Like most religious holidays, Rosh Hashanah has a social component. It’s a time for getting together to celebrate the beginning of a sweet new year with symbolic foods like round challah and honey-dipped apple slices.
People who are hosting these celebrations usually have a vision of what they would like them to be — enjoyable events that create good memories for friends and family. What they don’t want them to be are battlegrounds.
With midterm-election campaigns firing up right around the Jewish New Year (which this year starts at sundown on Sept. 9), gatherings of family and friends may be fraught with tense political conversations that can erupt into full-fledged conflagrations about who’s worthy of a vote or what shape their support of Israel should take. Anecdotally, the 2016 elections brought about many angry conversations at dinner tables and other social gatherings that ended or severely affected friendships and familial relationships.
In an effort to help keep things civil during Rosh Hashanah (and help everyone to keep from adding one more item to their atonement list on Yom Kippur), the National Institute for Civil Discourse, based at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has some suggestions.
First of all, said Basant Virdee, the institute’s communications coordinator, those who host a celebration need to set aside the anxiety that might come from expecting a holiday gathering to proceed flawlessly, without conflict. Such unspoken anxiety can add fuel for tense conversations to flame into conflicts.
“There’s this vision of how your holiday season is going to go, and it’s happy and cozy and your family’s perfect,” she said. “That’s what you see when you look at holiday celebrations and commercials or when you’re buying things for the celebration.
“I really like to put people at ease by saying, ‘Lower that expectation that you begin with,’” she said.
Virdee added that it’s fairly natural for there to be some tension between family members of differing views, especially if they haven’t seen each other for a while, so having a less idealized expectation “helps people be less upset when everything doesn’t go very smoothly.”
That helps people weather the storm should problems arise, but whether you can prevent or defuse an argument depends on the situation.
Although it can seem awkward or overly formal to set ground rules for a family gathering, that may be your best preventive measure.
“It can be a family announcement at the beginning of a dinner when you know there are people with different beliefs present. ‘There are these tensions and this is our plan. We’re going to agree to not talk about these things or if these things come up, we’re going to let each other talk and not fight about it,’ ” Virdee said. “So it’s sort of a ‘let’s not repeat last year’ announcement.”
On the other hand, a tense disagreement could flare up unexpectedly and suddenly. In that case, she advised to stay calm. Virdee said to show respect for those whose views conflict with yours and others at your gathering by reminding all parties, “The purpose of us getting together is really to bond, to do things we can all connect over, and this particular issue is something that’s difficult for all of us.”
And be prepared if this approach doesn’t always work.
“If it were easy, it wouldn’t be such an issue,” she added.
The problem, Virdee said, is that most people don’t see the many levels behind a spoken message, including unspoken assumptions that color and spur our reactions.
“Don’t expect perfection from your family,” she said. “Just because you’re all related doesn’t mean you have to have the same views. Sometimes that’s what’s most upsetting. ‘You’re my brother. How could you believe that?’ Whereas if it was a neighbor, you might say, ‘Well, that’s the neighbor’s view and they can believe what they want to believe.’ Somehow, when it’s our family, we think, ‘No. They’re related to me — we’re in the same family unit or the same tribe. They need to believe what I believe.’”
Asked whether the institute has any information to back up the idea that social gatherings have become more fraught with political battles since the 2016 campaign, she pointed out that incivility in politics may be a different topic from incivility among family and friends.
“I do think that, after the 2016 election, there was a bleeding over of that incivility within politics into our homes, since it was such a volatile and uncivil campaign and people had very strong views one way or the other,” Virdee said
The “self-righteous indignation” witnessed during the 2016 campaign, she said, “seems very American to me.” Individualism is “a defining trait” of U.S. culture.
“It’s difficult then to contain that and (show) manners or mutual respect or civility,” Virdee said.
Virdee, who provides training on this subject through the institute, said that we are not generally taught the art of communication, of active listening, and that the best way to defuse these kinds of situations is to study what’s really going on in a tense conversation, to put one’s ego on the sidelines and hear what someone else is saying.
It’s difficult to reduce all this to a few tips for a holiday gathering. Instead, she said, it’s like learning about personal finance.
“You can’t just tell someone about budgeting in one workshop and then, that’s all they need to know,” she said. “There’s so much more.” JN