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New Jersey Senate Candidate Cory Booker Knows His Torah. So What?

How the Newark mayor’s adopted Jewish identity—shaped by his Orthodox mentors—reflects his unique brand of politics

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Newark Mayor Cory Booker eats a piece of a large matzo that was baked during the grand opening of the headquarters for the Manischewitz company, June 14, 2011 in Newark, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP)
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Support for President Obama is sagging among a key Democratic voting bloc. Now his campaign has 11 months to win back Jewish voters.

Last May, when Cory Booker, the 44-year-old mayor of Newark, N.J., got up to address the graduating class of Yale University, he warned them he was going to do something out of the ordinary. “Today, I want to do something a little different than you were probably expecting from this Christian man from Newark, N.J.,” Booker began. “I want to do something that has probably never been done before at this university. I want to stand here as a Christian goy in all of my non-Jewish self and give you all a d’var Torah.”

It was a bold statement from a politician who may be most famous for rescuing a constituent from a burning building. Jews are no strangers to public officials appropriating the particulars of their faith for the purposes of political pandering, whether it’s former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin flashing a Star of David pendant, Texas Gov. Rick Perry lighting the menorah, or Vice President Joe Biden crediting Jewish social-justice activists with an outsized “85 percent” of the changes in popular attitudes toward gay rights. But this wasn’t a speech to a local Jewish Federation chapter or the annual AIPAC convention in Washington, where such rhetoric would be expected. This was a commencement address at one of America’s premier secular institutions of higher learning. And yet Booker decided to deliver it with a Jewish inflection, for seemingly no reason other than the fact that he wanted to.

Booker is often compared to another charismatic African-American Democrat: Barack Obama. In fact, the first person to have drawn the parallel may have been Booker himself. “Cory was obviously someone who was identified early on as someone who may be the first black president,” recalled Booker’s friend Ben Karp. “I was in the car with him in 1999,” Karp went on, “and I said to him, ‘Well, who do you think your rivals are? Harold Ford or Jesse Jackson Jr.?’ And Cory said to me, ‘Yeah, but there’s this guy in Chicago and his name is Barack Obama, and he’s super-talented.’ ”

On paper, the two men share many attributes. Both have distinguished academic pedigrees—Obama’s law degree is from Harvard, Booker’s is from Yale. Both began their political careers as community organizers. And both were deeply affected by their early encounter with the Jewish community. But like many of their surface similarities, this last one proves superficial. Each man found his way to very different parts of the Jewish world—a distinction that points to very real divergences in their personal and political outlooks.

Booker is the odds-on favorite in both tomorrow’s Democratic primary and the October special election to fill the Senate seat vacated at the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg last June. If he wins, he’ll be one step further along the path Obama blazed to the presidency. But to understand Cory Booker, and what separates him from so many of his peers, one needs to understand how his adopted Jewish identity reflects his political philosophy.

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In Chicago, the Obamas lived across the street from Congregation KAM Isaiah Israel, a hyper-intellectual Reform synagogue led by the radical progressive Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, whom Obama has called “not just a neighbor, but a dear friend.” A family friend of Wolf’s, the Democratic activist Bettylu Saltzman—whose father, Philip Klutznick, helped found the influential Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—organized the famous rally at which Obama declared his opposition to the Iraq war. She also introduced the young politician to David Axelrod, who would later mastermind his presidential campaign—one of several Jewish mentors, like the former congressman Abner Mikva and onetime Adlai Stevenson aide Newt Minow, who helped Obama on his way to the White House.

Booker’s initiation into the Jewish community could not have been more different. His entry point came through Chabad, the Hasidic sect known for the warmth of its Shabbat tables rather than its political activism, and for its celebratory approach to the Jewish faith. He developed close relationships with rabbis, but these were rooted in religious texts, not politics—which they often did not share. Indeed, the man who introduced Booker to Judaism at Oxford University, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, ran for Congress last November as a Republican. “I’ve been present a hundred times when Cory and Shmuley have hung out,” said Noah Feldman, who has known Booker since they were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford and is now professor at Harvard Law School, “and I’ve never heard them talk politics.”

A Baptist, Booker became the unlikely co-president of Boteach’s L’Chaim Society in 1992, recruiting students into the organization and delivering the weekly d’var Torah. Booker then co-founded a Jewish society at Yale with another Hasidic rabbi, Shmully Hecht. After moving to Newark and entering politics, Booker kept up regular chavrutot with his rabbinic mentors, expanding his Torah knowledge to the point that he now comfortably drops religious references without notes. As Jeffrey Goldberg recently wrote, “I’ve met most of the Senate’s other Jews, and I can say, with a high degree of certainty, that Booker knows more Torah than they do.”

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These contrasting origin stories are evident in how Obama and Booker relate to the Jewish community. When Obama addresses Jewish audiences, he comes across as a liberal rabbi. He presents Jewish values as synonymous with progressive politics and draws heavily upon American Jewish history, name-dropping noted civil rights rabbinic activists like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joachim Prinz. The American story, he seems to say, is the Jewish story—an ever-advancing universalistic ethic.

Booker, on the other hand, though committed to similarly liberal ends, presents more like his Orthodox mentors. He leans on traditional texts, from the weekly Torah portion to the Pirkei Avot, and is more likely to reference Hillel than Heschel. He keeps a stack of religious books on his desk, including an Artscroll Tanakh—the imprint of Orthodoxy’s most prolific publisher. When speaking Hebrew, his pronunciation sometimes slips into Ashkenazic, rather than the Sephardic-inflected tones of Modern Hebrew favored by non-Orthodox Jewry. And like his Chabad companions, Booker does not conflate Judaism with one particular political platform but rather plays up its spiritual uniqueness.

It would be tempting to dismiss these affectations as accidents of proximity, the incidental result of Obama and Booker being introduced to Judaism by different teachers. But they are not. They reflect deep-rooted divergences in both men’s political outlooks. There’s a reason, in other words, why each was drawn to different quarters of the Jewish world.

Barack Obama has built his political career on downplaying difference. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” he famously told the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” His rhetoric is relentless in its quest for common ground. Like the Judaism of his Chicago mentors, it is universal in its essence.

But where Obama conflates, Booker differentiates. He celebrates the sharp edges of identity that Obama works to soften—even when they are in tension with his own ideals. “He doesn’t try to weed out the particularities in favor of some general commonality,” said Richard Primus, a fellow Rhodes Scholar, now a professor of law at the University of Michigan. “One of his rare gifts is he wants to push people to be more of their own authentic selves, even if that makes them different from other people or from him.” Or, as Booker’s friend and confidant Rabbi Shmully Hecht puts it, “Cory’s a guy who can go into any room with any group of people and say: ‘Be more of who you are.’ ” He respects the dignity of difference, and the integrity of identity, which endears him even to those—like many in the Orthodox community—who do not share his progressive political views.

One of the first things Boteach said he studied with Booker when they met two decades ago at Oxford was the rabbinic explanation for why Moses—a simple shepherd—was selected to lead the Jewish people. “The Talmud asks, ‘Why was he chosen?’ ” Boteach recounted. It answers: “Because he once took out the flock to graze, and he came back and there was a little straggler that was missing. And he left the entire flock and went to get the straggler.” Why did this act qualify Moses to lead a nation? “I told Cory,” Boteach said, “the lesson is that he didn’t go back for the straggler—he went back for the entire flock. The flock was incomplete without every constituent member.”

For Booker, then, what makes America strong is not its homogeneity, but its diversity. He not only is unafraid of the country’s many religious, racial, and ethnic identities, he collects them. His immersion in Judaism is but one example. He is a churchgoing Baptist who teaches Torah like an amateur rabbi. He abstains from alcohol like Muslims and Mormons. He is a vegetarian who meditates and quotes Eastern religious texts. On his desk, he keeps the New Testament, the Tanakh, the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita, each book another identity he can inhabit. In other words, like Moses’ flock in the Talmudic understanding, Booker’s world is enriched and strengthened by each expression of individuality. As one of his favorite proverbs says, “Sticks in a bundle can’t be broken.” In Cory Booker’s imagination, America is that bundle, and he is its living embodiment.

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New Jersey Senate Candidate Cory Booker Knows His Torah. So What?

How the Newark mayor’s adopted Jewish identity—shaped by his Orthodox mentors—reflects his unique brand of politics