Thank You, David Brooks

This is going to be a little half-baked; forgive me.

I know I said some bad things about him before, but sometimes David Brooks hits the nail on the head so perfectly I’ve got to give thanks. Not just for the fact that this column was good, but for the fact that this column encapsulates stuff I’ve wanted to say, stuff I’ve been trying to say for years. Stuff I’ve been thinking ever since I read this at fifteen, which permanently altered the course of my thinking forever even if I don’t 100% agree with it now and if you want a book that says a lot of the same things but with more, how you say, research, try this.

But in any event, thanks, David Brooks, because now I know how to say the thing I want to say, which is “haimish.” For those of you who for some reason don’t want to click the link to David Brooks’s column, which you should, because it’s a really good one, “haimish” is a Yiddish concept (Of course it is. Yiddish has all the good words.) of homeyness, of “unpretentious conviviality.” (Even when I disagree with him, the man can write.) David Brooks writes about how we often trade “haimish” for, well, wealth. He starts the essay by comparing camps in which he and his family stayed in Kenya and Tanzania, some of which were not so full of the modern amenities but very haimish, and some which were more modern but also less haimish, and then goes on to talk about how that’s frequently a trade-off we make – more privacy, more luxuries, more shiny things, but less haimish-ness. I think it’s not just as individuals that we do this, and it’s not even just as Americans. I think the whole of civilization is a move towards less haimish surroundings but more stuff-oriented ones. And we think we’ll be happier with the more stuff but we’re not.

I went to visit a friend at the sleep away camp where she was working recently. Afterwards I observed that the kids at this camp were, largely, from fairly privileged backgrounds. They weren’t necessarily the richest of the rich – although some were – but they were all kids who were accustomed to things like their own bedroom, delicious and/or nutritious food for every meal, air conditioning, etc. I mean, they are the kids whose parents can afford to send them to a private sleep away camp, well into their teens. They come to camp and they sleep 20 to an un-air-conditioned room on scrawny mattresses, use a bathroom that they have to go outside to get to and which they share with dozens of other kids, in which the water pressure and quality leave something to be desired. And the food is marginally acceptable at best at most sleep away camps. And these kids, who are accustomed to every kind of privilege in regular life, could not possibly be happier than when they are at this camp. They are thrilled to death to leave behind their iGadgets and their mall trips and their private homes to come here. But I, a child of privilege myself, am not surprised. I went to sleep away camp, I went to NFTY events, I went to a small liberal arts college. I remember why I loved them. Because they were haimish.

I think the increasing loss of haimish-ness is what makes something like Facebook or Twitter so successful. It’s not the real deal, exactly. But when I can know that a person who I knew fifteen years ago just had a baby, or my sister’s friend had salmon for dinner last night, it makes the world feel a little smaller. Which is nice.

In some ways, it’s the whole of the internet that’s like that. You go for years thinking you’re the only person who likes to embroider important scenes from Star Trek: The Original series, with the characters replaced with wide-eyed panda bears, onto table runners, and it turns out there are thousands of you spread throughout the world, and suddenly you have a community. Or you read a David Brooks column, and instead of just turning to your spouse, who does not care, and fuming about/praising the column, you can e-mail it to your closest friends and family, tweet it, “like” it on Facebook, and write a blog post about it which as many as fifteen people might read. It’s a whole new thing. It’s haimish-ish.

The problem is, it’s illusory. We don’t just like haimish, we need haimish badly, and we don’t have enough. I live in a neighborhood that is nice, yes, and people here are reasonably friendly and there are at least five houses within a few yards of mine where I can go and ask for an egg if I’m one short while I’m trying to make super-fudgy brownies AND custard-based ice cream at the same time (not that that’s happened). But the local elementary school is about a mile away, and the kids have to take the bus, because there aren’t sidewalks between here and there. If there were sidewalks, they’d probably still have to take the bus, because people are so scared of “predators” that we’ve lost all reason. As if nothing bad ever happens to kids on a school bus. But there aren’t even sidewalks, so you can’t even really make the “choice” to have your kids walk to school. Kids walking to school is haimish. Also, this elementary school is one of three pre-high school schools Zoe will attend. It’s the third- and fourth-grade elementary school. There’s a K-2 and a 5-8. Separating these is, in my opinion, also not haimish. Haimish is when kids of a wide variety of ages figure out how to play and learn together. That’s why people pay out the nose for Montessori and Waldorf schools. Because they’re haimish.

Driving cars is not haimish; walking and biking and public transportation are. But we designed all our suburbs to be driven in, not walked or biked or with lots of bus routes. Single-family homes on large lots are less haimish than apartment or condo complexes with shared public space, but we think the former are better than the latter (and I’m not being superior here; I live in a single-family home on a large lot). I know small towns are classically haimish, but also cities are more haimish than suburbs. A work or school environment that focuses on collaboration over competition is more haimish but we think softer and less likely to produce “results,” because we ignore over and over that the best “result” we could possibly get is haimishness.

And again, there are psychological studies I’m too lazy to look up (though I will link you to this, and just looking for that link has cost me at least 20 hours of productivity; thanks, internet), but it seems that what we need most of all is haimishness. Happiness depends much more on having a community in which you feel comfortable and happy than on anything else – including the next iPad. Swear.

I don’t really have a conclusion here. What I have is a new paradigm I’ll be quoting ad nauseam any time anything remotely related comes up. So on behalf of my friends and family, thanks a lot, David Brooks!


2 thoughts on “Thank You, David Brooks

  1. Leah says:

    Yay! I got a shout out! And I just wrote pretty much exactly the same thing for one of my sermons this Shabbat. I used camp as an example, but hadn’t thought about Facebook as “haimish.” I’ll send you my sermon and we can compare notes:).

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