December 10, 2018

Thankful for Life Beyond Politics

Why are we so obsessed with politics? I’ve heard several explanations. One is that politics has become one of the few things we all have left in common. Because technology allows us to pick and choose our interests like never before, politics, by its pervasive nature, remains the one thing that permeates virtually everything.

Another reason is that politics has become a form of entertainment. No one understands this better than the profit-driven media that know they’ll get a lot more eyeballs if they push the fight and the drama inherent in politics.

When is the last time your eyes were riveted to a two-hour discussion on C-SPAN of the pluses and minuses of fiscal reform?

On a more serious note, politics seems especially prevalent in Jewish circles, since Jewish values such as “caring for the stranger” are so inter-connected with the policies of the government. That’s why politics regularly pops up in rabbi sermons, if for no other reason than that repairing the world is a Jewish imperative.

There’s also an intimate aspect to politics — something that reaches deep inside of us. Politics can be a form of tribal connection, a crucial part of how we find meaning and sustenance in life.

As psychiatrist Karin Tamerius writes in The New York Times, “Our political attitudes and beliefs are intertwined with our most basic human needs – needs for safety, belonging, identity, self-esteem and purpose — and when they’re threatened, we’re biologically wired to respond as if we’re in physical peril.” All of these factors have been magnified in the era of Trump.

“Politics has become a form of entertainment. No one understands this better than the profit-driven media that know they’ll get a lot more eyeballs if they push the fight and the drama.”

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that politics has become the conversational subject par excellence, the reflexive topic that comes up in social gatherings. But there’s a catch. As Tamerius writes, “Many of us aren’t accustomed to socializing with people who think differently from us, especially about politics.”

In other words, our political conversations are usually with people who agree with us, which, for me, means one thing above all.

Very boring.

In fact, the more I agree with you, the more boring it’s likely to get. Of course, there’s another problem — if we don’t agree, there’s a good chance the conversation may get emotional and even acrimonious. I’ve rarely seen a political conversation at a Shabbat table lead to anything interesting. Either we all confirm what we already think, or we argue and dig in our heels. On the other hand, I’ve had some stimulating political conversations in cafes, in my office, on my podcast, and so on.

I can’t explain exactly why, but politics and food just don’t mix well for me. When I’m savoring a dish, especially at a Shabbat table, I’m thinking more about culture and life in general — about music, film, literature, spirituality, family, life events. I’m not thinking about immigration and tax reform, however important those are.

It’s worth keeping all this in mind as we gather this week for the annual American version of Shabbat — the great American meal of Thanksgiving.

Because politics is so ingrained in us, it will be tempting for many of us to just jump into it as soon as we take our seats: Will Nancy Pelosi keep her leadership role in the House? Will Democrats field a winning candidate in 2020? Can Trump go any lower? Will there be early elections in Israel?

“I’ve rarely seen a political conversation at a Shabbat table lead to anything interesting. Either we all confirm what we already think, or we argue and dig in our heels.”

I will resist that temptation.

For now, I can think of at least two things that I can’t wait to share: An amazing performance by my friend and singer Lesley Wolman at the Pico Playhouse on Sunday, “The Great Canadian Songbook,” that brought back memories of growing up in Montreal; and an extraordinary film that explored the modern disease of urban loneliness, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” that I saw recently at the Museum of Tolerance. (And I have no doubt I’ll bring up my daughter’s impressive SAT scores.)

If politics comes up, I will try to steer the conversation in another direction. And if I’m really inspired, I may even open up our Thanksgiving haggadah and go through the four questions and blessings.

God knows there will be plenty of other times to discuss Bibi and Pelosi.

Happy Thanksgiving.