Joseph C. Kaplan
Joseph C. Kaplan

The Art of Avoidance, at Least for the Present

A column of mine that received a (relatively) good number of comments, both positive and negative, expressed disappointment over Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s travel to and from the inaugural ball on Friday evening after Shabbat had begun (“Privilege and Responsibility a la Ivanka and Jared,” January 16, 2017). A very close friend — indeed, an unofficial member of the family — also commented, but not to agree or disagree.

Rather, she thought it was all irrelevant.

“This time you lost me,” she said. “Who gives a hoot about whether they had permission to drive on Shabbos to the inaugural of an incompetent who is now already en route to driving this country into some new version of 1939? The situation is such a horror story that this feels like utter narishkeit compared to what we are dealing with.” (Expletive deleted.) As we emailed some more, it became clear that her complaint could be boiled down to this: in times like these, it’s important that you write about politics.

This is not the first or last time I was either told I should write about partisan political issues (which I haven’t) or asked why I didn’t. I’m happy to explain, but before doing so, some full disclosure for those who don’t know me personally. I’m a 1960s liberal, who most often supports Democratic policies, programs, and candidates. I therefore was surprised and terribly disappointed — indeed, angry — at the results of the last presidential election, and in my view, things are getting worse every day. (I understand many others disagree, but that’s not the point of this column.)

And as a bleeding-heart liberal, I’ve always been quite outspoken on political matters; just ask anyone who’s ever shared a Shabbat meal or carpooled with me. While I try very hard to be civil and listen to and consider the other side (try is the operative word), I’ve always spoken and written about issues I care about, including political ones, with the passion and intensity of the litigator I’ve been for many years.

So why no politics in these pages?

One answer is that I rarely think I have anything new to add to that discussion. For example, I’m relatively knowledgeable, care deeply, and have strong opinions about our country’s health care system. But what can I say that Paul Krugman, Chuck Schumer, Ezekiel Emanuel, or Rachel Maddow haven’t said already — and probably better than I? I’m really not interested in being merely an echo.

Some rare times, though, like with Jared and Ivanka, I will opine on topics relating to the national scene. But only when I think my angle — which in that case concentrated on their responsibility to Shabbat observers and not whether what they did was halachically permissible and/or what it said about their Orthodoxy — is not one I saw elsewhere. (Note: while I did see my angle discussed on Face Book and Jewish online groups in connection with their flight to Saudi Arabia on a Friday night, that was after my column was published.)

I understand, of course, that I’m not always original. But I try hard to look at topics from what I hope is a different, often personal, perspective. That’s one reason I like to use my distinctive life experiences as jumping off points to muse about non-page-one topics like kindness, friendship, or decision-making, discuss Jewish topics of concern to my own particular community, or recall specific events or people and their impact on who I am.

And there’s a second reason. Until November 8, I was a real news junkie. This included reading numerous articles by many conservative thinkers and writers, like Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Sowell, and William Kristol, whose work is published in the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, and the National Review. That all was courtesy of a close and very conservative friend, who spent untold hours trying to expand my horizons. While his attempt to convert me to his political ideology bore no fruit, he was successful in having me spend, over the last 12 years, probably more time in the conservative echo chamber than in the liberal one.

And then came November 8. From my perspective, the results were devastating. (Again, not my point here.) Some who agree with me reacted by speaking up loudly and participating in anti-administration activities, and I admire them for that. But for good or bad, my reaction was the opposite. With all the noise generated in the past two years over the election and its frightening results, I decided to take a personal, partial timeout from the political arena. And so, for example, I asked my friend to pause his attempts to educate me in the true religion, resulting in a much thinner email in-box and more time to read Lehrhaus articles.

Oh, I still read the New York Times daily and watch cable news from time to time if something really important is happening, like the Comey testimony, the health care debate, or the president’s trip to Israel. But it’s not like before. Now, I’ll skim articles and op-eds that I once would have read carefully and watch only a few minutes of the news before turning my attention to really important things like Madame Secretary (now that’s a politician I like!) or the audiobooks I listen to at double speed. And while I still express my political opinions from time to time, I will more often shy away from discussions, either in person or online, that in earlier years I would have actively participated in. And in that vein, although tempted otherwise, I’ve tried to keep this column partisan politics-free. That may change, of course. But not quite yet.

Perhaps I’m taking an easier — or more cowardly — path. Or perhaps it’s simply an attempt to maintain my composure and sanity and keep my blood pressure down in scary times. But no matter, that’s where I, and this column, are for the time being. So let me tell you that Moosehead Lake story. Nah, I’ll save it for another column. Maybe.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.