G-d, what I wouldn’t do for a nice communist revolution.
The first sign I wasn’t in Israel anymore was when the entrance into the airport had no mezuzah. The bare doorpost sat naked with no anatomical features begging a kiss, a lover demurring – your passion is endearing, but not tonight, my sweet. Then we took the highway north and for over a week now I’ve been installed in the north Atlanta suburbs among the magnolias and the nice houses and the crushing despair.
Suburbia is death. There is no fire so intense it cannot be smothered by middle-class people trying to inch their way forward to better Botox or whatever the hell is going on here. They eat food that is poison, maintain social niceties while remaining either indifferent or secretly hostile to their neighbors, and anesthetize themselves with a couple of hours of television on weeknights and shopping at the polished temple of consumerism, the shopping mall, on weekends. Sprinkle with golf, season with a bit of synagogue, and let sit until someone keels over from heart disease and their plaque (this is in horrible taste as plaque in the arteries is often the cause of death) goes up on a memorial wall or, if they were rich, a building. The people here have no artistic aspirations and put all their energy into their children who are raised to be just like their parents, but richer.
It is comfortable; it is meaningless; it is where I grew up. I have lived a spoiled existence, and let me assure you: no matter what food is put on the table, no matter how much medicine we have access to or how much “education” we get, meaning is elusive, and the thirst for it stamped out.
I had a conversation last week at shul with a group of boys heading toward the second half of high school. One of them mentioned “shanah bet” (lit. “year two”), the term some people give to those few wild and wacky souls who extend their gap year between high school and college into a second year in Israel. I said I hated the term, and I do. I hate it (I told them, it all spilling out too quickly to not sound a bit manic) because it implies that the second year is “the second year” which means that the first year was only “the first year,” a construct limited in time, a set hour to stuff in a bit of Jewish culture and learning before one is free to go on with “real” life, unaffected and unchanged, because that’s how one decided one would approach the experience from the get-go. In other words, even the holiest country in the world and the transformative power of ancient religion and baroque spirituality cannot do anything against the bourgeois desire to be normal and earn money. They suffocate everything they touch with their fake lives devoted to nothingness. And it bothers me. (The teens just grunted or something, and changed the subject. Whatever. I already devoted myself to at least try.)
Coming from a place where at least there is a certain spiritual rhythm to life, where no one can claim to be a pure materialist, where lives are more worth living because more examined, it is very easy to hate suburban America. This is why the Rebbe loved the hippies, even while most religious leaders were appalled – at long last, some were willing to breach the walls of normative middle-class America and search for something. And once they started searching, many remarkable people discovered meaning through their Judaism. Sure, a lot of other weird stuff came with the cultural revolution – but anything is better than white picket fences, two car garages, and steak for dinner. Anything is better than the material road that heads nowhere.
The torchbearers of those ’60s ideas, the ones who keep the countercultural flame alive and with whom I should identify because they don’t settle for “normal” American life are, thank G-d, plentiful and powerful. They live mostly on the coasts of our country and they are the ones who set our cultural tone, through their creative works and by the concerted efforts to be cooler, savvier, and sexier than anyone in flyover country. It is to them that I and thousands like me turn when we have had enough, when the sprinklers and joggers scratch against the insides of our skulls and we just need a bit of soul before we explode.
And they are, to me, more than a let-down.
They are a disgrace.
They are such a disgrace that they make me rethink everything I ever thought about my middle-class hometown.
Hungry and bright-eyed, I looked to the prevailing culture for some fortification, for freedom from the material to let my soul run free. And what I found instead was love.
Love is all you need – the spirit of the ’60s, summarized. The highest and most sincere ideal of our cultural leaders. Empathy and compassion define the spirit of our times – for the weak, the underdog, the immigrant, the downcast, the other. This is 2015 in all its holy rebellion, raising the cry against hatred, discrimination, and other not-nice things.
What is Love?
Baby don’t hurt me, no more. At its essence, it is the appreciation of people over any system or set of rules. This is why its kabbalistic “nemesis” is the attribute of judgement, severity, and systems. If the system is hurting people, if they are not getting their due, it is love that compels us to rescue them. Love is what the soul is doing when it expresses itself creatively to reach out to another soul, human knowing human at a deep level. Love says the rules can fly when someone is in need. I appreciate this sentiment. In fact, I recently made a long argument that Judaism is all about love, and not a system as most people think.
But, on the other hand…
It is impossible to explain it better than the inimitable Neil Postman in his castigation of television and entertainment culture, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (which I highly recommend). In his introduction, Postman compares the two most famous dystopian works of the early 20th century, Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World.” He writes:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”
Huxley was a prophet. Because over two decades since the fall of the Evil Empire, with liberal democracies abolishing 1984 to the realm of scary ideas, Brave New World still sounds like something possible. In fact, it sounds like what happens every day.
Down with what I wrote in that other piece. Up with the rules. Long live the system. Give me that old-time religion, the Judaism with its strictures and minutiae, with its statements of fact that cleave between right and wrong like the shochet‘s knife, with its thousand-year-old laws that we go through fire and water not to shift an inch. Up with strictness, rejection, and the stern visages of the court judges.
Down with love.
“There is a great difference between desire and love,” you may be thinking. To compare the hedonism Postman talks about with “true” expression of the soul is unfair. It is like comparing binge eating or eating junk food with healthy eating. It is not the expression of the soul that love and desire share that is at fault. It is the way they are applied, you may think. This idea, I admit, has validity. But so does the other end of the stick. There is, in fact, something very wrong with love, the very love that most people see at the counterbalance to everything wrong with the world.
The biblical paragon of love was Korach, moved to join the public sphere by his sympathy for the underprivileged, asking, “Why do you put yourself above the nation?” Moses law-giver says, “There are rules. G-d says I’m better than you.” And Moses is the all-time greatest Jew ever, but Korach’s name is synonymous with division and in-fighting, his name disparaged forever. Korach has no rational argument. He is not saying that G-d did not appoint Moses over the people. It is basically just Korach and G-d both saying “I exist, take it or leave it,” and G-d wins. This to me is the blueprint of all love. Love is the foundation, the life source, of all division, dangerous because it seems to argue for unity.
Love is the great deceiver. Love is self-centeredness in selfless packaging. Love is an explosion of the soul outward, an aching need imposing itself on reality, man bellowing “I EXIST” into the void. Love is meaning to those who have given up on intellect, given up on becoming. Love is meaningful if somehow the lover is meaningful, for it is only an expression of the lover; yet the lover needs love to himself have meaning. This is the paradox of love, the cruel joke we play on ourselves again and again. I shall find meaning in my pleasures, meaning in what I create, meaning in knowing another human. Why are these things meaningful? Why, because they’re love. Just as if you allow a mathematician to divide by zero he can prove that Winston Churchill was a carrot, so, too, if love is the purpose of existence, everything is the purpose of existence, and thus nothing is. Today, West is holy, for my soul is pulled West, needs West, empathizes with West and finds it the finest of all directions. Tomorrow, West is to be avoided and all my concerns move East. Even if the great progression from West to East never takes place and I remain a lover of West all my life, it is not because West has any inherent value; it is not because there is any truth to the world. It is because I am G-d and where my love goes, all else follows.
This is the only spirituality the culture of the coasts seems to offer; it is all I can find. The modern G-d is to exist; those who are awake seem content to emote ’till they’re dead, to paraphrase a good song.
And yet, dealing with lovers, having mentally forayed into that world, having dipped my toe into the zeitgeist, I have gained a new appreciation for Picket Fence, Georgia.
The bland rule-followers, the non-creatives, those who toil most of their lives only because it is their lot, or only because they thought not better of it, may not be famous, but they also never asserted their existence to the universe. They are content to be nothing, to follow in the grooves of reality instead of recarving those grooves. It may be that they blindly do things that are not in the ultimate sense Good, that are against the purpose of their creation – but they at least have the humility to potentially know the true Good one day. When kindness has, in the past, become cruelty, it has been due to the limitations of kindness’ nature. When the rules have produced cruelty, it has been accidental, a technicality.
It reminds me of the famous debate about the American founding fathers. Surely you know, point out the modern lovers, that those revered for the freedom granted by their system were in fact slave-owners, racists, sexists, greedy, and violent. They do not deserve our respect, for they were not able to love as we love today, and their system was not one of freedom but of oppression. To which I reply: You are correct, they did not love, they may have done terrible things. But they have a great advantage over lovers; love is emergent in their system; the very claim you make against them is only possible because their system sustained itself long enough for you to be born and was free enough to allow your dissent. The rules plus time were the perfect vessel for the eventual conveyance of your passions. Their system and its free speech, however, does not necessarily emerge from love; with love you never know. If the wind blew in the right direction to make us impassioned about freedom, perhaps free speech would have become a law, but the loving souls of the democracy may very well have asserted their love elsewhere and in the process strangled dissent. Love is inherently fickle and selfish, whereas the rules may be the wrong rules but rule-following in itself is a humble and righteous endeavor.
Who am I to declare that G-d cannot thrive here in the suburbs as well as anywhere else?
Declarations are love. Silence is wise.
So, give me that old-time suburbia. Give me the ’50s, which may never have achieved the sublime but also never produced the binge using of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, or the binge watching of the ’00s and ’10s. Give me the normalcy, the banality. Save me the wise pronouncements. Give me the houses made of ticky-tacky that all look just the same. Give me the stillness, the politeness. (Politeness is wonderful. Politeness is a system that lets you get along with people you don’t love, even with people you hate; at its extreme it is military discipline, which lets men kill and be killed next to each other and still eat at the same table at night.) Give me elevator music and yards mown for the neighbor’s benefit. Give me quiet unhealthy dinners together with “Jeopardy” on the ‘tube and the elliptical with Gordon Ramsay swearing at people. This is the dead-looking soil that may one day produce delicious fruit; Williamsburg is people loving fruit until fruit ceases to be fruit and becomes people.
I would not eat in Williamsburg.
Image from Flickr.
Originally posted on Hevria.