|Cory Booker talks to us at the offices of the Jewish Standard in Teaneck. Jerry Szubin|
Often it’s easy to pick out a non-Jewish candidate trawling for Jewish votes.
He’ll show up at a shul wearing a fancy crocheted kippah with his name spelled out along the edge; it’ll be pinned to cover the bald spot precisely. (Really, if you’re going to wear one, you might as well benefit from it, right?)
He’ll throw out Yiddishisms with abandon – mishuganeh here, mensch there, oy, oy everywhere. He’ll talk about getting a bagel with a schmear. (Do you know any Jew who has ever eaten one of those? Me neither.)
In order to show his deep, lifelong sense of connection to the Jewish community, he’ll pander so hard it must make his teeth hurt.
But if you are looking for an actual Judeophile, a non-Jew whose connection to the Jewish world is longstanding, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and clearly real, you would have to direct your gaze in another direction.
You’d find yourself looking at Cory Booker -New Jersey’s junior U.S. senator – who visited the Jewish Standard’s offices last week.
Instead of flinging out Yiddish malapropisms, he’ll quote from the machzor, in Hebrew; he’ll cite biblical chapter and verse, again in Hebrew, and he’ll launch into a spirited explanation of why he insisted on being a co-president rather than the only president of Oxford’s L’Chaim Society.
But before we get to Mr. Booker’s ties to the Jewish world, let’s explore his connections to Bergen County.
Cory Booker’s first memories come from here; he was born in Washington, D.C. in 1969, but he moved to Harrington Park when he was just a few months old. His was one of a very few African-American families around.
From the time he was an infant, Mr. Booker lived through history.
His father, Cary, went to Fisk University, and his mother, Carolyn, to North Carolina Central University; both are historically black colleges. Both were among the first black people hired by IBM (his mother in human resources and his father in sales). They were both civil rights activists – Carolyn Booker, who was a schoolteacher during the first March on Washington in 1963, used her entire summer vacation to help organize it, her son said.)
They also were devoted parents who wanted to bring up their family – which includes an older son, Cary Jr. – in a nice house in the suburbs. Black people were not welcome, though. “My mom would find a house in northern Bergen County; the realtors would see that it’s a black family and tell them that the house was sold,” Mr. Booker said. “My parents ended up going to the Fair Housing Council of Northern New Jersey.” The council would send out a white couple, who would pretend to be interested in the house. “It was an amazing story,” Mr. Booker said. “They found a house in Harrington Park – 123 Norma Road – and a test couple, who was white, bid on it. And then, on the day of the closing, the white couple didn’t show, but my parents did. They brought a lawyer – a volunteer – who by the way was Jewish.
“The real estate agent was so angry that he punched the lawyer and set his dog on my dad.” (The dog was there because the real estate agent worked at home; it was his family’s dog.) “A melee breaks out. Eventually, the agent breaks down and starts crying. He said that he was afraid to sell them the house – he was pressured not to sell to them, and he told them ‘You’ll ruin the town if you move in.'” He was afraid of the phenomenon called “white flight.”
“My joke is that every time my dad told the story, the dog got bigger,” Mr. Booker added.
“The family that owned the house turned out to be a good family, and they were very apologetic. They sold the house to my parents.”
After that dramatic beginning, the family settled in, eventually moving to a bigger house in town. “It was the best community you could imagine,” Mr. Booker said. “It was incredibly nurturing.”
It’s not as if people did not notice that he didn’t look exactly like them. Because the only exposure most of his neighbors had to black culture was what they saw on television, “a lot of good kids had warped ideas of African Americans,” Mr. Booker said. “If I had a dollar for every time someone asked to touch my hair…
“We were living in an age where the school system was not diverse.”
Life, he saw, was complicated. “Growing up, you see the beauty of the town, the goodness of the people – class mothers, soccer coaches – and also lots of incidents that remind you that you are different. Whenever we drove over the bridge to Washington Heights, my brother and I would be pulled over by the police, who assumed we were there to buy drugs.
“We still don’t live in an equal world.”
Cory and Cary Booker went to Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan. “When I go back to my home community I feel such a debt of gratitude to Harrington Park and to Old Tappan,” he said. “The teachers, the coaches. I don’t know where I’d be right now if it weren’t for the extraordinary love that people had for my brother and me. We were the sons of two working parents. I would eat at other people’s houses; they’d watch over us, shuttle us back and forth in carpools. The level of goodness…
“I had an amazing eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Walker, the guy who taught me to play basketball. I had a terrible fear of speaking in front of people at school and he gave me confidence. Two nights a week he would hold a coffeehouse, a social time, on his own time, with his own dollar. He would spin his own records. That was the forum where I learned to socialize, where I got the courage to ask a girl to dance, and where I learned to deal with rejection.” (Yes, the invitation and the rejection were direct cause and effect, he confirmed.)
Another of his favorite memories is the first record he ever bought for himself, when he rode his bicycle to Flipside Records in neighboring Closter. “I am embarrassed to say it was a Supertramp album, ‘Breakfast in America,'” he laughed.
Mr. Booker’s father owned a restaurant on Teaneck Road in Teaneck when his older son was in middle school. He called it Cab’s Kitchen – it was named after the initials of his sons, Cory Anthony and Cary Alfred. “I am a vegetarian now, but it had the best ribs I ever tasted,” Mr. Booker said. “It was a great experience for me. Everyone in America should have to wait tables, should have a direct service job.” The skills he learned ranged from cleaning chicken to meeting “lots of folks from all different kinds of backgrounds.”
Mr. Booker’s father died almost exactly a year ago, just two days before Mr. Booker won his race for New Jersey’s senate seat. His mother just moved to Las Vegas, where she has family.
“I had a Norman Rockwell childhood,” he said. “It is hard for me to communicate to kids how blessed in this world they are to grow up in such a loving and nurturing place.”
When he was asked if New Jersey’s unique home rule system, which grants unprecedented autonomy to the state’s many small towns, makes it easier for them to remain tight-knit, the conversation took a brief detour into public policy.
No, it doesn’t, he said heatedly. “We have to pay too many taxes. You can preserve the state’s character and culture and still have a lot more shared services, which would greatly reduce the cost of government.” If one police department can serve both the south Bronx and the Upper East Side of Manhattan, surely one department could serve more than one culturally similar small Bergen County town. And he knows that regionalized schools work because he got such a good education at Northern Valley, which is one of two high schools in a regionalized system, he added.
After Mr. Booker graduated from Northern Valley Old Tappan, he went to Stanford University, where he earned both an undergraduate and a master’s degree. Then he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. It was there that he discovered Judaism.
“It’s hard to understand love,” Mr. Booker said. “Can you understand why you fell in love with your first boyfriend? Why you were attracted to him? I always ask my mom why she fell in love with my dad. My dad said that for him it was luck and his good fortune.
“With me, with Judaism, it was a love story.”
It is important to note here that Mr. Booker is not Jewish. He did not convert to Judaism, nor will he. But that does not detract in any way from his love for it, or from his deep understanding of it. He grew up going to the Centennial AME church in Closter, “just a little down Closter Dock Road from Flipside Records,” and now he belongs to a Baptist church in Newark, where he lives, and where he was mayor from 2006 until last year. “I am a Christian who believes that we need to have a world that exalts the highest of human values, and Judaism is a foundational faith. Before Christianity and Islam there were Moses and the Torah.
“My faith is deepened and enriched by Judaism. Because of my studies of Judaism I have studied Hinduism and I have begun studying Islam. It has made me a much better Christian.”
So how did he fall in love with Judaism?
He had met many Jews as he grew up.”I went to my share of bar mitzvahs, but I had never studied Judaism from its spiritual and intellectual foundation, and I never was introduced to the faith,” he said. “But I get to Oxford, I’m a 22-year-old kid, and during my first week a young lady invites me to have dinner with her. At the last second, she writes me a note about where to meet her.
“She says, ‘Meet me at the L’Chaim Society.'” Mimicking himself, Mr. Booker pronounces it Le-Chaym, as if it rhymes with Auntie Mame. “I asked how to pronounce it, and finally someone told me,” he said ruefully.
“I remember stumbling around to find this building – it was on the third floor – and I finally get to the door, I swing it open, and I walk in.” What he saw was entirely alien to him. “All I could think of was a movie my mother had taken me to see. ‘Yentl.'”
He saw men in long coats and black hats, “and really bad tailoring. The coats all had strings hanging out of them.
“It was one of those moments when everything stops,” he continued. “Everyone looks at you, and I can read everyone’s mind. They’re all thinking what is this large black guy doing here?
“And I’m thinking that too.
“And then a very frum-looking woman comes over to me, and says ‘Are you Cory Booker?’ And I say yes, and she says, ‘I’m sorry.’ The woman I was supposed to meet had stood me up, and this woman was giving me that message. So I turn to leave, and then she asked me the question that changed my life. She said, ‘Would you stay for dinner?’
“Abraham was said to be favored by God because he kept his tent open on all sides. My favorite Torah image is when Abraham was sitting there, in pain, because he had just been circumcised, and God hadn’t blessed him yet. And then three strangers come, and despite his pain he gets up and runs to greet them. And then he gets his blessing.”
That kind of goodness – chessed, Mr. Booker called it – was what he felt emanating from that young woman. That was Debbie Boteach, then 18 or 19 years old, the wife of the head of the L’Chaim Society, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. (The L’Chaim Society is Oxford’s Chabad house.)
“She said come sit with us, so I ended up at the only empty seat at any table. It had been hers. She gave me her seat.
“I happened to be sitting next to Shmuley, the most meshugah rabbi in America. He’s 25, I’m 22. We start talking. We talk about tolerance. Both of us had written and talked about how tolerance is cynical. It says ‘I will stomach your right to be different, and if you vanish off the face of the earth I won’t care.’
“It shouldn’t be tolerance. It should be love. Love is a recognition that I need you, that we can learn from each other, that your difference makes me better. We are talking about this common value, and by the end of the night I’m carrying the Torah, and dancing with it. I had a kippah on.
“It was Simchat Torah, a holiday I’d never heard of.
“The next day my love was tested. I sat down with some friends – one Jewish, one not – and I said I was blown away with joy. I had met someone who shared my values about tolerance and goodness and mercy, who understood my feelings about tolerance versus love. They said ‘Do you know that you were in a Chabad house? Did you know that they are right-wing wackos?’ They castigated me for socializing with them.
“That did not resonate with what I had experienced, so I decided to confront the rabbi. That led to one of the more interesting conversations of my life. We talked for a good two hours – imagine, this was a rabbi on Simchat Torah! I realized that he and I did not agree on everything.
“I told him a story about Alex Haley and Malcolm X. The two of them were on a subway together, and a white, conservatively dressed businessman walked over to Malcolm and said, ‘Mr. X, I do not agree with everything you say, but I like you and I respect your style.’ Malcolm stood up, and everyone got scared. They all held their breath. And then Malcolm said, ‘There are no two people who agree on everything.’
“So we agreed that most people think that love is just good feelings, just affection, but love really necessitates knowledge. How can you love someone you don’t really know? We said that the tragedy of man is that man knows so little of man. So we said, ‘Why don’t we do an experiment in love?’ So we agreed to exchange books from each other’s culture. That started an incredible odyssey into Judaism for me.
“The first book I gave him was Malcolm X’s autobiography, and he gave me ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel. I started devouring this stuff. When I started reading about Hillel and Maimonides, great pluralistic thinkers, that just sent me inevitably to the Torah.
“Parallel to that study was my discovering the majesty of Shabbat, which the three Abrahamic cultures share. It is meant to be a house of prayer for many nations. But most of us don’t stop, don’t slow down.
“Sitting around a Shabbat table was so powerful for me that I started bringing friends to the Chabad house, not only Jewish friends but also Christians and Muslims. By the time my first year was over, I was not only studying Torah. The L’Chaim Society had mushroomed to become the second largest society by membership at Oxford. We were bringing in international speakers, often doing it in conjunction with the Oxford Union.”
At the end of that year, “Shmuley comes to me, and says ‘You evidence the universal idea of Noahide law, and I want you to be president of this organization.’ I said, ‘I knew you were crazy before, but now I know you’re meshugah.’ I said no.
“So we argued, and I said that I would do it only if there were a Jewish co-president. So I became the first goy in the history of the world to be co-president of a Chabad house.
“That led to a wonderful second year.
“Shmuley did not proselytize,” he continued. “It is not a proselytizing faith. The aim was not to make me a Jew. The Torah is a book of ethics.”
There are two ethical pillars, Mr. Booker said. “The first value is the one that Abraham showed, sitting in his tent, when the three angels came up to him. That was goodness, kindness, and mercy.
“And then, what does he do but argue?” As soon as he has seen off the angels, God told Abraham about the impending destruction of Sodom, and Abraham argued with God, trying to save the city. “The audacity!” Mr. Booker said. “The chutzpah!
“So the second pillar is justice. No matter what, no matter who, you stand up and fight for justice.
“Yom Kippur is the anniversary of the second time Moses comes down from the mountain.” Mount Sinai, that is, with the tablets God had given him. “The first time he comes down, he sees the people with the Golden Calf. Moses says to God, ‘If you destroy these people, erase me from this book. I don’t want any part of you.'” Again, someone argued with God – and won.
“A side anecdote,” Mr. Booker added. “They kept the broken tablets with the whole ones in the ark of the covenant. You gotta have everything, the good, the bad, the ugly, the shameful.
“That’s true in life, and in American history. Slavery, the subjugation of women, the horrendous killing and murder of Native Americans, Abu Ghraib – it takes all that to make a whole.”
Mr. Booker returned to his friendship with Rabbi Boteach. “I could write a dissertation about our disagreements,” he said. “But nobody has ever written about this. When the rebbe” – that’s the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson- “dies, I am getting on a plane for my first visit to Israel. Shmuley was supposed to go with me, but he diverts to New York.” He wanted to be present, to be at the funeral.
“But after the rebbe’s death there was a power vacuum, and then Chabad in England turned on Shmuley. He supported gays and lesbians, and he had non-Jewish members. They told him to get rid of the non-Jews or you must leave Chabad England.” Rabbi Boteach did not comply with the demands, “so they turned on him,” Mr. Booker said. “”He said, ‘I am not going to remove the non-Jewish members.’ I was devastated, and Debbie was devastated, but he was removed from Chabad.”
After Oxford, Mr. Booker’s next stop was law school at Yale. “But there was something missing,” he said. “So I connected with a 21-year-old Chabad rabbi, and we started a group modeled on the L’Chaim Society. It started with five guys around a table, and now it has hundreds of members.” That group, which first was called the Chai Society, became the Eliezer Society; it is about to undergo another, not-yet-announced name change.
“It was a great experience at Yale,” Mr. Booker said. “And once Chabad has you, they never let you go.” He started meeting other Chabad rabbis, and became increasingly involved in New Jersey Jewish life once he moved back to his home state.
“Jesus was a Jew,” he said. “His preaching was from Jewish ideals. For me, fundamental to my faith is humility. There is no way that I or my faith has all the answers. I could not have such arrogance as to believe that in any way I have a monopoly on the truth.
“My path is my own access to the divine. It has been enriched deeply by my willingness to appreciate the awesomeness of other faiths and other faith journeys.
“Gandhi used to say ‘Honor your incarnation.’ There is a purpose to your having been born a Jew. We should explore what that means. Being Jewish cannot be reduced to a kugel or a chulent. People say ‘I’m a Jew because of my food and my culture,’ but you can go from the Ashkenazi Jews of New Jersey to the Sephardi Jews of Iran to the Jews of Ethiopia. What does it really mean to be Jewish? The ideas and the values, the ability to stand up to God when there is injustice, to show goodness and kindness and decency to strangers – those are all Jewish ideals.
“To me, this country and this world needs Judaism, exalted through the fealty of Jews to Jewish ideals,” Mr. Booker said.