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.

You know that something is happening in the world when Bob Herbert and David Brooks write virtually the same words in the NYT (on the same page!).

Brooks reviews a new magazine, National Affairs, and praises it for occupying the middle ground (the “bloody crossroads”). But inevitably, he says, the magazine will have to deal with how government can inculcate altruistic personal behavior:

Can the state do anything to effectively promote virtuous behavior? Because when you get into the core problems, whether in Washington, California or on Wall Street, you keep seeing the same moral deficiencies: self-indulgence, irresponsibility and imprudence.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the op-ed page, we find this from Bob Herbert:

We’ve forgotten many of the fundamentals: how to live within our means, the benefits of shared sacrifice, the responsibilities that go with citizenship, the importance of a well-rounded education and tolerance.

It must be Elul. Here’s to doing better this year.

David Brooks is at it again (no I don’t get commission), with another solid column about higher education. Brooks has written before about how college graduation is one of the main dividing lines in American society. Culturally speaking, those who attend an institution of higher education are more likely to engage in certain behaviors, watch certain shows, own certain cars, vote for certain candidates, etc. (and yes, they tend to be the things you associate with latte-sipping, Subaru-driving, Jon Stewart-watching, Obama-voting people, such as yours truly–minus the Subaru, which we gave up for the Toyota minivan; but of course we never would have seriously considered buying an American car–that’s so… bourgeois).

In this column, however, Brooks points out one of the major looming shifts in how we think about higher education in America, which is the prevalence of community colleges. There are over 5,000 institutions of higher education in America, and over 14 million students in those institutions. Think about that for a second. If you tried to name as many colleges and universities as you could, you might be able to come up with 200, or less than 5 percent of the total number of higher ed institutions in the country. Of those many institutions you probably couldn’t name, nearly 1,200, or close to 25 percent, are community colleges, and 11.5 million of those 14 million students are enrolled in them.

The Chronicle of Higher Education runs a supplement once or twice a year on community colleges, and I, like many others I presume, toss it in the recycling before even giving it a glance. But Brooks reminds us that community colleges are not only important loci of diversity in education; they are, because of their lower cost, harbingers of the future. The day is fast approaching (in California, it came yesterday), when even we who have figured we were sending our kids to prestigious universities aren’t going to be able to afford it. The kids of more people that you know will be attending community college, experimenting with other delivery options for higher education (distance learning while living on some kind of campus that provides a student life experience and mentoring by tutors who are cheaper than tenured faculty), or avoiding college altogether. The economics is simply going to drive it, and higher education in the U.S. is going to look very different than it does today.

We are arriving at the point (or likely we passed it already) when we have to ask real questions. Is this war winnable? It’s not just people on the left, it’s even David Brooks in this morning’s New York Times:

Many Israeli leaders seem to have taken the momentum of the past weeks and concluded that they can force through a permanent solution to their quandary. That’s the perfect way to dilute the psychological effect, and to lose control of the endgame.

In one scenario, Israel finishes a quick ground assault with a lightning effort to clean out the tunnels in the Philadelphia Corridor. Then it withdraws from Gaza, at a time of its own choosing, to let the psychological reverberations begin. In another scenario, Israel’s assault drags on. The suffering of the innocents in Gaza magnifies. The meaning changes.

The architects of the first scenario understand the rules of the new game. The architects of the second miss the core concept: psychology matters most.

Remember that Hamas, like Hezbollah, does not share our quaint notions of keeping military units away from civilians, and that they will proclaim victory even when–or particularly when–the kill ratio is 100:1. There is no way to beat people who will use a culture’s own love of life against itself. There is no way to win against people who have nothing left to lose. All they can do is win.


A Palestinian man mourned at a hospital mortuary in Gaza City on Monday over the bodies of his two sons and a nephew, who were killed by an Israeli tank shell early Monday.

And because of that, we also have to look squarely, honestly, painfully at pictures like this from this morning’s Times. What can one say to this father? What can one say? “Vayidom Aharon,” “And Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3). There is nothing we can say. Nothing. Be silent and look at this picture.

As the accompanying article tells it, this was a family that was ordered to flee but had nowhere safe to go. Hamas is holed up everywhere, and Israel goes after them wherever they are.

I have lived in Israel. I am a rabbi. Most of all, as it relates to this picture, I am a father who sees little boys just like my own. I can only imagine the anguish this father is experiencing. Is any cause worth this price?

Enough. Enough with the rockets. Enough with the killing. How many children must die before we, people of good will and good sense, Jews and Arabs, stop this madness? To my Arab cousins: Israel is here, it is not going away, and it wants peace. You’ve seen what its army is capable of. Stop. To my Israeli brothers and sisters: Too many of our children are growing up in death and terror. Too many of us have been the father in this picture.

This needs to end. How?