Picking Up the Pieces

Because of the traditional Jewish teaching that, before a boy’s BarMitzvah, whatever sins he might perform are debited, as it were, against his father’s account, the practice developed that, on the morning of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, the father would recite these words: "Baruh she’p’tarani mei’onsho shel zeh." Which translated to "Praised [be God] who has freed me from this one’s (his son’s) punishment."

These days, few parents actually recite those words. We tend to be a little more sensitive to the poor boy’s (and girl’s!) feelings. That phrase, however, has made it into modern Hebrew vernacular. Anytime one is freed of an onerous burden, it is common in Hebrew to say the "Barukh she’p’tarani" formula. It’s a classier way of saying “Phew, glad that’s over!”

Anticipating a very different result to this week’s presidential election, I was all prepared to bid a fond farewell to MSNBC and CNN and say a heartfelt Barukh she’p’tarani on election night. We have all had more than enough of being dragged through the political mud of this contest, and subjected to unprecedented coarseness, vulgarity, misogyny etc. masquerading as political discourse. I, like so many others and virtually all pollsters, believed that we were looking at a different result. But the American people have a way of making their will be known—pollsters be damned—and that’s exactly what they did. Donald Trump is the President-Elect of the United States, whether one likes that or not.

So, as we Jews have been asking since Talmudic times, what do we learn from this? Well, just a few thoughts…

In describing what living in Jewish-central Queens is like, I've often said that if I would, say, feel like having a shawarma for dinner, my biggest problem wouldn’t be where to find it, but rather deciding which of the four or five places to go to. I have my choice of large and wonderful Kosher supermarkets to shop at, three or four places where I can catch an afternoon Mincha or late Ma’ariv minyan on short winter days, multiple, quality options in Jewish education, and all the Jewish social services that I and my community could possibly hope for.

My first answer to that question of what I have learned is that I realize, more than ever before, that though I live in Queens, I don’t really live in America. I live in New York, which is conveniently close to America, but not quite the same. Same currency, same language, same electoral system, but radically different neighbors, priorities, values, and concerns.

What emerged from this week’s results was a picture of America that made crystal clear just how profoundly different the Northeast and the West Coast are from the rest of this country, and how very different the citizens of both Americas are.

If you’ve traveled at all in the United States, you know that—or at least you’ve intuited it. You surely don’t have to go too far out of New York City to feel and see that difference. Rural, upstate New York is another planet from here, and more than a few people I know have had the experience of traveling cross country and finding copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion for sale at roadside diners.

What this election showed in high definition, is that in rural, white, blue collar America, most citizens care much less about what gender can use which bathroom, or, for that matter, about international defense and trade agreements, than they do about the cost of their health care, or the availability of quality jobs and a decent living. Those of us who have four or five computers and numerous smartphones in our homes, and who revel in the wonders of this new age of the global village, don’t really understand at all the deep-seated frustrations of men and women who feel completely left out of the globalization process, and the technological changes it has fostered in the American economy.

When they hear us speak excitedly of a global economy, and how remarkably the American economy and the stock market have recovered from the Great Recession of 2008, they feel nothing but alienation from that experience, and condescension from political leadership and organizations that don’t understand their struggles. Republicans and Democrats alike have completely failed to get that message, and here in our little bubble in New York, we are completely removed from their reality. Until such time as the major political parties retool themselves to be more inclusive of America’s alienated and disenfranchised millions, they are, for all intents and purposes, out of business.

To that point, Donald Trump—either wittingly or unwittingly—actually defeated both major political parties this week. The Republican Party of Reagan, Bush and Lincoln no longer exists. He divorced them, and he got custody of America. And the Democratic Party that was, traditionally, a warm and welcoming haven for union members and blue-collar workers has almost completely ceded that role to Trump’s new “movement.” The times they are indeed a’changin’, but not in any way that we’ve seen before. American Presidential politics will never be the same.

There are many other points to be made, but for purposes of brevity I’ll suggest just one more that we ignore at our own peril.

We can debate all day and all night whether or not Donald Trump harbors anti-Semitic thoughts and feelings in his heart, and we are destined not to agree. But without a doubt, the commercial that was released by his campaign just a day before the election featured a voice-over track that utilized virtually every classic anti-Semitic trope in the playbook: international financiers like George Soros and Janet Yellin (and one or two other Jews) manipulating the American economy to enrich their own coffers at the expense of hard-working American workers… Der Sturmer couldn’t have written a more classically anti-Semitic script. Those greedy Jews are responsible for the sorry state of our economy, and of our lives…

Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump raised the use of political insult to an art form. The more outrageous he became, the less it seemed to matter to those who supported him. But as a Jew, especially during this week, when we marked the seventy-eighth anniversary of Kristallnacht, I cannot be silent, even though he is now my President.

My second answer to the “what do we learn from this?” question is that in case we had any doubts, anti-Semitism is alive and well in the American heartland, and it doesn’t take much at all to tap into it. Yes, we live in a time when virtually every barrier between Jew and non-Jew in this country has fallen. The daughter of a sitting American President (Chelsea Clinton) married a Jewish boy who wore a tallit under their intermarriage huppah. Joe Lieberman ran for Vice-President of this country, and his strongly identified Jewish identity was not an issue. Another strongly identified American Jew, Chuck Schumer, is poised to become the Senate Minority leader, and his religion is a non-issue. it’s pretty clear that, at least in the upper echelons of American society, we Jews are totally assimilated, and accepted.

But it is equally clear that, among large swaths of politically and socially alienated blue-collar Americans who are now asserting their strength in numbers large enough to sway a presidential election, we Jews are still “the other,” and a convenient target for their myriad discontents. No, Trump is not Hitler. Only Hitler was Hitler. But it doesn’t take too much imagination to draw a straight line between Germany in the thirties and America right now. Angry, alienated citizens blaming their situation in life on a convenient target… us. When the entire alt-right community in this country supports Donald Trump and considers his election a move in the right direction for America, my Jewish red flags begin to wave madly. So should yours.

Yes, this, too, is what I learned on Tuesday night. Here in my comfortable bubble in Queens, I live a rich and wonderful Jewish life. But like I said, I don’t live in America, at least not the one that elected Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump… I hope you prove to be a more noble President than you were a candidate, but that, I’m afraid, sets the bar far too low. I wish you success, for all of our sakes. May the awesome responsibilities of the office you will now assume transform the man more than the man the office, and may the America that I know and love endure. And last but certainly not least, may we all find the strength to remain faithful to the values and commitments that we believe make this country great.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.