April 17, 2024
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April 17, 2024
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When the Outside World Found Its Way to My Shabbos Table

OK, so I’ve read that the best way to keep a Shabbos lunch moving along and in a civil tone is to not talk about work or politics.

I even once wrote about a kiruv rabbi’s instruction seminar where this issue of staying away from politics, in particular, was the headline of the meeting’s instructions. That, and of course, do a lot of smiling.

But nowhere in any Shabbos lunch preparation conversation did the discussion include the vetting of guests. Perhaps in today’s political climate, which is enough to divide friendships and even call for a mechitza between Republicans and Democrats, hosting a meal could become trickier.

We invited to the house two couples with whom we’ve shared a great deal over the years. We knew that they attended the same shul, and they were both connected to shared circles of friends. But there was a challenge. One of the husbands, we’ll call him Red, is politically a well-read scholar of libertarianism and is a huge supporter of those politically far to the right. Red is one of my closest friends, and he is always sending me information with which I don’t always agree, but I ask for it anyway because I’m open and interested in learning about politics and history.

The other husband, we’ll call him Blue, is a true teacher with an incredible appetite for American history, and especially the histories of American leadership, its presidents and other elected officials. He can quote Obama, Truman, Kennedy, even Adams, Lincoln and Grant.

While Red is libertarian, Blue is liberal. They know this about one another, and I knew this about them both.

So at our Shabbos table, the seating dynamics might have suggested possible trouble. You see, both Red and Blue’s wives are the ones who have quietly told them both in years past to “settle down” or “not at the Shabbos table.”

The ladies were sitting at the opposite end of the table along with my wife, talking about grandchildren, vacations and even the best paint colors for our downstairs hallway.

At our end, it became like a fencing match. Every time Red lunged with terms like “fake news,” I parried with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ weekly Torah reading. Blue came back with the term “midterms,” and I asked how everyone’s Tisha B’Av went, trying with my eyes to draw the ladies away from paint colors to our end of the table.

At some point during all of this my wife looked up at me and asked that I take tea and coffee orders. One herbal tea and two coffees, and as I got up to head to the kitchen, I heard Red ask Blue who he thought the worst president in American history might be.

Blue said “Trump.”

Red countered with “Lincoln.”

I looked out from my neutral spot at the hot water pump.

The worst was happening. Our hallway paint problems were being solved at one end of the table, while I think the state of the union at the table’s other end was descending to a place not very Shabbos-like.

Returning with tea and coffee, again I tried to change the subject of conversation, this time asking both men, both baseball fans, a question about the July 31 Major League Baseball trade deadline. I asked Blue, a big Yankees fan, if the Bombers were up for another move.

Sitting across from Red, Blue’s face was shriveled like a raisin. He wasn’t up to talking about baseball. He asked Red where he stood on “institutionalized racism.”

Red answered that there was “no such thing in America.”

By this time I was out of diversions. Though I have strong feelings about the presidents and racism, this was certainly not the place and time.

My friend Blue was especially angry.

My friend Red did not show any emotion or expression.

This was my house, my Shabbos table, and I feel guilty that this had happened, like I let it occur.

It got a click worse when Blue stood up and walked out of the house.

By this time the ladies had gotten a sense of what was happening. Blue’s wife left shortly thereafter to support her husband.

Red literally said, “What did I do?”

I never thought I’d have to really worry about asking someone if they were on one political side or other prior to inviting them to a Shabbos meal.

What should I have done differently?

More zemirot? A really long dvar Torah??

Just days after we fasted and said Eicha and lamented over our baseless hatreds, the lesson, though still raw, wasn’t decisive enough to stop this conversation.

This was Shabbos lunch during these difficult divisive political times.

It’s the first time I can’t remember the sweet taste of the challah or the great meal my wife made, or, especially, the nice time I had with my chevrah.

Thank God, Shabbos will come again this week. I hope it’s peaceful for Red and Blue, and that we can seek unity at the table once again.

By Phil Jacobs

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