Can we avoid Mideast conflict at holiday dinner tables?

My wife and I are expecting my mother and her new husband to join our family for the High Holy Days. My dad passed away almost nine years ago and we were glad when my mom found a man to share her life. He takes good care of her, is attentive to my kids, and is, for the most part, pretty good company. However, my mom’s husband is an incredibly ardent supporter of Israel and extremely vocal in his point of view. My wife and I do not share his black-and-white view of the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors and we have heard him say things we consider to be insensitive and even offensive in regard to Muslims. We will have other friends and family, including a number of kids, over for Rosh Hashanah dinner and to break the fast on Yom Kippur. We do not want our High Holy Day observances to be overwhelmed with political talk of any kind, much less the militaristic, racist bluster of my stepfather. — Worried in Berkeley

Dear Worried: As you can probably understand, Mensch has been determined to stay away from questions pertaining to recent events connected to the situation between Israel and its neighboring populations. Like you, Mensch does not want to get sidetracked nor bogged down in ill-tempered arguments.  However, your question is really about family dynamics and how they invariably impinge on (even as they enhance) holiday celebrations.

The Jewish High Holy Days are a wonderful time of year. Indeed, one of Mensch’s favorite things about being Jewish is our marking of a new year at the beginning of fall. After all, this time of year marks much change. Summer travel and adventure comes to an end. Children begin school in a new grade. Young adults leave home for college and new professional endeavors are undertaken. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur give us space to consider our inner and outer lives during this time of transition. We suffer through our fast and, for some of us, way too much shul even as we enjoy the blessings of family, Torah, and kugel (not necessarily in that order).

Which brings us to your situation, about which Mensch is of two minds. On the one hand, your stepfather sounds somewhat unpleasant. High Holy Day celebrations are not an ideal place for interjecting personal political opinions and offensive language and it’s not likely he’s going to win hearts or influence minds among a Berkeley crowd that hasn’t eaten in 25 hours. On the other hand, we’re Jews, and maybe your stepfather has a role to play as the guy who stirs the pot and gives the rest of us someone to talk about on the way home?

In the 1980s, Mensch would spend the midday break between Yom Kippur services in the shul library with his grandfather, partaking in a discussion group. At that time, the first (or second? or third?) intifada was underway and many were disturbed by the televised images of Palestinian teenagers throwing rocks at Israeli troops. Some saw the Israeli army as overzealous in its (sometimes lethal) response, many expressed conflicting emotions, and year after year, Si Green, a gravelly voiced shul member with towering Zionist leanings, would pound his fist on the table and nearly shout, “Israel must defend itself against these animals.” Mensch is disheartened at how little times have changed a quarter-century on. Or maybe not.

Mensch’s grandfather is gone and likely Si Green is as well. Now it’s our children’s turn to forge their own experiences around Jewish life and tradition. For most of our children, the relationship between Jews and the State of Israel already is, and will continue to be, a fundamental and complex aspect of their Jewish identities. As citizens of a rapidly moving and interconnected world, it is crucial they develop informed opinions.

You can ask your stepfather, or ask your mother to ask him, to keep the politics out of your High Holy Day observances, for the sake of the children.  But Mensch recommends you say nothing and let the fur fly in Berkeley, for the sake of tradition … and the children.

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at advicemensch@gmail.com.