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Sunday, November 25, 2012


As most of you are aware, the Jewish seder is both a religious ritual and a meal.  It is a celebration of the liberation of the Jews from their captivity in Egypt and their flight, led by Moses, across the Red Sea.  The modern seder is an elaborate affair, with a text, the Haggadah, that is read [in Hebrew at a serious seder, in English at the seders I have attended] in a formulaic manner, punctuated by songs, the ritual of the "afikomen" [a piece of matzoh that is hidden, and then searched for by the children at the seder, to be held hostage until the director of the seder buys it back, inasmuch as the service cannot proceed without it], and eventually, by a meal.  It is intended to be a joyous affair, with a good deal of kibbitzing and joking and singing -- it is, after all, the celebration of a liberation.

The best seder I ever attended took place on Long Island at the home of young rabbi Waxman, son of old rabbi Waxman, who was at the table but not conducting the service.  I was then a student at Harvard, and had just taken a course on the philosophy of Spinoza with the great scholar Harry Austryn Wolfson.  It turned out that old rabbi Waxman knew Wolfson, and while the rest of the people at the table twiddled their thumbs and fumed quietly, waiting for the meal that was promised, I pressed the senior Waxman with questions, both about Wolfson and about the arcana of the interpretation of the Haggadah.  [All of this, you understand, despite the fact that I was then, and am still, an atheist who has never even been bar mitzvah'd.]

A signal moment in the seder occurs when one of those in attendance asks the person conducting the service four ritual questions, each of which is preceded by the formula, "Wherefore is this night different from all other nights, for on this night we ..."  [eat reclining, eat unleavened bread, etc.]  Each question is answered by reference to a different feature of the flight from Egypt.

There is a tradition, at least in America, that the youngest boy present asks the four questions.  [No girls needed to apply, although I imagine things have now changed.]  Since the seder is typically an affair for family and close friends, it was not difficult to figure out which little boy would have the honor of asking the questions.  In upper middle class Northeast families, it was quite common for this chosen one to be a fat-faced, petted, made much of little momma's boy dressed in a new little suit and tie and fussed over by a rather plump, preening, proud mother, who felt that the selection of her son to ask the four questions constituted a signal recognition of herself, as well as of her precious son.

Needless to say, regular boys hated this smug little brat, and would not themselves have been caught dead asking the four questions.

Whenever I see David Brooks on television, all I can think of is that little boy at a seder.  This is, of course, an unkind and quite unfair thing to say.   But I cannot help it.


Superfluous Man said...

All right. I'm going to call you out on this one even though I don't catch every nasty comment Brooks makes at the NY TIMES, but I do catch enough to not like him either. How do you differeniate yourself from the the Republicans who engage in the kind of comment that I remember reading in my paper copy of "The Nation, magazine that I just looked up the html for which the link to the online edition copy of the article is here:

.So are re you calling Brooks a sissy?

And yes, I voted for him because even though I know the use of drones as death weapons is not a good turn of events for the world I am also aware that his opponent would have turned the torture methods back on, continued with the drone use, and probably would have nuked Iran as well..

So what's your excuse?

Bay Radical said...

This is lovely.

Murfmensch said...

I'm as left as any of those who visit this blog but I like David Brooks. I benefit from reading him.

Is it his sincerity that sparks your "unkind" comment?

There are quite a few Brooksish politicos who now back Obama. I am thinking of Francis Fukuyama and Mickey Rivers and Colin Powell. Obama heads a coalition that includes many of these Burkean sorts.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have to confess that I find Brooks pretentious and hollow, not sincere at all, but since I have never actually met him, perhaps I am misjudging him. Our relationship to public commentators is always very strange and artificial [and of course I include myself in that generalization.]

P. J. Grath said...

I don't understand. One cannot help one's thoughts, but not being able to help one's utterances? And while the words might slip unbidden from the mouth, to write and publish--this one cannot help?

Charlie Stephen said...

Right on target!
Brooks, they say, is the likeable conservative who appeals to liberals, or at least disarms them. I've never seen the appeal

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

I heartily agree with your depiction of David Brooks. It is funny – I simply do not understand the appeal of Brooks, particularly by those on the “left”. Unlike Murfmensch, I have never benefited from reading Brooks – or from hearing what he has to say on Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour. For a good deconstruction of Brooks and his trademark shallow ideas, see Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” (2005) Of particular interest is Frank’s treatment of Brooks’ book, “Bobos in Paradise” (2001).

-- Jim

Don Schneier said...

Typical of Brooks is his nostalgia for the 1950s that conveniently ignores the fact that the top tax rates then were 90+%. His bait-and-switch veneer of 'reasonability' is sometimes more insidious than straightforward reactionaryism. Fortunately, Krugman is more adept at challenging him, albeit obliquely, than is Mark Shields.

enjami83 said...

Professor Wolff,
I have no quarrel with your basic point--that David Brooks is an obnoxious windbag*--but can't help bristling slightly at your associating it with Brooks' Jewishness and the Portnoy's Complaint-esque caricature of the 3rd to last paragraph.

So as to not leave on a sour note, let me mention as an aside that I just finished your wonderful Max Weber tutorial, so thanks!

*e.g. groaning about "arrogant" theorists while indulging in the laziest generalizations. See here: