There’s a time and a place for everything, but is the Thanksgiving table the proper place for political debate?
For some, it makes sense to talk about what you are passionate about with the people you love and with talk of impeachment and the Netanyahu-Gantz-merry-go-round there’s certainly a plethora of options. But for others, doing so runs the risk of spoiling an important day with the family.
We spoke to some people from the range of the political spectrum to get a sense of whether they will ban or permit talk about politics at this year’s Thanksgiving meal.
For political consultant Hank Sheinkopf it’s a definite no. “Shut up and eat the turkey,” he advises matter-of-factly.
Which is certainly not what happened for Manhattan resident, David Berkowitz, who was forced to break up a fight between two family members — one a Trump supporter and the other a Trump hater — at a previous Thanksgiving. Now he’s set rules.
“As the stakes get higher, with a president going through impeachment hearings, topics like American and Israeli politics are off the table,” he said.
And for Joan Baker of Brooklyn, unlike a previous High Holiday meal where her ex’s family member kept needling her about why he loved Trump, she has more reason to give thanks this year — she won’t be sitting through that again.
“It was like Chinese water torture,” she recalled. “He was an incredible narcissist seeking validation for his every word. It’s part of the reason I left my fiancé.”
In some homes, however, debate at the dinner table is as much an integral part of the experience as the food. Like for Noam Dworman, owner of the Comedy Cellar downtown, who recalls growing up with vigorous debate and discussion around the table at holiday meals. But, he says, things can get heated in this particularly polarizing time, so while he still enjoys a bit of politics along with his protein, he ensures it stays civil and that all arguments are fought out respectfully.
“In the age of Trump there’s a whole unprecedented divide, and in the age of social media, we’ve all internalized this idea that the people we disagree with are contemptible,” Dworman said. “It carries over to the Thanksgiving table… It’s easy to get carried away. No one wants to lose their family over a stupid argument about impeachment.”
Nachum Segal, radio host of JM in the AM, said table talk should rather focus on more positive, introspective discussion.
“Instead of politics dominating the family discourse, I would recommend spending Thanksgiving dinner discussing how everyone at the table can play a role in enhancing the lives of people in difficult situations,” he said.
It is the time to give thanks, after all.
But comedian Elon Gold staunchly disagrees.
“What the heck else do you talk to your boring relatives about?” he exclaimed. “Plus, arguing about fake news is better than dealing with real family issues. For me, I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on, as long as you’re on Israel’s side!”
What does he suggest if things get heated?
“That’s very simple,” Gold said. “Start a food fight! Let’s see them make their dumb points about who’s more guilty of Quid Pro Quo with sweet potato pie dripping from their faces.”
Former Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind, said he’s seen his fair share of spirited debate at his Shabbat table so he recommends that “you stay away from politics if you want a peaceful Thanksgiving.”
But maybe this is a wake-up call for how we conduct difficult conversations in general.
“Is it possible to disagree without becoming so disagreeable?” asks Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz, lecturer and Scholar in Residence of Kol HaNeshamah in New York City. She recalls a debate among guests over President Trump’s policies at a shabbat meal she hosted that almost ended in a fist-fight.
“We all have to give serious thought, whether we identify as being politically right or politically left, how we can uphold a semblance of civility, whether in our homes, in our shuls and the community at large,” she said.
And while it’s best to avoid arguing, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah said, it’s still important to engage in debate — albeit in the right way.
“Don’t be afraid to engage with people about anything that matters to you!” Kleinbaum wrote in an email to The Jewish Week. “Learn how to engage with those with whom you disagree. Be curious and open to the others – ask questions when you feel the impulse to scream and yell. Be open to be changed by others if you want them to be open to be changed by you.”
Brothers Ari and Dani Zoldan agree it’s better to avoid political debate at the turkey table. Unless, that is, things get too boring and there’s a need to spice up the conversation, the latter says.
“You can fight about things for the rest of the year on Twitter,” he said.
We may not have solved the debate over whether politics can or can’t be discussed, but we have figured out the food. Browse Thanksgiving recipes here, a handy guide for vegetarians here, and wine recommendations here.