Power and likeability

Power and likeability

Steven Goldstein of Teaneck talks about his book, ‘The Turn On,’ and how Jewish it really is

Steven Goldstein stands with his book in the library of the Academy for Jewish Religion.
Steven Goldstein stands with his book in the library of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Rabbinical student Steven Goldstein of Teaneck has just written a book.

That’s moderately unusual; generally, publishers would prefer to wait until an author is a little more seasoned. Knows a little more. Has a little more experience. Is no longer a student. (And Mr. Goldstein’s book is not self-published, or from some tiny publishing house. It’s from Harper Business, a Harper Collins imprint.)

But Mr. Goldstein is not in any way a typical rabbinical student; nor is his book, “The Turn On: How the Powerful Make Us Like Them — From Washington to Wall Street to Hollywood,” the book you’d expect from a rabbinical student.

There is one thing that does make perfect intuitive sense, though; to meet Mr. Goldstein is to like him. He knows what he’s talking about.

So what is he talking about? How does he know what he knows? Why did Harper Collins decide to publish a business book by a rabbinical student? Who is Steven Goldstein?

That is another story, in a life filled with stories.

Mr. Goldstein is a lawyer and political activist who began his career as a television news producer; he won Emmys working for Oprah Winfrey and then went to law school. He’s got the academic degrees that signal intellectual excellence — an undergraduate one from Brandeis, a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, another master’s in journalism from Columbia, and a law degree from Columbia. He’s a passionate advocate for social justice, including although not exclusively for LGTBQ issues. He is the founder of Garden State Equality, the organization that arguably did more than any other group to bring same-sex marriage equality to New Jersey; a film, “Freeheld,” is about his Garden State Equality work, in which he was played by Steve Carell. He’s the former head of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in New York, a place that almost no one had heard about until he headed it, and about which almost no one has heard since he left it. Which he did to go to rabbinical school, at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers.

And “in my book, as in my life, two things are clear,” he said. “I am a Jew and I am a passionate Zionist. It is a very difficult time for a socially active, passionate Zionist like me, who truly loves Israel. My love for Israel and my passion for Zionism is as great as anyone’s you can find. So I don’t support Netanyahu’s policies. And the ultra-radical left thinks that you are some sort of imperialist or colonialist if you support Israel, which is deeply offensive to me as a Zionist.”

Before he starts talking about his book, Mr. Goldstein talks about his school. “I have never been happier in any institution in my life,” he said. “It is the greatest institution of higher education that I have ever been to — the most warm, the most challenging, the most exciting.

“It’s a cliché at any rabbinical school, really at any school, that it is a loving family, but at AJR, it’s really true. The best decision that I ever made in my life was to go back to rabbinical school.”

Like many of AJR’s students, but unlike most rabbinical students, he is not young — he’s 57 — and he studies there part time. That is why he chose it. “I wanted to have the opportunity to study part time, and I wanted an older student body because I didn’t want to be the weirdo guy in the back of the room full of 20-somethings,” he said.

State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg hugs Steven Goldstein.

He got more than he expected. “What I am learning not only from the faculty but from the other students is extraordinary,” he said. “You are sitting with world-class doctors and lawyers and performing artists. Every day you learn something from your class and your head spins. There are intellectual fireworks every day. I feel like it’s the Fourth of July every day in my head, and it’s ignited not just by faculty but also by students.

“I have never been more satisfied.”

In his book, Mr. Goldstein talks about the importance of likeability. “I can’t say that Bibi Netanyahu comes across as likeable,” he said, and that’s a real problem. It wasn’t always that way; Ariel Sharon was a likeable leader, but “Shimon Peres was boring.

“That’s the problem with a drama queen society, like Israel; Israel is sort of like New Jersey or Louisiana. It can deal with rascals’ politics, it can even rehabilitate them, but don’t be boring. I think that was Peres’s problem. Likeability matters. Look how the pendulum swings from Obama to Trump. It will swing back. It’s not as if American ideology changes every four years, but they want to put someone likeable and different on their television.”

Are you saying that Donald Trump is likeable, Mr. Goldstein?

“I want to be fair,” he answered. “I want to be fair in my book. I am clearly a progressive Democratic activist, but I don’t want my book to be a screed. I don’t want my ideology to get in the way. I understand why Trump was likeable to his base. He has what I call in my book faux authenticity.

“I often hear commentators say that the American people want authenticity. No they don’t. They want an escape. He seemed unvarnished. He was captivating like a train wreck. He was an angry white man who people related to, even though he was a gazillionaire, or at least he said he was. And his base thought he was compassionate for sticking up for them.

“We live in extraordinary times right now,” he continued. “These are the most perilous times since World War II. We are looking at the corruption and diminution of American institutions. This is not Democrat versus Republican. This is the survival of America.”

What about Israel? “Israel is used as a wedge issue,” he said. “I don’t see Trump as being pro-Israel.”

But, because there always is a but, “I do believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. When the U.S. embassy was moved there, I watched it on TV, and although I thought it was a cynical ploy by Trump, as a passionate Zionist and Jew I was touched deeply. I cried.”

Back to likeability, the subject of his book, “I define it as the traits by which someone enters an emotional relationship with another person,” Mr. Goldstein said. “I examine the likeability of public figures, as reflected in the ways in which public figures persuade people to have a relationship with them.”

Are likeable people necessarily nice? Well, no,

“I don’t say that. Oftentimes people who are nice tend to be milquetoast, and while people like them, they don’t like them intensely. I don’t really think that Donald Trump’s base would say that he is nice.

“Nice is an inherently weak word.”

In his book, Mr. Goldstein writes about the characteristics that define likeability; they are captivation, hope, authenticity, relatability, protectiveness, reliability, perceptiveness, and compassion. Here, in a taste of what the book offers (but not from the book, just for the Jewish Standard), he presents Jews whose public or private actions define and humanize those abstract traits.

Captivation: Actress Tiffany Haddish

Could there be a funnier actress today than Tiffany Haddish? The Lucille Ball of our time, Haddish makes us howl from her gloriously contorted faces, body language, and shamelessness for a laugh. As a teenager, she discovered that her father was a Jewish refugee from Eritrea, and since then she has embraced Judaism. Today she is learning Hebrew and studying for her adult bat mitzvah.

Hope: Anne Frank of blessed memory

In her diary, Anne Frank grasped the pernicious scope of the ongoing Holocaust. She understood it would all but destroy European Jewry, and that she and her family were gravely at risk. She had every reason not to be hopeful about the future of the Jewish people and the better nature of humanity. But she never relinquished her dream of a better day. “In spite of everything,” she wrote, “I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Authenticity: New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman

The Super Bowl 51 MVP was apparently none too pleased when the Patriots described him as Christian, though he has a Jewish father. Ever since, Edelman has used every opportunity to express his in-your-face Judaism. He wore a pin of an Israeli flag during a game. He kicked off El Al’s new flight from Boston to Tel Aviv. On his Twitter picture, he photoshopped a piece of matzah in celebration of Passover. Julian Edelman’s pride is authentic as can be, and makes the rest of us kvell.

Relatability: Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers pitching legend Sandy Koufax

Before Julian Edelman, Sandy Koufax was the gold standard for Jewish sports heroes. Between kindergarten and bar or bat mitzvah time, every Jewish kid in America gets told a gazillion times that Sandy Koufax did not pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series. The story is a veritable rite of passage in the Jewish community. Sandy Koufax is the superstar every Jewish parent relates to, and wants his or her child to relate to.

Protectiveness: Queen Esther

Queen Esther proves you should never mess around with the toughness of a Jewish woman as she protects her family, which in her mind was the entire Jewish community of Persia. At Mordechai’s urging, Esther revealed to King Ahasuerus that she was Jewish. She hoped this would be enough to make the king stop Haman’s plan to wipe out the Jews. What a risk she took — the king could have murdered her on the spot. But that kind of courage is what the greatest protectors have.

Reliability: Director, actress, and singer Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand is the only musical performer in history who has had a number-one album in each of the last six decades, starting in the 1960s. She has weathered every musical trend, from rock to disco to hip-hop and rap, to consistently top the charts in her way — with standards that touch the soul timelessly. At every age, Streisand has gotten us accustomed to expecting the best from her. And she delivers every time.

Perceptiveness: Theodor Herzl

To achieve success as the leader of any great social justice movement, you have to unite people of divergent ideological views, taking into consideration their egos and personality quirks. And to do that, you need to perceive all of their needs. As the icon of Zionism, Theodor Herzl was a genius at bringing European Jewish leaders together to support a future Jewish state. He was the quintessentially perceptive leader who knew when to give in to others’ demands, such as backing down in his support for a Jewish state near Uganda, and supporting Hebrew as the language of a future state after he had opposed it.

Compassion: New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg

There is not an oppressed community in New Jersey for whom Loretta’s heart does not overflow with compassion and a determination to better that community’s life. From women to people of color to LGBTQ people to her own Jewish community, thousands in each of those constituencies view Loretta as their second mother. Tough on the outside, Loretta, ever an American Jewish leader, has the temperament of a sabra. Catch her through the side of your eye, and you’ll find her crying over the latest injustice. Her compassion is what drives her.

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