Cooling the rhetoric in a sukkah of peace

By Edmon J. Rodman, JTA

LOS ANGELES — In an election year, a sukkah divided against itself cannot stand. Especially in the swing states, where each party is basically claiming that if the other wins we’ll all be living in sukkahs, political dinner conversation this Sukkot could really topple an already shaky house.

With potential verbal sparring over which candidate is best for Israel, health care and increasing Uncle Bernie’s chances of finally landing a job, the evening has all the hallmarks of a below the Beltway battle.

For the festival, we are supposed to build a “sukkah sh’lomechah” – a sukkah of peace. But how much peace can there be in the confines of small hut when your family or friends are divided about who is getting their vote for president?

In our season of joy in this election season, will our guests be unhappy and at odds like the lulav and etrog before they are assembled – willow, myrtle, palm – disparate elements seeking a whole?

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As Lyndon Johnson said in quoting Isaiah, “Come now, let us reason together.” How best can we come together over our differences and keep a holiday sense of joy and camaraderie?

Should we be politically correct with the ushpizim – the guests from the Bible that are symbolically invited, one each night, into the sukkah – and for every liberal Hillel ask in a conservative Shammai.

Politics and family dinners seldom seem a good match. As a child, I remember a Passover when two of my uncles nearly came to blows over what my mother described later simply as “politics,” and another seder that was almost ruined when my mother and her brother tussled over the morality of Woody Allen.

How about just invoking and enforcing the universal table rule of no conversations about politics, religion or sex? It’s a plan, but just try selling that to your libertarian dentist uncle, former flower child aunt or brother-in-law home for a visit from the West Bank.

Where is all this division coming from? Despite our disagreements, aren’t Jews more or less a political bloc?

Looking for advice about how to prepare for a politically divided sukkah, I contacted an expert on political issues and American Jewish affairs – Steven Windmueller, emeritus professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

A sukkah filled with Jews of divergent opinions was no surprise to Windmueller. Going against the commonly held view, he already had written that the “Jewish vote” was actually a “series of voting constituencies.”

According to Windmueller, sitting around our sukkah tables we might find a mixture of these five groups: 

• Southern and Midwestern Jews, “who have longstanding family ties to these regions and their respective home communities,” he said.

• Immigrant Jewish communities, who arriving from Iran, the former Soviet Union or other societies “frequently identify with the foreign policy principles of the Republican Party.”

• Traditional religious Jews, who “emulate the political patterns of the Christian Evangelical community.”

• Red diaper baby voters, who like their grandparents identify with “socialist causes and left-wing political ideas.”

• Urban Jewish elites, who are supportive of Democratic Party candidates and identify with “an array of liberal organizations and often high-profile social causes.”

Imagine a sukkah filled with one from each group trying to sway your lulav.

When I explained to Windmueller my fears about a politically divided sukkah, he suggested that we each “Come to the table with an open hand.” And to be on the safe side, he also advised, with a laugh, to keep any knives off the table.

As to how to help keep the holiday peace in this charged-up election season, Windmueller suggested coming to the table “prepared” with more than just the usual political slogans. 

“You don’t want to lose friends and family over an election,” he said.

“People are scared to have their minds changed,” said Windmueller, who rarely talks about politics at the dinner table and has found that even at temple speaking engagements, organizers often are nervous that he will sneak in an endorsement.

For a more congenial evening, he also suggested sticking close to issues on which many Jews can still come together – the Iranian threat, the concern over civil order and the health of our society.

Shaking those subjects together in each political direction might not bring an evening of peace, but at least we’d be talking.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at [email protected].