Late at night, after the dishes have all been cleared and the kids put to bed, most of my friends cast a quick, furtive look around to make sure no one’s watching, grab their phones, slide into bed, and indulge their wildest and most sensuous desires.
No, they’re not looking at pornography. They’re on Zillow.
How popular is the real estate website, currently listing upwards of 135 million properties? Last year, 9.6 billion people visited the site, which puts it squarely at the top of the internet’s food chain. That’s because when Americans let it all hang loose these days, it’s not sex or music or booze they’re after; it’s a split-level ranch on 1.3 acres in a decent school district.
You can chalk up this real estate lust to the pandemic, which drove a locked-up and beaten-down population to fantasize about working remotely from a fabulous lakeside or mountain-view location. But statistics bespeak a harsh reality that dashes such dreams: Home prices have been rising consistently for 124 months straight now, the longest streak ever in American history. If you’re looking for a new abode, the median price you should expect to pay is $416,000, an all-time high and a whopping 13.4 percent hike from last year. Gut-wrenching homesickness, in other words, may be the only constant and reliable thing in America these days.
Why this gluttony for bricks and mortar? To answer the question, look not at average asking prices in Reno or new construction projects in Fort Lauderdale but at another, and far grimmer, set of stats: 38 percent of Americans aged twenty-five to fifty-four have chosen to go through life unpartnered; 1.64 is the average number of children per woman in the U.S., the lowest rate ever recorded in our fair land, and well below replacement-level fertility; and 76.6 is now the average life expectancy in this country, continuing its precipitous decline and marking a fifteen-year low.
Put bluntly, mainstream American culture these days is, quite literally, a death cult. Life in the most affluent nation mankind has ever erected is nasty, lonely, brutish, and short, a cutting fact that no amount of binge-watching television or nibbling on opioids can dull.
Enter Zillow. Early on, the site’s proprietors bet big on a business model that involved buying houses, renovating them, and then selling them for profit. The concept entailed a straightforward exchange of goods. But the idea flopped. Americans, Team Zillow soon learned, were interested in buying homes, to be sure, but they were much more keen on ogling properties online and imagining that they lived richer, more rewarding lives. They didn’t flock to Zillow to start real-life relocations; they logged on to forge healing fantasies. The start-up corrected course, and angled for an ever-bigger audience. Before too long, Zillow became popular enough to merit being spoofed on Saturday Night Live.
There’s a lesson in Zillow’s addictive appeal that the faithful should heed. Our secular friends and neighbors, a generation or two removed from the pews that were, for their mothers and grandmothers, the still point of the turning world, are crying for help. Consider their plight: They studied hard and went to good schools and took that summer internship and put in the hours and paid the rent and voted for the inspiring candidate and marched for all the nice causes, and they expected a bit of a leg up for their troubles. Nothing fancy, just the same comfortable lives they knew growing up in the suburbs, perhaps with some frilly perks like a sun-drenched vacation every few years and enough cash lying around to buy that new car or not worry too much about paying for their children’s education.
Our fellow Americans want the easy life they believe is their birthright. Instead, they have experienced devastation. Their middle-class parents, born in the 1950s, had more than an 80 percent chance of out-earning their own parents. For the children of the 1980s, today poised on the edge of middle age, that number has plummeted to 45 percent, a stark measure of rapid and violent downward mobility. Instead of a dream, they’re living the American nightmare. With everything around them broken—the healthcare system and the schools, law enforcement and the media, politics and the culture—the faithless are frantically searching for new sources of meaning. And the sad thing is they’re not asking for much—just the same basics that our species has clung to since we first stumbled out of our caves: security and stability, somewhere to live and someone to love and something to believe in to make tomorrow more promising than today.
In Zillow and other fantasies about having what you can’t afford, secular Americans are seeking, in short, precisely the things religion has been offering for millennia. But, sadly, their spiritual imaginations have been blunted by years of self-appointed intellectual and moral betters, who insist that religion is nothing more than a benighted superstition. Modernist propaganda teaches them to cower before the glory of science and progress. As a result, they have no idea where to find the comforts and consolations their ancestors received by rote every Saturday at shul or Sunday in church. And so, unable to connect with the heavens, they turn their gaze downward, to the ground, wishing for the perfect home to protect them against the cruel lashes of their fate.
Deep down inside, alas, our faithless friends recognize that this dream is empty. They know that even if they could afford that $2.3 million mansion on the beach it would bring them precious little by way of purpose or salvation. That’s why so many laughingly but accurately refer to Zillow as “house porn.” They realize that going on the site is a short-lived act of self-gratification that sparks no deeper connections and seeds no future life. It’s just another temporary relief, another disposable product that makes up most of our contemporary GDP.
We believers, hallelujah, walk a better path, and we should guide our secular brethren toward it posthaste. Judaism in particular has something to say about homelessness. In the fall, we will celebrate Sukkot, the weeklong festival of booths, during which we are commanded to leave our cozy homes and spend our days eating, sleeping, and studying in makeshift huts, under the stars and in the chill of the late autumn breeze. Why? Because Sukkot, as my friend Rabbi Stuart Halpern teaches us, is the anti-Zillow. The holiday exiles us to our backyards because God doesn’t want us to grow too cozy in our well-appointed living rooms. He wants us to realize that no structure is permanent and that a house is only as valuable as the people who make it a home. Sukkot teaches us that impermanence and uncertainty aren’t burdens that debilitate us. They are reminders and goads that direct us to invest in what truly matters—family and tradition, not square footage or acres.
You don’t have to be Jewish to enter into these profound truths. This fall, let’s all celebrate Sukkot by kicking our house-browsing fantasies and focusing instead on real home-making skills. Compared to the asking prices on Zillow, investing in your home life is much more affordable; it requires little more than making a determined effort to eat family dinners together every night. Or collectively deciding on a joint charity to support. Or selecting a holy book you wish you knew better and studying a few pages of it each night with your children. And it also requires examining everything that’s not working well—the strained marriage, the meager bank account, the unhappy soul. We need to see those cracks not as signs of imminent collapse, but as part of the foundation that, if repaired, will make for a bigger, better edifice, a brighter life in which we can build the sturdy, time-tested truths of our religious traditions.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.