Religion & Beliefs

David Brooks’ Orthodox Fantasy

The New York Times columnist abandons his critical faculties on a trip to a kosher supermarket Read More

By / March 8, 2013

Today, David Brooks published an op-ed that read like a press release for Pomegranate, a high-end kosher market in Midwood, Brooklyn, and the Orthodox Union. In it, he marvels at the wonder that is the non-dairy cheese puff. (You can eat with a meat meal!)

Clearly he didn’t visit the supermarket on a Friday afternoon, a few hours before Shabbos. The experience would’ve been much less positive if he had tried to push a cart through the pre-Sabbath last minute dash for groceries.

But Brooks wasn’t merely singing the praises of “the kosher Whole Foods,” as he put it. He also rained down compliments on the community that shops there—the Orthodox Jews. As if reading tea leaves, Brooks saw the reasons for the Orthodox’s success in the products on Pomengranate’s shelves. “Pomegranate,” he writes, “looks like any island of upscale consumerism, but deep down it is based on a countercultural understanding of how life should work.”

For the record, an all-kosher supermarket is about as countercultural as the gluten-free aisle of any health food store. So long as it’s sold in the store in a capitalist society, it’s very much part of the mainstream cultural activity.

The rules—or halacha, to put it Hebraically—in Brooks’ estimation constitute “moderate religious zeal.” Remember, he’s publishing this article mere weeks before Passover. Clearly, he’s never been witness to Orthodox preparations for the holiday during which some folks use so much aluminum foil to cover countertops that these rooms resemble the interior of a 60s B-movie spaceship. Passover is to competitive piety as the Olympics are to gymnastics—it’s the biggest stage on which to show your neighbors how much more religious you are than them.

It’s quite easy to go through Brooks’ essay and find other laughable assertions. But I’m more curious as to why Brooks has seemingly abandoned his critical faculties to write this piece of pabulum that is devoid of any sort healthy skepticism.

The sort of romanticizing that Brooks engages in is something I’ve encountered on occasion from non-observant Jews who feel insecure about the degree of their religious knowledge and practice. Nodding to pluralism, they’ll concede that Orthodoxy may not be right for them, but many feel, deep down, that the Orthodox are doing it right, that they are somehow more “authentic” than other Jews. To put it into Sarah Palin terms, the Orthodox are the “real Americans.” The rest of the Jews are “fake.”

What the Orthodox are doing right, according to Brooks, is reproducing. He cites this stat:

Nationwide, only 21 percent of non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 are married. But an astounding 71 percent of Orthodox Jews are married at that age. And they are having four and five kids per couple.

I’m not going to talk about whether or not I think it’s good or bad that Orthodox Jews marry so young and have so many children. Matrimony and childbearing, I believe, are personal choices. I’d like to think (or at least pretend) that all of these young Orthodox men and women are acting of their own free will and not under extreme pressure to marry young and have many children.

Nor am I here to quibble with Brooks’ assertions about the Orthodox population boom. They clearly enjoy a much higher birthrate than the rest of the Jewish community. But since when does having more kids than other groups validate your lifestyle? It certainly does not mean that you’re necessarily doing something “right.” It’s only “best” insofar as we’re talking about survival of the most populous and in purely evolutionary terms. (For the record, I learned a barebones version of evolutionary theory in my yeshiva high school. It was proffered with the caveat, “We’re only teaching this to you so you can answer the questions on the Regents,” referring to the state examinations. Talk about giving an essential scientific theory the short shrift.)

Missed in all of this treacle is what happens to those whose desires aren’t perfectly in line with the demands of the community—they are either forced out or feel hemmed in. In that case, no amount of dairy-free cheese puffs will fulfill you.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet the Press)