Living In a Glass House

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05 Sep 2007
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New Canaan was a quiet, lazy town in the southwestern Connecticut until the late 40’s when the Harvard Five descended on the town. The Harvard Five was a group of teachers and students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design who all felt strongly influenced by Professor Walter Gropius. Gropius was one of the pioneers of modern architecture, and stressed the idea of “form follows function.” His designs showcased clean, simple, open spaces with lots of natural light, and utilized many of the industrialized materials of the time, such as steel and glass.

So what do five like minded architects from the Harvard Graduate School of Design do after they are finished their schooling? They find a perfect location and start designing like crazy! They chose New Canaan for its relatively inexpensive land, relaxed zoning laws, and its proximity to Manhattan where they all worked (a mere one hour train ride away). The Harvard Five built over 30 homes themselves in New Canaan, while an additional 50 modern homes were built by people attracted to the style being utilized by the Five.

The most famous of the homes is the Glass House, built by Philip Johnson. This house is essentially a 10 foot tall, 32 foot wide, and 56 foot long glass box. All the exterior walls are made of floor to ceiling glass. Even indoors, there are no walls save for a brick cylinder containing a fireplace and a bathroom. This was all done to minimize the feeling that one is in a building. Instead, one is supposed to feel that the living space is a natural continuation of the outdoors. Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the world’s most prominent and influential architects, confirmed that the goal of merging lawn and living room was truly achieved. On his first visit, he commented, “I don’t know whether I’m supposed to take my hat off or leave it on! Am I indoors or outdoors?” MoMA (the preeminent Museum of Modern Art) further confirmed the success of the Glass House by building a whole display on it, including a miniature model.

Philip used the Glass House as a weekend and vacation home until his death in 2005, when it became a museum for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is considered to be one of the best examples of Modern Architecture. If you are considering hopping on the next flight to Connecticut (as I was), sorry, tickets to the Glass House are sold out until mid-2008! The reason I wanted to go see this house so badly was not only because I am enthralled by Modern Architecture. More importantly, I want to see the reality of the phrase I heard so often as a kid, “He who lives in a glass house should not throw stones!”

As suave, urbane, and sophisticated as living in this house sounds, in truth, none of us would ever want to do it. (There was barely any closet space.) Who would want to live in a home just off an oft-traveled road, which offers no privacy? Every time I eat with my hands, spend too much time reading, or don’t help out with cleaning up after dinner, everyone can see! However, even though most of us would never want to move into a house like that, Rosh Hashanah is a time of year that we focus on the fact that we truly do live in a house like that, whether we like it or not.

One of the three major themes in the Musaf service of Rosh Hashanah is Zichronot, Remembrance. In this section we say the following, “Before You all hidden things are revealed… for there is no forgetfulness before Your Throne of Glory, and nothing is hidden from before Your eyes.” One of the major roles of Rosh Hashanah is as a Day of Remembrance. “You bring about a decreed time of remembrance for every spirit and soul to be recalled… Who is not recalled on this day?” In our prayers we recognize the idea that in the eyes of G-d, we are all living in a Glass House. He sees when we sit down with our kids and teach them Torah or help them with homework, and he sees when we ignore them to focus on the newspaper. He sees when we argue with our spouse, and when we write romantic Post-It notes and leave them on the mirror. He sees how we try to reconcile differences, and how we treat the underprivileged people we come in contact with. To Him we live in one big, 57,510,000 square mile Glass House. That is what the prayer of Remembrance is all about

So, what are we supposed to take away from that prayer? As a child, I thought it was a scary prayer. It was basically telling me that G-d would remember everything I ever did wrong and get me for it. But as I grew up, I learned to see a beautiful message in the words. The idea of remembrance is that G-d actually cares about each of us. The closer you are to someone, the more you want to know about what is going on in their life. I love hearing the details of my wife’s day, I ask my daughter to tell me all about what happened in school that day, but I don’t ask people I don’t know about these details. My closeness to my wife and children create this interest in knowing the intimate details of their lives.

The fact that G-d always thinks about what we are doing shows just how much G-d cares about us. In Greek mythology, the gods cared little about human activities, and spent the majority of their time partying with each other. Our G-d is not like that. Numerous times throughout the Rosh Hashanah service we describe Him as our Father. And as one would expect of a loving father, He is always interested in what we are up to, our successes, and the places where we could use a little growth. So this year, as we sit in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, let us try to focus on the great benefits we have, living in a Spiritual Glass House, under the loving gaze of our Father in Heaven!


Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.