Open Zion

03.13.13

David Brooks In The Supermarket Aisles Of Judaism

David Brooks has found religion. As we might expect of him, he found it in a fancy supermarket, a grocery store for Orthodox Jews that "looks like a really nice Whole Foods." Call it Congregation Boutique Emunah.

In his spot on The New York Times op-ed page, Brooks last week recounted his tour of the all-kosher Pomegranate market in Brooklyn, with its awesome wood floors and awe-inspiring inventory: dairy-free cheese puffs to eat with meat meals, wasabi herring, sponges that don't hold water so that you can use them on Shabbat without violating the halakhic prohibition against squeezing out water on that day.

I deliberately do not say that Brooks found God in the supermarket. He does mention God twice in passing, but he devotes much more loving attention to shopping. For Brooks, you are what you buy. Orthodox Jews "go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order," he writes, in a half-admiring, half-anthropological tone. Like other folks, observant Jews buy disposable tablecloths, he discovers, but the tablecloths are pre-cut for Shabbat use. Unlike "those of us in secular America," he says, Orthodox Jews are not trapped in empty individualism. They have the best of all worlds.

As an observant Jew, I admit to feeling one moment of identification with this description, just before wanting to grab Brooks by the lapels and shake vigorously. On visits to America, when I step into a normal, non-Pomegranate supermarket and look for food with the tiny coded markings of kashrut, I am in fact particularly aware that I answer to a higher authority. (At home in Jerusalem, where no grocery has wooden floors but virtually everything on the shelves is kosher, this particular religious experience is more rare.)

And then I realize that Brooks is describing the transformation of observant Jews into an updated version of his bobos, the bourgeois bohemians who still feel that they are part of a 1960s-vintage rebellion against capitalist society because they buy exotic expensive coffee beans in small specialty shops. In the guise of celebrating the spiritual discipline of Orthodox Judaism, Brooks is happily warbling about the domestication of another defiant counterculture into a marketing demographic. 

Brooks describes a dispute over which blessing to say over a brand of breakfast cereal. His anthropological notes do not include the range of emotions—rote numbness, doubt, wonder at God's creation—that can go into saying a blessing. He is impressed with Shabbat-friendly consumer products, and deaf to the truly subversive message of Shabbat—that people can put aside producing and buying for a day each week, thereby declaring that being human is more than being part of an economy.

Without skepticism, he reports that religious laws "moderate religious zeal," apparently unaware that Orthodoxy today is afflicted with a zeal for inventing ever more stringent interpretations of the law. But then, the stringency competition may be another subtle sign of the victory of consumer one-upmanship over counterculture, of packaging over content. Looking for the absolutely strictest brand of observance, or for the most unforgiving kashrut supervision, is an obsession similar to insisting on pure organic Ecuadorian chocolate.

What may impress Brooks the most, though, is that people with family values are winning. Orthodox Jews mostly marry young; they have four or more children; their market share of American Judaism is increasing. He mentions, briefly and understatedly, that it is "a source of deep sadness when they cannot" marry. Within that half-sentence must gather all the Orthodox Jews who don't find spouses, the gay and lesbian children of the community who wish they could remain in it, the couples who do not manage to have four or five children and the parents who find they cannot cope with the number of children they've had. The statistics testify to a counterculture of valuing family—and to an all-too-mainstream culture of overachievement, transferred to the realm of reproduction.

Speaking of overachievement, Brooks ends with a happy picture of the new woman of valor: the Orthodox woman who meets all those family obligations while graduating from Yale Law School and becoming an assistant U.S attorney. Fie on frustrated feminists: If you are an Orthodox woman, you can have it all. Reading Brooks, one would think that at Sinai, God gave the Jews free daycare and a 28-hour day.

David, I want to shake you and say, do not use our lives as vicarious proof for your consumer conservatism. David, to the extent that you are right, to the extent that our counterculture has become a supermarket, we are in deep trouble. I am reassured only because I suspect that you see packaging and not what is inside.