad house, the sofas were tattered and the rooms cramped, but, the students said, it was more haimish.” Spot on, Brooks.

[Brooks slams Hillel a little too hard here, even though I don’t think he intends to. I think he would agree with Hillel President Wayne Firestone and board chair Tom Blumberg, who wrote in a response: “the real take away from Brooks’ article is that “haimishness” isn’t about a building; It’s about the warmth, openness and inclusiveness of the people who live, work, and play there. The most haimish – and effective – groups build meaningful relationships, and no organization has a monopoly on that.”]

Over the summer with the Bronfman Youth Fellows, I taught a course entitled “Where is home?” As regular blog readers will know, this is pretty much the biggest of the Big Questions, in my mind. All roads seem to lead to it. So we explored a variety of Jewish texts–Talmudic, legal, philosophical, meditative–as well as a poem or two, all of which offered perspective on the question of home. I hope to write a longer article based on this course, but Brooks’s column about heymishness prompts me to offer a couple of observations from the course this summer.

In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides delimits those spaces which require a mezuzah (the words of Torah affixed to beitecha, ‘your houses,’ and sha’arecha, ‘your gates.’ The main factors in determining if a space needs a mezuzah are: a) whether it is permanent; and b) whether it is dignified. Thus a sukkah, which is not permanent, does not require a mezuzah; neither does a bathroom, which is not dignified.

The undignified part is intuitive. The permanent part, as the fellows and I repeatedly found, is harder to define (though the halakha adopts the standard of 30 days as the amount of time one has to affix a mezuzah; nevertheless, 30 days is a minimum standard, and does not necessarily connote long-term permanence). Particularly in our day and age, when we move so frequently, what defines permanence in a home?

Jean Amery, a mid-twentieth century thinker and survivor of Auschwitz, reflects on this in an essay entitled, “How much home does a person need?” Amery writes: “Perhaps I am not speaking only for my already declining generation of those around fifty when I say that we are accustomed to living with things that tell us stories. We need a house of which we know who lived in it before us, a piece of furniture in whose small irregularities we recognize the craftsman who worked on it.” For Amery, home is bound up with the phenomenon of recognition: we are at home where we can recognize and understand, and where we can be recognized and understood. It is a place of stories.

Achieving that kind of richness is not something that happens quickly. As Amery presciently observed, the mobility of modern society, its fixation on the self-authoring self unencumbered by tradition, runs counter to this kind of heymishness. But as Brooks points out, we deceive ourselves when we forget about our desire for memory: “When we’re shopping for a vacation we’re primarily thinking about Where. The travel companies offer brochures showing private beaches and phenomenal sights. But when you come back from vacation, you primarily treasure the memories of Who — the people you met from faraway places, and the lives you came in contact with.” That is, we remember stories, not things.

Maimonides concludes his Laws of Mezuzah by telling us that whenever a person takes note of the mezuzah on his doorpost as he enters and leaves home,  he will “awake from his sleep and his obsession with the vanities of time, and recognize that there is nothing which lasts for eternity except the knowledge of the Creator of the world.” The mezuzah exists in a paradoxical relationship with itself: only a space that is permanent requires a mezuzah, and yet the point of the mezuzah is precisely to remind us that what we think of as permanent is not in fact so. Home, a mezuzah-demanding space, is a dynamic place: firm enough to give us a sense of permanence, but open and elastic enough to regularly be infused by new stories.

In this sense, home is not necessarily just one place. As Brooks observes, we can–and often do–encounter heymishness precisely when we are away from home: on vacation, on a college campus. As Natalie and I found during my years at Northwestern Hillel, the most profound experience we could offer our students was often the least exotic to us: welcoming them into our home, enabling them to share a meal, inviting them to play with our children. We frequently develop our own idea of home when we leave it, and we experience home most profoundly when we invite guests in.

One last thought: In his 2008 book The Home We Build Together, Jonathan Sacks contrasts the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness with the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Whereas the Mishkan was made from voluntary contributions, the Temple was built by conscripted labor and high taxes. One led to the development of a nation, the other was immediately followed by the rupture of Israel into two kingdoms. I have always viewed this as an obvious but nonetheless radical point by Sacks: the Mishkan, which becomes our metaphor for life, work and Shabbat, is in many ways a preferable model to the Temple. The Temple offers a sense of permanence, the security we seek in building institutions. But it comes at a price: the price of spontaneity, the price of feeling connected to community, the price of heymishness.

Home, the root of heymishness, is thus a paradoxical concept: providing just enough security and comfort to enable us to make ourselves vulnerable, to learn, to be renewed. That is what Brooks experienced on his safari. It is at the heart of Jewish life. And it something our world desperately needs to rediscover.