Can you still remember a time when our news, thoughts, and conversations were not centered on — love him or hate him — Donald Trump?
(Me neither, but try.)
Divided as we are as a society, he is, in a sense, the great unifier, the No. 1 topic of discussion, even if the discussion is about agreeing not to talk about him. Thanks to him we’ve added phrases like “alt-right” and “fake news” and “alternative facts” to our lexicon. We’ve seen anti-Semitism rise as a serious concern not just in Europe but at home, and we now think it’s presidential to body-slam journalists to the mat.
But think back to Shabbat dinner discussions at a time when the presidency was just a gleam in The Donald’s eye.
I can recall Friday nights BT (Before Trump) in observant homes when families and friends gathered around the table and, after Kiddush, started the mealtime talk with one default topic: challah, as it was being sliced, distributed, and thoughtfully chewed.
Someone would turn to the host or hostess and comment, “Mmm, delicious, did you make this?” If the answer was yes, the talk turned to easy recipes for baking challah. If the answer was no, the conversation moved on to local bakeries — which are preferred, which make the most exotic flavors of challah, like chocolate, cauliflower, or kale, etc. — and then easily morphed into talk of gluten.
More precisely, about gluten-free products. (There are so many of them available these days, I’m waiting for some brave entrepreneur to open a gluten-only emporium in hip, organic-loving towns like Boulder, Colo.)
Of course, there would be significant time allotted for discussion in many observant homes about President Obama. After all these years they may still be debating whether one could be both a devotee of Rev. Wright and a Muslim at the same time.
Finally, the conversation would get around to the weekly review of the local Jewish yeshivas and day schools and the high cost of tuition before leading directly into Grace After Meals.
Now, though, the talk in traditional homes may be about distant relatives who know, met (or know a guy who once sat in shul next to) Jared Kushner, David Friedman, and/or Jason Greenblatt, the three most prominent observant Jews in the Trump administration.
Inevitably, Ivanka Trump’s name will be mentioned, which could lead to conversation about conversions, the latest in beauty products or, most likely, intense speculation about which rabbi she and Jared consult in seeking halachic loopholes to violate Shabbat in the most public way possible.
Of course, no Orthodox rabbi has owned up to being the couple’s chosen posek (religious decisor), and several have announced it wasn’t them. Sooner or later someone at the table will ask the others which rabbinic authority they would consult if they felt the need to eat a cheeseburger on Tisha b’Av in an Arab country.
After that, it’s back to day schools and Grace After Meals.
In less traditional homes celebrating Shabbat, the pre-Trump talk used to be about social justice, chesed, tzedek, and tikkun olam. But that came after discussion of current culture. So, for instance, if not for Trump, there would be more time devoted of late to Wonder Woman’s Israeli accent, whether Camp Ramah should build a theater in honor of Ben Platt, the disappointing Mets, and whether Bernie Sanders should run next time at the age of 79.
These days, by meal’s end the conversation may well turn to the intermarriage dilemma and how the Conservative movement should handle it, like whether it’s OK for rabbis to dance the hora at an interfaith wedding if it’s not with a nun in a church sanctuary.
The discussion could then lead into singing a spirited rendition of Grace After Meals — the abbreviated version.
Perhaps the most drastic change can be found on college campuses. At Hillels, Chabad houses, or just the cafeteria, the serious Jewish students used to talk on Friday nights about their Birthright trips, BDS, and intersectionality. (Talk among the less serious students was mostly limited to their Birthright trips, BVDs, and intersession.)
Now, though, in the Age of Trump, students tend to speak with remorse about their mocking of Mitt Romney when, in 2012, he ran for president (and they were in high school), agreeing that, by comparison to the situation today, Mitt belongs right up there on Mount Rushmore.
Let’s face it. Across the land we are a divided people, no longer just Democrats or Republicans, Red vs. Blue. Now it’s “Give ’em Hell, Trump” vs. “Go to Hell, Trump.”
The next three and a half years promise more of the same. Liberals dream of impeachment, but it won’t happen as long as Republicans change the subject when it comes to the president’s behavior. And Trump supporters are taking pleasure in seeing the mainstream media and elites on the defensive and so overwrought.
Our Talmudic sages, who argued among themselves constantly, taught that there are two kinds of disagreements: one is “for the sake of heaven,” a sincere difference of opinion in seeking the truth. It was embodied by the students of Hillel and Shammai, the leading rabbis of their time, who had opposing views on almost everything in Jewish law but respected each other and would cite the other’s point of view as legitimate. And, we are told, there were marriages between members of their families.
But the other type of disagreement is far from the sake of heaven. It’s intended to marginalize, even demonize, the other side. Our sages cite the example of the biblical Korach, who led a rebellion against Moses, seeking to replace him as the leader of the people — until the earth swallowed him up, along with his 250 followers.
Unfortunately, that’s closer to where we are today, in 21st-century America, where toxicity reigns and violence is in the air. We’re going to have to do a better job of trying to understand, if not fully empathize with, the other side if the phrase “United States of America” still has meaning.
One thing President Trump has taught us all, though not intentionally, is that we cannot take our democracy and basic rights for granted, even in the U.S. The noble Constitution and our laws are only words; it’s up to us to give them meaning and authenticity. A leader who tells untruths, demeans the press, the legal system, the intelligence agencies, and the Justice Department must be held accountable and in check.
Maybe we should spend more time at our Shabbat meals exploring how Jewish teachings and American values can offer a common path toward civility.
And then we can go back to discussing the challah.