n a Saturday afternoon, I survey the offerings of the Bedford Cheese Shop. This gourmet store at the center of hip Brooklyn bills itself as being “based on old-world ideals with a loyalty to our family . . . dedicated to the time honored traditions of the culinary and agricultural world.” Placards display tasting notes for each of the shop’s carefully selected cheeses. Serpa has the “odor of a Roman orgy and the buttery rich flavor of a naughty Portuguese shepherd.” Tasting the kunik is like joining a “ménage à trois with a cow and a goat.” Reblochon—once called fromage de devotion because the farmers of the Thônes Valley made it for the Carthusian monks who blessed their homes—has the “aroma of a busy day around Anna Nicole’s house.”
Behind these witticisms stands a complicated fact about hip Brooklyn and the culture it represents. America’s tastemakers have become obsessed with tradition—heritage and vintage are the marketer’s magic words—but they resist any suggestion that the past has the power to bind. Men dress like lumberjacks and women like Mad Men housewives, but both shy from assertions of sexual difference. Respect for the way monks brewed their ale (ora et labora) is not matched by a similar appreciation for the prayer that structured their lives. A desire to emulate grandmother’s pickling and needlework does not extend to the habit she felt to be most important: daily Bible reading. Hipsters are ambivalent reactionaries who love every aspect of tradition—except its authority.
These people are my friends and neighbors. In many ways, I am one of them. Whatever my deep beliefs, I have many of the same tastes and manners. After college, I did not move home to Nebraska to work in the family business but instead found my way to New York. Though I do not live in the borough, I have become a sort of free-floating Brooklynite, cultivating a taste for all things traditional, though in my daily life I rarely confront tradition as a living force that makes demands. The Polish grandmothers and Italian aunts who once lived in this neighborhood would have been offended by the jests of the Bedford Cheese Shop, but the placards strike me as merely juvenile. That is, until I read one for the brebirousse d’argental. Its “texture is as close to heaven as anything we have found here on earth. Kinda like going down on Mother Teresa herself, divine.”
I ask to speak to the manager. A man with a beard and tattoos explains that it is only a joke. Really, there’s nothing he can do about it. It was written by the owner, who isn’t even here. I sense his surprise and disdain. It is as though we are in a play, and I have just broken character. People who come into this shop aren’t supposed to get offended. Not so long ago, such a remark about any woman, let alone a woman of God, would have provoked outrage. But here we’re all cool, in the know. I begin to feel embarrassed, as though blasphemy were not as great an offense as the faux pas of pointing it out. “If someone wrote that about your mother—” I begin. But there is no conviction in my voice. By some code I hardly understand, he is in the right and I am in the wrong. In a moment, I am on the curb.
Across the street stands Spoonbill and Sugartown Booksellers. Beautiful books, many of them reprints of vintage titles, are carefully laid out. Reverence for the written word is everywhere—along with irreverence about other things. Vintage shelving units labeled “Church Supplies” and “Bible Stories” seem to have been hauled out of a church basement in Minnesota. Now they carry titles like Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle and Tee Corinne’s Cunt Coloring Book. Next door is a candy shop. The shelves are loaded with vintage candies that call up memories of a more innocent America, but nostalgia evaporates when I spot a bar of “Fine and Raw” chocolate with a pinup girl on the wrapper. This store is not for children.
I next walk into a bar. Its walls are lined with vintage arcade games—Killer Instinct, Mortal Kombat, Children of the Atom, Knights of Valor II—but no one is playing. In one corner, a ring of eager young couples listens to a bearded gentleman give a presentation on the cultivation of hops: “It’s like a vineyard, only the plants are twenty-five feet high.” Heads nod in dutiful attention. This is the Brooklyn that has become a global brand. Paris now boasts two Brooklyn Cafés, a Brooklyn Bar, and something called Brooklyn Left Bank. Très Brooklyn is a term of trendy approbation. Brooklyn can be anywhere, and increasingly it seems to be everywhere.
As I walk south, though, I find a different kind of Brooklyn. Hip establishments give way to ethnic bodegas, then to shops with Yiddish signs. The uniformly lean and with-it twentysomethings are replaced by people of all shapes and ages. The men wear tall fur hats that are grand as wedding cakes. In order to balance them, they must throw their heads back and walk with a kind of strut. Women walk in pairs and children run around them playing. Yet things are quiet. It is the Sabbath, and I walk for more than twenty minutes without seeing an open business. Occasional songs of prayer filter out onto the street. Here is a neighborhood unlike the one I just left. The commercial gives way to the sacred, the individual defers to the community, and the old, fat, and unfashionable have a place alongside the young and the beautiful. I ask a man for directions to the nearest subway to Manhattan, and he helps me with the brusque matter-of-factness that is New York’s special form of politeness.
Weeks later I am talking to my rabbi (even Catholics need a rabbi, and David Novak is mine) about the impressions I gathered that day. I describe to him how in one Brooklyn—the Brooklyn now marketed in every city in the world—tradition is an open field of play, a cabinet of trifles one may sample at leisure. I then tell him of my impressions of a very different Brooklyn, one in which tradition governs every aspect of life, and the calendar and streets themselves are marked by the holy. Perhaps sensing a little naivete in this contrast, Rabbi Novak tells me of a Lutheran pastor he knew who had moved to Brooklyn as a young man and been taken immediately with the lifestyle of its Hasidic Jews. Here were people who took faith seriously! One day, as the pastor was telling his own rabbi (one Abraham Joshua Heschel) about the virtues of such a life, he was interrupted. “Richard, you wouldn’t last a day in one of those neighborhoods. You’d find a way out—or you’d suffocate!”
Because I live so much of my life in the endlessly sampling Brooklyn that is now ubiquitous, I feel all the more strongly the appeal of a Brooklyn that offers thick tradition rather than a catalogue of aesthetic options. A few years ago, a friend of mine working in the test kitchen of a prestigious restaurant quit her job and left New York in order to become a cloistered nun, at an abbey where she now makes her own cheeses. Her vocation had causes deeper than any feeling, but as she prepared to leave the city, she realized she had grown tired of its ways and was ready for a life of permanent loyalties. What about those of us who stay? Is there a way for us to build our own communities that are living rather than curated?
The answer to that may well be yes, but what Rabbi Novak suggested to me, what Rabbi Heschel had suggested before him, is that starry-eyed longing for a binding community can become yet another way of surrendering to this world. Rather than living and working where we are, we dream of where else we might be. A vision of pristine community becomes yet another “option” in the endless parade of vintage, artisanal, and local things that excite our desire without demanding our love. Even with my rabbi’s warning, I am not sure that I can resist dreaming of a better community. As I do, I think I’ll look for a place to live on the border of the two neighborhoods I saw that day, somewhere between the hipsters and the Hasids.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.