On the last Friday in October, New York Times columnist David Brooks asked readers who are 70-plus to send him a brief report of their lives and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. By that Monday, he had received more than 1,500 responses, and the emails kept arriving. He was interested in hearing individuals’ self-appraisals, and thought that young people could benefit from the elders’ experience.
Not a typical request from a writer on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. But in the eight years that he’s been writing his column, Brooks has proven to be an unpredictable voice, always smart and thoughtful, with an underlying interest in the social sciences and human nature. When it comes to politics, he’s often the conservative voice on the page, although he is frequently described as “the liberals’ favorite conservative.”
“I think of myself as a New York conservative,” he says, in an interview in the Times’ Washington bureau. He associates himself with Alexander Hamilton’s position, “using government in limited ways to enhance social mobility, to give people the tools to become capitalists.”
He also identifies emotionally with New York City, the place of his childhood. His maternal great-grandfather had a kosher butcher shop on Bayard Street on the Lower East Side, in what is now Chinatown, before moving to the Bronx. Brooks spent a lot of time with his mother’s father, who had a law practice in the Woolworth Building and wrote letters almost every day to The New York Times.
“If he had lived to see me a columnist here, he would have been very happy,” he says.
Brooks, together with photojournalist Ruth Gruber, is the recipient of The Jewish Week’s first Excellence in Journalism Award, which he will receive at the newspaper’s Gala Dinner at Sotheby’s on Nov. 29, in recognition of his fine reporting, careful observation, clear writing and thoughtful analysis.
“David Brooks provides essential reading. Whether one agrees with him or not, he illuminates the issues of our day,” says Stuart Himmelfarb, co-chair of The Jewish Week board of directors and of the gala dinner. “His appreciation of Jewish values runs deep in his writing.”
Brooks, joined The Times as an Op-Ed columnist in September 2003, selected to succeed William Safire. Twice a week, he writes a widely read 800-word trenchant essay on politics, social issues, world affairs, science, popular culture and occasionally Judaism. He is the author of three books: “Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” “On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense,” and most recently, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.”
A bestseller published earlier this year, “The Social Animal” is an engaging and original work of narrative nonfiction about the unconscious processes that shape behavior, showcasing new findings and research through the lives of two imaginary contemporary characters.
Before joining the Times, Brooks had been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and had held several posts at The Wall Street Journal, including Op-Ed editor and European correspondent based in Brussels. He has been a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly, and is a regular commentator on PBS’ “NewsHour.”
If I were writing this piece using Brooks’s own methods, I’d have assembled about a dozen piles, each with pages of notes — quotes from our interview, annotated copies of pages of his books, columns, index cards or the backs of envelopes with additional thoughts. The piles would then be arranged to achieve a flow of ideas from one to the next, in a row along the edge of a table. Each pile would then be the basis for a single paragraph in the finished piece.
“It’s geographic,” he said of his process. “I need physical space to think out the column.” Once he has the structure, he sits down to write, usually at home. Sometimes he rewrites two or three times.
As he speaks, his sentences are as ordered and well thought out as those piles. Brooks has the manner of an affable college professor.
“I have a theory of what the column is. It evolved unconsciously first and then came into conscience: There was a golden age of nonfiction writing from 1955 to 1965,” he says, mentioning Jane Jacobs, David Riesman and Digby Baltzell. “Little higher than a journalist, lower than an academic.” What they did in sprawling books on social theory and politics, he tries to do in long form essays, describing his place as upper middle ground.
Born in Canada to “1950s intellectuals,” he grew up in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town. “The trajectory from my great-grandfather to my parents was secularization. I went to Grace Church School, sang in the choir, went to an Episcopal camp.” He also went to Hebrew school at the 14th Street Y, and the family celebrated holidays, but it was a “bar mitzvah-then-you’re-done” kind of Judaism.
Brooks graduated from the University of Chicago in 1983, and worked as a police reporter for the City News Bureau. While a student, he met Jane Hughes, who would become his wife, and three years after their marriage, she decided to convert to Judaism (and has since changed her name to Sarah Brooks). They had moved to New York by then, and she studied with Rabbi Harlan Wechsler, who became their rabbi. When Brooks was asked at the time by another rabbi about what being Jewish meant to him, he mentioned “Saul Bellow, Woody Allen, cultural things.”
But, as he explains, at his wife’s urgings, “I got pulled back in.” She became more deeply involved in Jewish life, becoming the “mikveh lady” at their shul when they moved to Washington. “She wanted to keep kosher, which we do. She wanted to send our kids to religious school, which we do.” Their three children — who have biblical names — have attended local Jewish day schools.
“It’s now quite a Jewish life,” says Brooks, who recently turned 50. “I’m still not as observant as my wife. I have a deeply ambivalent relationship to a lot of Jewish things.” He says that their social lives are less involved with Washington’s power brokers and journalists, but rather built around weekly Shabbat dinners with friends from their shul and their kids’ schools.
The family belongs to Washington’s large Conservative synagogue, Adas Israel Congregation. Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, senior rabbi, says, “There are people who live worldly and otherwise secular lives who — when hearing my messages of Jewish heritage and connection and meaning — either don’t relate or don’t resonate with it. But that’s never the case with David. He totally gets it, and he lives his life in a way that shows that he values the deepest messages of Judaism.” He says that he often uses Brooks’ columns as “jumping-off points for sermons and teachings because his conclusions so often jive so well with the ultimate conclusions of Judaism.”
Brooks participates in a Jewish study group with Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, along with other Jewish journalists. Last year, he wrote a column about her and Jewish study, “The Arduous Community,” admiring her conviction, confidence and combination of “extreme empathy and extreme tough-mindedness.” He finds her “endlessly impressive.”
The columnist sees Judaism as a very rational tradition, and he sometimes feels frustrated that “rational dissections, like parsing the minute meanings of textual passages,” are emphasized far more than spiritual experiences. The Ne’eila, or concluding service, of Yom Kippur includes moments he finds profoundly spiritual.
Calling on his interest in the workings of the mind and the unconscious, he muses that Judaism’s powerful laws, customs and rituals — the understructure of life — get embedded in the mind, which explains his own particular journey. “Even though my Jewish life was not consciously willed, I could so easily fall into it.”
“I identify as a Conservative Jew, in the political and religious sense,” he says.
As for mentors, he cites William F. Buckley, who hired him and introduced him to the world of journalism as well as to yachting and Bach concerts. Their first encounter was when Brooks, as a college student, sent Buckley a parody of his writing — including a job request — before Buckley’s visit to the University of Chicago campus. Buckley offered a job, and Brooks took him up on the offer a few years later and moved to New York. He reads other writers he admires, like C.S. Lewis, George Orwell, S. J Perelman, Robert Benchley and Woody Allen, to get their prose styles into his head.
These days, he feels “strangely upbeat” about newspapers and their future. “Humans haven’t changed,” he says, again returning to his fascination with how the brain functions. “We want to transfer information from short-term memory to long-term memory. You can’t do that with a tweet or blog post. If you want to read something that makes a difference, it has to be longer, on paper. You perceive things differently then.”
“For all the talk about the death of journalism,” he says, “It’s a really good moment.” He admits the challenges, and sees a bifurcation: “The sprinters, who do tweets, and the milers, who do the long from, are doing OK. The people in trouble are the quarter-milers, who summarize the day’s events. That you don’t need so much anymore.” He adds, “I’m more of a miler.”
“My general view is that newspapers define communities,” Brooks later wrote in an e-mail. “When I was starting as a journalist it was clear that the Tribune and the Sun Times, and the columnists and reporters who wrote for those papers reflected and defined the Chicago way–the whole set of attitudes and aspirations. In the same way I've found the Jewish periodicals, as much as any other institution, even rabbis, define the Jewish identity in America. They provide a meeting ground, celebrating what is best and condemning what deviates from Jewish values.”
He’s now at work on a book about humility, building on the theory that we’ve gone from a culture of self-effacement to one of self-broadcast.
“Humility has a bad reputation,” he wrote in his Times blog over the summer.
When asked about how he would answer the questions posed to readers about life’s lessons, although he is still decades from 70, he pauses and offers an admitted cliché: “The things that matter most do matter most.”
If he were talking to his younger self, he’d offer that he felt disappointingly little satisfaction in the fact that two of his books were bestsellers. What has given him great pleasure, though, is when a reviewer really understands what he was trying to do — “It’s the feeling of being heard.”
“Another theme of mine is that every kid should take a course on how to choose a marriage partner. It’s easily the most important decision you make. If you have a great career and an unhappy marriage, you’ll be unhappy.”
He seems to have happy versions of both.
“Most of my sins are sins of omission,” he says, “like not being as emotionally giving. I was writing a book about emotion for five years, and I’m most aware of those currents, but have a great deal of trouble communicating them. I haven’t become a touchy-feely guy.”