By Ari Lipsitz on April 13th, 2011
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Last night, the Bronfman Center held a media panel at Cooper Union. On stage was a celebrity rabbi, a radio program director, the philanthropist who started Birthright. And then there was Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark—a man neither Jewish nor in media, but who seemed to bend the entire purpose of the panel toward him, the way huge gravitational masses bend light.
The title of the panel was “Media, Morality, and Modern Times,” which was vague enough so each speaker could launch into their pet area. Onstage, Michael Steinhardt, the elderly Birthright philanthropist and proponent of Secular Judaism, gave a pessimistic outlook on the state of moral values. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a nationally-known rabbi with a slew of successful self-help books and a self-promotional streak, focused more on the parenting aspects. Laurie Cantillo, the programming director of WABC, was often the odd panelist out, speaking mostly about a left -brain/right-brain dichotomy that felt stale from the onset.
But Booker was a dynamo. From the obvious bromance with Rabbi Boteach (they have been friends for two decades) to his passionate defense of social media—@CoryBooker has over a million followers, and he’s manning the thing—it was clear that Mayor Booker is a different sort of politician. Or at least a smarter (Stanford/Rhodes scholarship/Yale law), more eloquent version of the same sort of politician. He spoke at length about Martin Luther King, dating sites, and Jewish philosophy, which he quoted in Hebrew, pronouncing the “chuh.” His enthusiasm for Judaism was not only pandering to the Jewish crowd, it was passionate enough that it couldn’t be faked. And he’s single…ladies?
It may seem confusing that the only religious non-Jew on the panel (Cantillo referred to herself as “spiritual,” which is the same thing as saying “too busy to give a shit”) was the most fervent supporter of Judaism—at least until you get to know Jews. In fact, Booker gave such a reasoned defense of the Jewish culture that Rabbit Boteach facetiously stood up and said, “I might quit as a rabbi, that was beautiful.”
Booker is a man so eloquent that he could talk about Farmville and have it sound like the most golden opportunity in the world (he did, and it did). Concerned about social issues afflicting Newark, Booker prefers to be conciliatory and pragmatic, offering reasonable-sounding solutions that might just work. He wants people to have a little faith: “Democracy is not a spectator sport…The only threat to us is not the problems, it’s people who have a toxic sense of resignation.”
I feel bad for pessimists who watch Cory Booker speak. Here is a guy who is working actively to better his surroundings, they’d say, and he doesn’t know that it’s a useless effort. I am not one of those pessimists—in fact, after last night, he’s pretty much skyrocketed up my shrinking list of favorite politicians. “I’m not an optimist,” he said. “I’m a prisoner of hope.”