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.

At the heart of the concept of covenant is a conundrum: Is God’s promise conditional or unconditional? On its face, the idea of covenant would imply that two parties mutually agree to perform certain acts. As the opening of this week’s parasha states, “If you walk in My laws and obey My statutes,” (Lev. 26:3) then “I will walk among you, and I will be God to you, and you will be a people to me” (26:12). Likewise, “If you do not listen to me, and do not do all these commandments” (26:14) then “I will scatter you among the nations” (26:33), and punish you severely. The agreement here is conditional: obey the commandments and be rewarded, disobey and be punished.

Yet if we go back to the original moment of Covenant-making with Abram, we find the situation is not quite so clear: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18). While Rashi interprets this promise as conditional on the Israelites’ continued offering of sacrifices (as symbolized in the sacrifice Abram offers at this moment), Ramban reads it as an unconditional promise: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, made the covenant that they would inherit the land in any case,” even if, for instance, the Canaanites repented (Ramban Gen. 15:7-8). In Ramban’s reading, God’s promise is unconditional: no matter what, this is your home.

This dialectic of conditional and unconditional comes through in God’s words in Bechukotai: “If they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors… then I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land… For their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the Lord” (Lev. 26:40-45). God leaves an opening here, the opening of teshuva, of coming back home. The promise is conditional—you can only stay at home under certain conditions—but it is also unconditional: this will always be your home, whether you are there or not, and you can always come back.

This is one of the great conceptual contributions of the Jewish people, the idea that one can be at home but not be at home at the same time. We both feel at home and are compelled to reaffirm our sense of home, because home is not something static, something we can take for granted. It must be earned and renewed on a constant basis. This is an expression of the paradoxical reality that provides the taproot of Jewish life: the notion that we are at home and are strangers at the same time. “You were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is the memory we are to carry with us all the time, even when we are at home in our own land. We are to be strangers, and yet be at home, at the same time.

Shabbat shalom.

I had a powerful conversation with a student yesterday, the kind of conversation that reshapes things whose form has long felt static, and connects things that have been separate. Our conversation centered around what I’ve come to feel is the she’elah ha-she’elot, the question of questions: Where do you feel at home?

We had been talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the idea of immanence and transcendence: Is God in the world or apart from it? When and how do we sense the presence of God? And if God is separate from the world, how do we have an intuition of God’s being in it?

As we explored the question and shared our personal stories about moments when we experienced an awareness of the divine, I observed that for me many of these questions revolve around the idea of home. Regular readers of know that I often reflect on the way in which we draw boundaries, deciding what is in and what is out, what is same and what is different. And I find that the boundaries we draw are the thresholds of home.

My student (I’m not sharing his name because I have not had a chance to talk with him about sharing his story) observed that he has a deep attachment to the economically depressed, rust-belt big city where he comes from, even though he grew up in the suburbs. “I’m proud of the city,” he said, “but I often wonder whether I really can claim to represent it. I didn’t grow up in the city and I don’t live there. Someone who is a real resident can turn to me and say, ‘You’re a fake. You’re not really one of us.’ But I’m proud of the city. I’ve worked there, I’m committed to it, I stand up for it all the time. Am I at home in it?”

From here we made a critical move, observing that his relationship with Judaism was very similar: he feels proud to be Jewish, he identifies as Jewish, but he doesn’t feel like he has the education or level of commitment to really be called Jewish. In short, he doesn’t feel Jewish enough. And then we both observed that by reflecting on his Jewish identity through the lens of his urban/suburban identity, we hit on an entirely new understanding of the term “suburban Jew”—someone who feels attachment to Judaism and the Jewish people, but is still at a remove from it, without skin in the game.

Parshat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2) weaves together the people of Israel, the land of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and God the Creator in a powerful way. “When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord.” (Lev. 25:2) Rashi observes that the Shabbat spoken of here “is like the Shabbat of Creation.” The institution of the sabbatical and Jubilee years is an elaboration of the Shabbat that informs our whole orientation to time and space, “the culmination of the creation of heaven and earth,” as we call it in the Friday evening prayer service.

Shabbat, the sabbatical year, and the Jubilee year all point us toward God’s own words: “For the earth is mine, and you are dwellers and sojourners with Me” (25:23) and its analog, “For the children of Israel belong to me. They are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt” (25:55). Our land, our bodies, our beings are of the earth but separate from it, immanent and transcendent at the same time—an image of God.

The great question for both God and humans, from Creation onwards, is, What is home? God seeks a home on earth: “And they shall make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8), a home that depends on us to create it. Likewise we humans need home, in space and time. Our notion of home is constantly being challenged, renewed, and remade as we leave home, long for home, come home, bring guests and new family members into home, and build homes together. Parshat Behar is a rich exploration of what it means to be at home in all these dimensions.

Shabbat shalom.

The themes of a parasha don’t change much over time. The words are the same this year as a year ago. So as the years continue, I find myself coming back to the same big themes each time we read the parasha anew. In the past I have written about Vayishlach and the question of borders, the issue of demarcation. Jacob’s wrestling occurs just before he crosses the Jabbok river, the dividing line between the land of the Israelites and the land of the Edomites in the ancient world. When his family settles near Shechem, the abduction of Dinah raises the question of division and borders again: what will be the lines of separation between the children of Israel and their neighbors? Will they intermarry, and on what terms?

Indeed, even the name of the parasha itself–Vayishlach, ‘And he sent,’ implies a crossing. Parshat Vayishlach, like parshat Vayetzei before it, dwells on questions of separation and unity, division and integrity. And the essence seems to be in Israel’s name: ki-sarita im elohim v’im anashim v’tuchal – “for you have wrestled with God and with man and proved able” (Gen. 32:29).

In my line of work I like to point out that Jacob is working out the questions of a young adult. He leaves his home of birth for a long sojourn away, and in the process marries, has children, finds a vocation. Parshat Vayishlach marks the moment when he seems to truly grown into his adulthood, as he acquires a new name, puts to rest the lingering questions of his adolescent rivalry with his brother, establishes a home in his homeland. The narrative now turns to his children. Jacob is at home.

“Where do you feel at home?” is the biggest of the big questions, in my view. It is the question we constantly ask ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, as we situate ourselves in space and time. When we feel at home we feel at ease; when we don’t feel at home, we feel excitement or anxiety; we experience displacement. Thus the value of hospitality to strangers in virtually all cultures, and the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim in ours.

The idea of home is inseparable from the idea of borders, of inside and out. When does a stranger become a guest, and when does a guest become “like family?” How do we cross the thresholds of difference, approaching one another in degrees of kinship and sameness? These are the eternal questions.

Of course, in today’s world, there are fascinating additional wrinkles: How do we maintain our integrity as individuals even as we find similarity and forge a commons? (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the most eloquent writer on this question, what he terms the Dignity of Difference.) And given that the Internet is changing our very notions of time and space, what does it mean to maintain integrity as a nation, or as a person? (Witness two stories out of Israel today: One in which Israeli intelligence appears to have used a computer worm to damage the Iranian government’s nuclear centrifuges; the other in which Facebook has been used to identify Israeli soldiers who participated in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, including their home addresses. It is one of the biggest changes the Internet has wrought: we can conduct warfare from the comfort of our own homes.)

And yet, we all–even those young adults so seemingly at home with homelessness–keep trying to make home. We keep trying to do the work of Jacob, as though it were a compulsion. And so it would appear to be. One of the refrains I have heard in my conversations with young adults this fall, more so than in years past, is this: “I’m not using email on Shabbat.” They’re not doing this from a place of commandedness by halakha (Jewish law), but out of a hunger to find a center, a yearning to be grounded and free from distractions, at least for one day a week. (Judith Shulevitz’s book may well have helped.) Admist this time when they move from place to place on a yearly basis, when they, like Jacob their ancestor, are neither in their parents’ home nor the home of theirs that is yet to be, they–like all of us–long for coherence, hunger for home. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Shabbat shalom.



A new podcast in honor of Israel Independence Day that explores the idea of home through several texts. 15 minutes.