The Haimish Line (with Apologies to David Brooks)

David Brooks, a well-known columnist for the NY Times, wrote an essay entitled “The Haimish Line” that I would love for everyone to read. (It is available at www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/opinion/brooks-the-haimish-line.html.)

According to Brooks, the Yiddish word haimish suggests “warmth, domesticity, and unpretentious conviviality.”  It is the feeling you have at holiday time when sipping wine, telling stories, and laughing for the thousandth time at Uncle Louie’s bad jokes.  It is the emotions that wash over you when sharing good food and good times with close friends.  It is the comfort you sense when you are someplace friendly and familiar.  Finally, and the reason I want you to read this article, it is the experience you have when you go on a working vacation and become part of a neighborhood, community, and country.

In the article Brooks tells a story about spending time with his family at some basic safari camps in Kenya devoid of the luxuries routinely available at more upscale African retreats. As Brooks describes it:  “These simple camps were friendly, warm and familial. We got to know the other guests at big, communal dinner tables. At one camp we got to play soccer with the staff on a vast field in the Serengeti before an audience of wildebeests. At another camp, we had impromptu spear-throwing and archery competitions with the kitchen staff … I can tell you that this is the very definition of heaven for a 12-year-old boy.”

When the family then moved to a more luxurious camp the results were rather surprising.  “These more elegant camps felt colder. At one, each family had its own dinner table, so we didn’t get to know the other guests. The tents were spread farther apart. We also didn’t get to know the staff, who served us mostly as waiters, the way they would at a nice hotel …  It occurred to me that when we moved from a simple camp to a more luxurious camp, we crossed an invisible Haimish Line. The simpler camps had it, the more elegant ones did not.”

I have the same feelings when traveling.  When I am on a working vacation I do not simply go to famous sights–museums, churches, galleries–but also try to become an integral part of the local culture.  I make friends, meet neighbors, shop at area merchants, and attend social, cultural, and religious events.   I travel to important locales as well as “off the beaten path” places tourists rarely see but give a deeper appreciation for a country’s soul–like a foreign visitor attending a State Fair. Like my times spent with friends and family, these working vacations were warm, friendly, and convivial.

However, when traveling  on my “own dime,” staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and viewing a country through the windows of a tour bus, I rarely feel like I am coming to understand a country and its people.  While certainly appreciating the sights, food, and leisure, my interactions with the culture are usually formal and distant.   I am seeing a country but not feeling it.  I am enjoying a country but not experiencing it.  To quote Brook’s own words, I  have crossed that invisible “Haimish Line.”

Brooks finishes his column with some wonderful advice:   “Buy experiences instead of things;  Buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones.”  This is one of the best arguments I can think of for taking a working vacation–it is truly an experience you will never forget.

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2 responses to “The Haimish Line (with Apologies to David Brooks)

  1. My wife and I just spent four months on sabbatical living in Cassington, England, a small village of 700 people just outside of Oxford. Through my wife’s efforts, we engaged with the people of that village is precisely the way you described. There is nothing quite like the feeling I got when I walked into the local pub and the bartender was just finishing pouring my beer–a new found friend saw me coming and made sure I wouldn’t have to wait.

  2. love this – and you’re so right – living like locals is the best way to learn about a culture (and make friends!).

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