SKOKIE, ILL. — Politics and economics were on the menu Tuesday at Ken’s Diner, a kosher restaurant on Dempster Street, the commercial heart of the Chicago suburb of Skokie. With a widely held, well-deserved reputation for the world’s best hamburgers, Dan Hechtman, co-owner and brother of the eponymous Ken, measures the nation’s economic health through his customers’ habits.
“Customers who came three times a week now come one time a week,” he said. “Guys who were making $60,000 or $70,000 are now making $20,000 or $30,000. We still count them as working but this is a silent number that isn’t reflecting how bad things are.”
An observant Jew who sends his oldest daughter to college and his two school-age children to Jewish day schools, Hechtman says that many other observant Jews are feeling the pinch of the bad economy because of the extra expense of private school. “Jews will put their lives on the line for their children’s education. We get scholarships, loans and live on credit cards. We feel it more than anyone else.”
If Hechtman and other observant Jews carry an additional burden in these tough economic times, he shared with many other Americans a disgust with the negativity of the current campaign and a sense that Democrats led by President Obama are ultimately responsible.
“Obama ran on a platform of ending the war and change,” Hechtman said. “He never got us out of the war and change is what we have left in our pocket.”
For Democratic activist Leah Yarrow, Skokie was a battleground where she was seeking to gain ground. Interviewed in the campaign office of Daniel Biss, a Jewish Democratic candidate for the Illinois House of Representatives, Yarrow said she spent her day driving voters to the polls and taking lunches to poll workers.
Although her candidate’s numbers looked good Tuesday afternoon, Yarrow said that the general mood of the electorate had shifted decisively against the Democrats and President Obama.
“I canvassed for Obama two years ago,” Yarrow recalled. “I was inspired and had more faith in the electorate — even with people who disagreed with me. “Now I think there’s a divisiveness. People are quick to be divided and be angry.”
That polarization is especially acute in the Jewish community and is particularly visible in the 9th Congressional District that includes Skokie. There, Republican challenger Joel Pollak has accused incumbent Democrat Jan Schakowsky of being too supportive of the Obama administration’s policy on Israel. Noting that Schakowsky has positive reviews from the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, Yarrow said she is dismayed by Pollak’s critique, casting it as a cynical attempt to pit Jew against Jew. “I’ve been horrified as a Jewish American at the way Mr. Pollak seized on this issue to divide the Jewish community,” she said.