In a Dickensian perversion, it was the worst of times (for one party) and the worst of times (for the other). Elections were once a time for joyous bandwagons (literally), with Sinatra, supporting John Kennedy, singing his jaunty “High Hopes,” and not just any hopes but “high apple pie in the sky hopes!” Even in 1932, in the darkest alley of the Depression, “Happy Days Are Here Again” was Franklin Roosevelt’s theme song.
This November, we are sullen. No one wears campaign buttons. No one sings. Let the elders tell children that once there was a time when candidates were admired, even loved.
We’ve lived through haunted years before, such as 1968’s year of Vietnam, urban riots and assassinations. Yet, in 1968, Bobby Kennedy, weeks before his own assassination, was quoting the Greek poet Aeschylus to an inner-city Indianapolis crowd that was ready to burn anything, as did inner cities across America, upon hearing of Martin Luther King’s murder. “Even in our sleep, pain — which cannot forget — falls drop by drop upon the heart,” quoted Kennedy that night, “until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Indianapolis in pain, knew peace.
In 2016, we had neither poetry nor grace. There were violent disturbances of rallies, and neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton, nor Bernie Sanders when he was running, were immune from charges that their camps instigated their share. The insults and drive-by degradations, everyone agrees, originated with Trump, admittedly delighting some Jewish supporters. One rabbi, an executive with an Orthodox organization, told us, “in the frum (observant) community there’s a tremendous appreciation for straight talk, and that is Mr. Trump’s strong suit. He comes across as someone who will say anything to politicians, and people in our community had a gut reaction, ‘That’s my kind of guy.’”
Those “kind of guys” are now the reason why that rabbi, a Clinton supporter, asked not to be identified. “I avoid talking politics these days because people get angry with me.”
The Orthodox rabbi added, “I do suspect that after Trump’s crude sexual bragging, some frum Jews who were ready to vote for him will be hesitant. Mentchlichkeit and civility are still qualities that are appreciated in the frum community.”
As the months went on, vitriol spread like a virus. Trump was accused of suggesting that gun-rights activists would do what they had to do to stop Clinton. Did he mean…? His opponents erected a granite gravestone in Central Park with “Trump” engraved on the monument. Did they mean…?
As a community, we’ve stopped talking to each other, fearing conversation across the great divide. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, a Reform pulpit rabbi in Florida, and a widely distributed writer and blogger, said over the phone, “The verbal shrapnel has mangled the conversation.” A “hatefulness and shrillness” descended over the landscape. A Clinton supporter, Rabbi Salkin nevertheless felt that “everyone is stained. The national thermostat is pushed up.”
Larry Spiewak, chairman of the Flatbush Council of Jewish Organizations, admitted to us many months ago that he was intrigued by Trump in much the same way that he was intrigued by Howard Stern. They were both guys who’d say anything. You couldn’t turn the dial. Then as winter turned to spring, Spiewak was increasingly uncomfortable with that “anything.” It was no longer fun. Not only does Spiewak not want to talk about it, no one else really wants to talk about it either.
Several Trump supporters said they felt “intimidated” by the rage and contempt from Clinton supporters who insisted that to worry about open borders, traditional religious values, political correctness or Muslim migrations meant that one had to be xenophobic, Islamophobic, let alone homophobic, racist, misogynist and have other social “disorders.”
Asked whether other leaders represented on the Flatbush COJO discussed the candidates, Spiewak said, “A lot of us don’t talk about it anymore, too much friction. I had a lot of people in my sukkah every day, and when anyone would start talking about the election, people would say, ‘Come on. It’s a chag (holy festival), I don’t want to get aggravated.’
No one was safe from intimidation. There was neither poetry nor grace, and even a religious invocation aroused rage. When the highly respected Rabbi Haskel Lookstein (who converted Ivanka Trump to Orthodox Judaism), leader of Kehillath Jeshurun and Ramaz for 50 years, was chosen to give the opening blessing at the Republican convention, the rabbi was inundated with hundreds of furious petitions from students, parents of students, congregants, shocked, outraged that he would dare give Republicans a blessing. In Judaism, it should be noted, a blessing is past-tense when referring to a food’s kashrut, but blessings for people are future-oriented, not a sanction of kashrut but soulful words intended to improve the person being blessed. With that understanding, there are stories of even thieves getting blessings from the Baal Shem Tov, founder of chasidism. Rabbi Lookstein was pressured to not bless the convention. He withdrew.
For religious Jews, wrote Seth Lipsky, editor of The New York Sun, Trump had his merits, “siding with religious Americans whose rights are in jeopardy from the proliferating series of laws and court rulings in which religious persons are being asked to bow to a liberalism hostile to religious law.” There may be 1,000 religious-freedom cases in the courts. “Yet,” wrote Lipsky recently, “I doubt Hillary Clinton or her party has spoken up for a single religious litigant.”
Blessings and religion were now flammable. When Joseph Lieberman, Orthodox and Zionist, ran for vice president, there was no anti-Semitism to speak of. This year, we read of Jewish journalists targeted by the alt-right; the Democratic National Committee using Bernie Sanders’ secular and often silent Judaism against him; Clinton supporters speaking of anti-Semitic dog whistles targeting her campaign; and it was Sanders himself, the first Jew to ever win a presidential primary, who (despite Clinton’s opposition) tried inserting into the Democratic platform a series of planks more critical of Israel than any in memory.
“Hillary is a firm supporter of Israel,” said Rabbi Salkin, “albeit not in a way that every Jew will appreciate, but within the spectrum of contemporary Zionist thought. She is not Black Lives Matter. She is not Jewish Voices for Peace. She may be a little bit to the right of J Street. There is no danger that she will walk away from the relationship.”
Rabbi Salkin acknowledged that “Many people who are supporting Trump are simply hurting — socially and economically; like characters in a Bruce Springsteen song. But we cannot romanticize all of those longings, because they come with a Yetzer Harah, the evil inclination — an inclination to blame and to hate.”
Fred Ehrman, a Trump supporter, is the opposite of what Rabbi Salkin imagined. Ehrman, a tall, elegant Upper West Sider, is a retired investment adviser and securities analyst who gives generously to charity, has held leadership positions in several Jewish organizations, and studies Daf Yomi, a folio of Talmud daily. He e-mailed us from Israel, where he will vote “Trump” by absentee ballot.
“Like many,” Ehrman writes, “I am totally unenthralled to say the least, with the choices for the office of the most powerful person in the world. Both candidates have very serious character flaws,” but he made his choice based on Supreme Court appointments; an economy in which we must close the “ever-widening gaps” between the haves and the have-nots; the necessary fight against “terrorism and rogue groups;” and “porous borders” that “must be closed to illegal immigration.”
Nevertheless, his absolute priority is “the well-being of the State of Israel.” After eight years of a Democratic administration (in which Clinton served) that has “been less than friendly” to Israel; moved closer to Iran; was unwilling to say “Islamic terrorism”; and was more inclined to pressure Israel than her enemies, it was time to move on.
Is there any hope? Spiewak, of the Flatbush COJO, said, “I just know that when it’s over it’ll be a relief. In my heart, I have to believe that whoever wins, Hashem Hu Ha'Elokim, God runs the world. We have to accept it.”