Did you hear the recent story on NPR about the professor who is living in a dumpster for a year? No, not a dirty, grungy kind of place, but a sanitized garbage dumpster. Environmental science professor Jeff Wilson, Ph.D., the dean of Huston Tillotson’s University College, rallied support from students as he prepared the space, which is located on the college’s campus.
The story, documented here by KVUE.com, has reverberated for me all week. Maybe it’s because my own home is now an empty nest. I wonder if the abundance of the often-empty spaces, once filled with the tumult of a busy family, is now an over-abundance.
Dr. Wilson will live in a 36 square foot space, one percent the size of the average home. In this tiny living space, it is estimated that a mere one percent of the average home’s water and energy will be consumed. Likewise, the dumpster-home will produce a tiny one percent of the average waste as well.
In the first phase of the project, Dr. Wilson is just “camping out.” I thought of my kids’ love of wilderness camping, and the experience we shared living only on the supplies that we carried on our backs. It’s incredibly liberating and empowering.
In the second phase of the dumpster project, it will be connected to the grid, to become a slightly more regular home – with appliances. The professor and his students will measure its consumption of water and electricity. What a powerful lesson this will generate – as Dr. Wilson instructs his students in new ways to consider what we really need in a home.
Home ownership is often called “the American Dream.” But somewhere along the way, the American credo “bigger is better,” shifted our values. Many Americans have aspired to and acquired large homes – proclaiming, “We have ‘made it’.” These cultural values have led many people to stretch beyond their means in purchasing homes, with potentially tragic consequences.
Dr. Wilson’s lessons in consumption and sustainability are a prompt for recalibrating. How much do we really need? How can our choices help us to sustain our natural resources for a healthy planet?
In the third and final phase of the project, the dumpster will be fitted with solar panels to produce its energy. But since those panels (in the sunshine of Austin, Texas) will collect far more energy than the home can use, it will replace energy back into the grid.
Dr. Wilson will live in the dumpster most of the time, but some of his enthusiastic students will take turns living in it while he is away. I wonder, after the novelty of the project recedes, will the experience shape their values and choices?
I hope so. The generation who is inheriting the world that consumes beyond its means can reshape our culture with wiser values.
I am not ready to downsize just yet, but I am inspired by the professor’s courageous example, and even more, his students’ expanded potential.
What’s the purpose of having a home? While that question might seem obvious, in fact, it raises some fascinating questions about human biology and archaeology.
In an article entitled “In Search of the First Human Home,” curator emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History Ian Tattersall asks a fascinating question: what distinguishes a “home” that human beings create from a “shelter” that all animals seek?
Some scholars think that the sense of “home” began to arise not from a need for shelter, but a need for community. We humans evolved as nomadic hunter-gatherers, but around 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, we began to root ourselves in specific locations. As Tattersall notes, “The decision to stay in one place, at least part of the year, entailed a transfer of individual loyalty from the mobile social group to a particular place.”
“Home,” in other words, is more than just a space—as we evolved as humans, “home” became a place with deep emotional significance. And in Judaism, a “home” is more than just four walls; it, too, is supposed to be a place with a strong sense of holiness.
When I work with wedding couples, I do one session with them where they reflect on the homes in which they grew up. What did they see in their parents’ relationship? What do they want to bring in from their past into this new family they are creating? What do they want to leave behind?
Then, we start to think about the future, and the Jewish home they will be creating together. I then share with them just how important the home is within Jewish thought.
For close to 1000 years, God’s dwelling-place was thought to be the Temple in Jerusalem (in Hebrew, the location of the Temple Mount was Har ha-Bayit, or “The Mountain of the House”). But in the year 70, the Romans came and destroyed the Temple, leading to a huge question facing the Jewish community — will God still be with us if the Temple no longer existed?
The Rabbis answered with a resounding “yes”…although God would have to move into two new primary locations. The first, and less important one, would be the synagogue. The second, more important location where God would live would be the home. Jews were to make their home a “mikdash me’at,” a Temple in miniature, or as it’s often phrased, “a small sanctuary.”
“So,” I then turn to the wedding couple, “how will you make your home a mikdash me’at—a small sanctuary?“
With this framing, they start to think about their apartment our house in a new way. Words like “safe,” “joyous,” or “ours” often arise. Their sense of “home” shifts from a simple place where they keep their stuff to a place where holiness, connectedness and spirituality emanate.
As human beings, we are wired with a a desire to explore. But as the search for the first human home reminds us, we are also wired to feel a sense of rootedness and safety. We need more than a house — we need a home.
So perhaps, if we truly work on it, we can even transform our home into a true sanctuary—a place where we can find God’s dwelling-place in our midst.
Where is home? Is it where you live, even if it is temporary? Is it where you grew up? Is it the place where your parents or grandparents and their families originated?
Home might also be a special place where the heart resides even if it isn’t our place of residence. The Jewish people have held Israel in their hearts for over three millennia.
Home could also be the place where we have grown up or come of age. At a recent event I met someone with whom I had an immediate connection—we shared the history of the same childhood home synagogue in Philadelphia. Neither of us have been there in decades, but the connection to this home bonded us.
And of course, home is where we live, if we are fortunate enough to have stable housing—something we cannot take for granted.
I’ve been ruminating on this for the last couple of weeks as various manifestations of “home” have been in my face.
I spent a week with my husband and two of our kids in the Bay area of California. We stayed in an Airbnb rental in Berkeley and experienced being paying guests in a stranger’s home—it was much more comfortable than a hotel. I wondered how it would feel to have people staying in my home who were paying consumers. We spent a day talking about whether and how we would consider being hosts, renting all or part of our house for SuperBowl weekend (since we live in NJ, not far from the stadium, where hotel rooms are scarce.)
We walked around downtown Berkeley for six days, confronted with a very present and aggressively begging homeless population. The streets are their home. We talked about how homeless people can feel invisible as the streets fill with people who avert their eyes as they pass them by.
Even with unusually frigid weather in New Jersey, it was so nice to come home. But soon the political scandal engulfing my state caught my attention. Maybe it was the sleazy drama of it all, but something drew me into listening to a long press conference and reading endless columns of reactions and analysis. My home, New Jersey, was being maligned. I felt protective of my home state—I wanted to tell the world about the great hiking and biking, lush farmland and gardens in my home state. Please don’t think of New Jersey as traffic and the turnpike and slimy politicians. It’s my home.
This week the Modern Language Association debated one-sided resolutions criticizing Israel, way out of proportion to rebukes to the other nations of the world, and I felt protective of my other “home.” I am fortunate to have spent enough time in Israel to relate to the land personally; it’s not an abstract feeling of attachment.
We who are fortunate to have comfortable places to call home, with perhaps the means to share with guests, or the opportunity for multiple special places of “home,” are truly living with the blessing of holiness. Jewish tradition has many names for God, including the oft-used “hamakom“—meaning, “the place.”
The homeless people who claim their spot on the street, staying day-after-day in “their” place, are striving for the same shelter under “Divine wings.” They deserve to not be invisible; they too are created in the Divine image.
In this week’s Torah reading (Yitro),the Israelites, newly freed from slavery, had to figure out how to make a home in the wilderness. It was not easy. But thanks to Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, they organized themselves into a representational polity that took the needs of all the people into account.
When we care for each other, as if we are guests in each others homes, we find “hamakom.” Home is where we are respected, seen, nurtured and fully alive as ourselves. It takes eyes that see and hearts that care for “home” to realized. That is the blessing we can make real in our world.
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I was recently sharing my excitement about Bill Bryson’s latest book, At Home, during a Friday night sermon. The premise of the book is how we can learn so much history from the very ordinary objects in our homes. He writes:
Looking around my house I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me. Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to those two. Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon? And why do forks have four tines and not three or five? There must be reasons for these things… I heard a reference on the radio to someone paying for room and board, and realized that when people talk about room and board, I have no idea what the board is that they are talking about. Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me.
I started to turn these questions in my head, and to think about the Jewish home this way. A few years ago Vanessa Ochs wrote an article in which she proposed ways of categorizing the things in a Jewish home. Her categories, I realized, also provide ways that enable us to use our everyday household objects to tell the story and the history of the Jewish people and, more specifically, our personal family histories. The first category is ‘Articulate objects’. These are the self-evident items that might tell you that you are in a Jewish home, like a mezuzah on the door, a menorah, a challah cover. The specific ones that we have may tell a personal story, but the objects themselves tell more of the ‘official’ history of Judaism.
The second category she calls ‘Jewish-Signifying Objects’. For example, it is not unique to Jewish families to have photographs of the grandchildren in abundance. However, the university graduation photos of every one of my grandmother’s children and grandchildren all lined up on one wall tells a social history of the first generation of her family to get a college education, and the enormous value that a Jewish parent places on education in general.
The final category is what Ochs labels ‘Ordinary objects transformed.’ These are things that might be found in any household, but in a specific context take on the role of klei kodesh – holy objects that we use for sacred purpose or mitzvot. An ornate white tablecloth that is wrapped in plastic and taken out once a year is more than just a nice, white tablecloth. Used on Rosh Hashanah it is being used for the act of hiddur mitzvah – to beautify the mitzvah of making a festive meal. I use my home computer for all kinds of things, but 99% of the time that I am on Skype, it is to connect with my parents, in part an expression of kabed avicha v’et v’imecha – honor your mother and father.
I can’t wait to read the rest of Bill Bryson’s book so that I can walk from room to room in my home and tell the stories and the history of our society through the ordinary objects that I see. But it is also great fun, and a great way to do Jewish storytelling, for each of us to look around our homes for ordinary and everyday things that tell our Jewish stories. Give it a go, and I’d love for you to post some of your personal and family Jewish stories about some of the ordinary things in your home in the comments here. I’ll cross-post some of the best ones on my personal blog too.