When Heimish Doesn’t Mean Amish!…writes Rabbi Laibl Wolf

January 27, 2015 by Rabbi Laibl Wolf
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I am sitting in the 23rd floor lounge of the Nikko Hotel in San Francisco looking out onto the bay watching a string of bulky container ships making their slow motion to port.

Rabbi Laibl Wolf

Rabbi Laibl Wolf

A beautiful city, SF, with steep dramatic undulations, clanging tramcars, Market St. bustle, and the inevitable startle of fire-engines roaring to some compelling need – and sun, lots of sun. A large city – a large population. Yet each person an island.

What a comparison to a much more drab Winnipeg where I have arrived from a day earlier. Freezing temperatures and biting winds. Icy footpaths and dark threatening clouds. A cold exterior, but one that belies a surprisingly warm and sharing community.

Why is it that the larger the city the more impersonal the relationships? In contrast, the smaller the town, the closer knit the community? I think the answer can be summed up in one Yiddish word – Heimishkeit. It is this virtue that eagerly draws me to speaking in small towns in the Midwest rather than Big Apple Manhattan. The virtue of ‘heimishkeit’.

Yiddish is an exceedingly rich language of nuance, humour and insight into human nature. ‘Heim’ translates as ‘home’ and ‘heimishkeit’ means to make you feel at home. Some people exude this instantly, simply with their eyes and inviting body stance. But in the sophisticated large city setting, people do their hospitality-speak, while holding a large invisible red flag emblazoned with the words “I don’t really mean it – I am merely practicing good manners”.

Admittedly these are gross generalizations as I have been warmly embraced in large cities and can sometimes feel quite distant in a smaller town. But that I find is the exception rather than the rule.

Does this mean that sophistication is the enemy of familiarity? Or do compressed living spaces in metropolises squeeze relational warmth out of a person’s psyche? Or do large-city folk tend to be busier folk? Or is it that small town dwellers have fewer opportunities and therefore grab them more aggressively?

Methinks there is a more profound teaching here. You can’t compare the interpersonal closeness of a family to that of society. Smaller-town communities are more akin to extended families. There is greater familiarity. There is more intra-marriage. There is less estrangement from the meaningful rhythms of life. The scourge of large city living its frenetic pace, harsh loudness, constant busy-ness, and larger influx of strangers and outsiders, all creating a norm of interpersonal distance. The art of ‘heimishness’ has often gone AWOL.

I thoroughly enjoyed the extended family of my Winnipeg community. At the same time I admire the natural beauty of San Francisco. But SF is a little too sophisticated for me. At heart I am a country bumpkin and enjoy being one.

Now, ‘heimishkeit’ should not be confused with ‘Amishkeit’ even though, in the old country, the black-coated, long bearded Yiddish speaking shteit-lers, whose womenfolk often wore sheitlech, were not that different in appearance from their Ohio-based ‘non-landsman’ – the Amish . Indeed a memorable Gene Wilder scene in the film classic ‘The Frisco Kid’ testifies to the ‘heimish’ appearance of the Amish.

So give me the warmth of freezing Winnipeg anytime over the cool aloofness of sunny San Francisco. (But scratch the surface of even San Francisco and you too will find a touch of ‘di alter Heim’ e.g check out Chabad there and you will see what I mean).


Rabbi Laibl Wolf, is the Dean of Spiritgrow – The Josef Kryss Center, Australia

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