Candle Of Suburbia

In Jewish circles, there is a huge upper-middle-class contingent (if not the majority) that resides in suburban America (like many other Americans). Despite being incomparable to the European shtetl, suburbia still manages to give the exilic Jewish psyche room to wander while providing communal insulation. In America, those features act in very different ways than they might have in Europe. The openness and breadth of possibility, combined with cozy separation, has well-nourished the ambiguous creature known as “Modern Orthodoxy” (a cultural association that seeks to be involved in the global culture while still ritually observant and communally defined). There is a lot to be skeptical and cynical about while watching this creature seesaw endlessly, but I thought I would take a methodological stab at finding the redemptive qualities of suburbia. (Mainly in order to empower those of us who were born into the suburban mindset and have moved in one direction or another ideologically.)

It is interesting that the Modern Hebrew word for suburb is parvar. I had no idea where this word came from, until I looked up the pasuk in Bamidbar 35:2, the mitzvah to create a migrash around (at least) Levite cities. The migrash is a green-belt; a wide area of 1,000 cubits (according to most Rishonim; 500 radial cubits according to Ramban) permanently reserved as public parkland. “Migrash” is a strange word; Onkelos translates migrash as “revach” (space), but Pseudo-Yonasan and Targum Yerushalmi have “parvil”, a word interchangeable with “parvar”. Essentially, to whoever came up with the Modern Hebrew word, suburbia is a sort of open space on the outskirts of the metropolis. The migrash was never residential, but suburbia retains some of its freedom, little shards of wildness. The agrarian elements of our Torah life that would otherwise be missing at least show themselves in suburban neighborhoods. We can be reminded that our accomplishments and products are contained within the Creation of HaShem and have some sense of the immense depth and geometry of His expression. With this, we can yet salvage the association Chazal made between the agricultural tractates of Seder Z’ra’im and the supra-epistemic perspective of Emunah. “Migrash” might even mean “a place of escape” (from l’garesh, to divorce or expel, in the same form as midrash (the act/quality of analysis) and mirmas (the act of trampling)).

On the other hand, suburbia is not a public park. It is a place designed with what I can only describe as Tetris Syndrome (a video-game-induced phenomenon in which one tries to make perfect order of random objects). The goal of suburbia is not to live on the Great Plains; it is to comfortably squeeze as many housing units and local services as possible into a non-urban piece of land. In this way, it is conservatively urban beyond the definition of a village. It should also be realized that it was after World War II that Americans felt prosperous and confident, leading the American Dream of consumerism, self-made success, and home/auto-ownership to explode via the expansion of suburbia. Although Americans now tend to be less trailblazing than their ancestors were, it should be memorialized that social mobility and innovation were the signature of this country and its people.

At the very least, this realm has given us an imagination that contains both static Divine Creation and dynamic human creation (a dichotomy that has been impressively harmonious), and a quiet homestead where one may find a moment of transcendence and possibility if he/she pays attention — it might have rolled under the neighbors’ sedan or into the koi pond in the backyard; unclear.

Here’s a poem about one such moment…

Candle of Suburbia1
Swimming in the vista
Of blue perihelion
On a street cushioned by cottages,
Where no one exists
If you listen close.
Here there is sleep
And a geometric silence
That puts every nocturne to shame.
My eventide is rolling in,
Unhindered by space,
Riding the pure puerile wind.
A force no doubt,
A world unto itself,
A bath of breadth
In the strictest restriction.
Where are its characters?
Whence roam its beasts? The sentries
Into their monasteries warm
Have receded,
To kindle hearths of heartfire
Against the monolith of shadow
That earth whole envelopes.
But out in yonder street transformed,
Sweet pareidolia lives alight.
A bar of metal
So cold,
So carelessly common,
Sets its face to the darkness
With subtle sanctity
And humble largesse.
In its eyes I am taken
In its grasp I am bound,
And there beyond
The safety of locked doors
I hear the harp of the mute,
Feel the warmth
Of humanity unshapen.

1. It is interesting to note that the word for a lamppost should really be “עששית”. The word means “a lantern” in a general sense, but really refers to the glass that houses the flame. It is by definition translucent (e.g. Brachos 25b and Rosh HaShanah 24a) and thus might derive from the root “ע.ש.ש,” meaning “blurry” (see Rashi on Tehillim 6:8) or “ע.ש.ת” meaning solid or even opaque (see commentaries on Yirmiyah 5:28 and Shir HaShirim 5:14). Alternatively, the latter option means “clear”/”clean”/”shining” (ibid.), which fits with the fact that the lantern itself is a source of light. The harmony of suburbia that can be seen in one of its modest lampposts might best be accompanied by the following Targum from Shir HaShirim (ad loc.): “The 12 Tribes of Yaakov… are like the 12 constellations that shine like lanterns, their actions are clean like ivory tusks, and they glitter like jewels.”

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