by Susan Reimer-Torn
I SET OFF forewarned: It is just 5 days before the inauguration, the mood in DC will be divisive and tense. But a family celebration brings us to the capital, a circumcision, according to the law of Abraham, cannot wait. To embellish the adventure, my husband ET arranges meetings with old-time college friends who, mostly retired, have settled in the area.
ET’s former classmate from half a hundred years ago at Dartmouth is now retired from the State Department. I will call him Stan, the Career Security Man. A decorated war hero who risked his life and those of others for his country, the man is, in his later years, unraveling. Stan who holds the highest level of security clearance assures me that Trump — due to non-virtue of character and tarnished by association – could never have applied. Stan, who’s led many a covert military operation, is so destabilized by recent developments that he can no longer find his way around DC in broad daylight. He doesn’t need to see the allegedly compromising tapes. He knows that Putin has everything he needs to keep our 45th President squirming under threat of exposure. He’s trying to find his way back to our hotel, fazed by an uncooperative pattern of one way streets. “To tighten the screws, the girls were surely no older than 14,” he lets me know. I don’t think he gets his own double-entendre.
Gentleman Jim’s forebears came over on the Mayflower. He has an aristocratic air, with snow-white hair, piercing blue eyes, the authority of an investment banker and the gentility of a connoisseur of Ming vases. His vote for Trump, he wants me to know, was not so much an endorsement of a boorish social climber as a gesture against Hillary, she who sanctions those late-stage abortions. I ask him if he believes that any mother-to be — or medical practitioner, for that matter — takes this extreme measure without grievous cause. He sees abortion rights activists as heartless baby killers and himself as a crusader for the lives of defenseless children. In that case, I respond, he surely has to be in favor of gun control. The conversation blithely switches from a disingenuous skewing of statistics to dessert. “For once, I am pro-choice,” he jokes.”Will it be creme caramel or a cake of flourless chocolate?”
Day Three It is Morning
Next we meet with Father Patrick, a formerly successful oil trader, who decided in late midlife to convert from Church of England to Catholicism, enroll in an arch-conservative seminar and spend his life as a paris priest in a long swirling frock. Father Patrick not only believes that Trump will further the righteous agenda, he is convinced that God is on his side. Do I agree? I resort, as I often do when communication on complex matters falters, to a Talmud tale.
One day, a roomful of rabbinic sages have a showdown. More precisely, it is everyone in the academy versus a certain Rabbi Eliezer. In a fierce confrontation over the debated purity of an oven, the dissenters are in fact dramatizing the case against ideological purity. Eliezer insists the oven cannot take on impurity, while the others insist that it can. The embattled Eliezer invokes magical powers downloaded directly from the Divine as proof. With his magical authority, he makes a tree jump across the road, he has a river run backwards. In his fury, he thunders that if this ungodly opposition continues, the walls of the study house will cave in. As they begin falling, Rabbi Joshua avoids calamity with a counter charm, but the assembled are unconvinced. The walls, we are told remain in this state of half collapse; neither upright, nor fallen, they imperil with their precarity.
Even when Rabbi Eliezer conjures a voice from heaven to argue for his side, he is over-ruled. The message is clear: Even among believers, divine authority can be bested by a majority rule of wise men with subtle and discerning minds and the capacity to reason. In a matter of ritual purity, it is interpretation, not ideological purity, that will henceforth prevail. There is a delightful little coda to this tale of cultural evolution: We are told that God himself, witnessing the scene, laughs in delight over the cleverness with which his children have surpassed him.
I add a little coda of my own: Rabbi Gamliel who is among the opponents of monolithic thinking, was a mentor to Jesus. Make of this, dear Father Patrick, what you and your God will.
Day Four Nightfall
The last evening in DC, we meet with Kareem, a well-born and wealthy Palestinian. His grandfather was once, in the before time, mayor of Jerusalem, he himself an economic adviser to Abbas before it all descended into chaos. There was a time when we two chatted amiably. I imagine that our shared dread over the soon-to be president’s enabling of Netanyahu, our love of a multi-faith Jerusalem will give us common cause.
At the dinner table, I sense the tension: something in the feeling tone has changed. When he asks for ideas on how to produce an exhibition of emerging Palestinian artists, I make a fatal error. I tell him how the Manhattan JCC hosts an Other Israel festival; that might be the right time to enlist the gallery downstairs. My possibly insensitive suggestion is met with resentment. Palestinians don’t want to be patronized, it is not they who are Other. They don’t want to be co-opted, they certainly don’t want to be OCCUPIED. I get it, they want to do it on their own. Fair enough, it just seems a little incongruous to solicit my advice.
They don’t want us. Not there. Not anywhere. Not at all. He’s anti-Zionist, meaning he does not believe in a state where Jews are automatically welcomed as citizens. He would like us to forfeit a Jewish majority. That’s the kind of two-state solution he imagines. Jews will have no priority or safety net and I realize for the first time, that I disagree.I take leave of him, begging off with a mounting headache.
The other night, Gentleman Jim and I did exchange a few more words after tasting one another’s desserts. He told me that Second Amendment-supporters don’t want more Sandy Hooks any more than most pro-choice activists relish late term abortion. Inflexibility comes from fear of total abdication, we dig in too deep lest we find ourselves on the slippery slope towards ever-tightening regulations. As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s hard to find a territory of the mind or the map more tyrannized by the terror of giving an extra inch.
Nuanced debate, the multi-layered application of argument, the give and take of negotiation and intellectual jousting … I wonder if it is now gone from the world? The walls are caving in, but they have not yet fallen. What, if anything, holds up this imperiled world? How will any of us find our ways home? The hotel lobby is already filling up with inaugural guests. The price for everything is tripling. I’m eager to get out of here.
It is hard to imagine that God is still laughing.
Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Nice Girl: A Memoir of Rupture and Return, published by our Blue Thread Books.