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The Schmooze

Five ways to run a presidential debate like a Shabbat dinner table

Susan Page, a “Midwest nice” native of Wichita, Kan. asked some good questions during Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate. But when it came to holding her ground against overtalking from Vice President Mike Pence, she failed miserably.

While the ground rules stipulated equal speaking time for each candidate, Pence, who delivered each answer in the form of a 15-paragraph essay, proved difficult to stop once started. Senator Kamala Harris too ran over her time, especially when she realized the moderator was far too — well, moderate.

Time and again, Page tried in vain to shut Pence down with a polite, “Thank you, Mr. Vice President,” which only seemed to encourage him and enrage viewers, who took to social media begging for better-run a debate.

The answer, of course, is to set each presidential debate at a Shabbat dinner table.

As any Jew who has ever mentioned a single current event at a gathering of more than three people knows, on Shabbat the phrase “thank you” does not exist, there’s no such thing as being too emotional and all talking is overtalking.

We understand this solution isn’t for everyone. We’ve even heard (although we can’t quite believe it) that in some quarters Jews are considered “pushy” or “obnoxious” for our conversational style. But if America wants better debate, run them according to these five Shabbat table rules:

1. No more “Thank you, Mr. Vice President.”

Non-Jews compare an ideal conversation to a game of tennis, in which one ball is swatted gracefully back and forth. Jewish conversation is dodgeball, with wrenches.

At your next debate, Ms. Page, instead of “Thank you,” try: “Hey, am I gonna get a word in edgewise?” or “Enough already!”, or — especially if guests are visiting — “Never once in our 35 years of marriage have you stopped to listen.”

But the surefire Shabbat table technique to get someone to stop talking is simple: talk louder. But, you ask, if everyone talks over everyone won’t the dinner table become a cacophony of simultaneous screaming voices that cancel one another out? Yes it will. Is that a problem?

2. No segues.

When’s the last time you sat down to Shabbat dinner and heard someone turn the discussion by saying, “You’ve given me a perfect segue into my next topic?”

Exactly, never.

Actual scientific research shows that hallmarks of Jewish communication include “abrupt shifts of topics, unhesitating introduction of new topics and persistence in reintroducing a topic if others don’t immediately pick up on it.” In other words, if you don’t like what people are talking about, you can feel free to introduce a new topic ASAP. The more unrelated, the sooner your interlocutors will understand that you found what they were saying to be boring. Connecting different strands of conversation is a sign of weakness at the Shabbat table and should never be attempted.

Yet the key to any Shabbat conversation, however hectic it may seem, is balance. The unhesitating introduction of new topics must be matched by equal persistence in reintroducing old ones. “Let it go!” may have ended up on Broadway, but it started at a Shabbat table.

3. No, you can’t “finish your point.”

In the 3,000-year history of Shabbat meals, no one has ever finished a point. King David reportedly got close once — that’s why they made him king. You will be interrupted at the end, so make your point up front, leave the long stories for people who care, and — Ms. Page — when a guest asks, “Can I have 15 seconds?” the correct answer is, “You just had two minutes!”

4. Answer the question!

Shabbat rules: you are allowed to scream, “Answer the question!” as much and as often as you want. If the person still refuses to answer the question, the moderator can choose from the following standard Shabbat table responses: a) ”What are you afraid of?” b) “Stop changing the subject, you always change the subject.” c) “Am I talking to myself? Can you not hear me?”

5. If you see a fly, say a fly

Did Ms. Page see the fly land on Pence’s head? Of course she did. Did she say anything? Of course not. If the fly lands on a Shabbat guest you care about, like a work colleague or your child’s Hinge date, the correct response is to lean over, say, “Eiuww, stay still,” and swat the bug right out of their hair.

(Feel free right after to comment, “Your scalp’s a little dry” or “Mmm, you smell good.”)

But if you don’t like the guest, do what will now be known as “The Momala.” Don’t say a word, let the thing nest there, lay its eggs, whatever and— this is a must — laugh about it all the way home.

The TLDR: Anyone who thinks civil discourse died recently should just please attend a Shabbat dinner, where they can see that nice Jewish families have been feasting over its cold dead corpse for millennia.

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.

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