A voice calls out:
“It’s Mehmet,” Debbie Boteach says, as she hands the phone to her husband, who quickly takes the call. That would be Dr. Mehmet Oz — Oprah Winfrey’s favorite doctor and the host of The Dr. Oz Show.
“Mehmet, hold on a second.” He drops the phone to his side as he moves to the three or four supporters who have been patiently waiting to have their picture taken with him. After the flashes go off, he hands the phone to another man and says, “Here, Dennis. Talk to him.” And that would be Dennis Prager — the host of the nationally syndicated Dennis Prager Show.
So as Dennis Prager walks into the other room to speak with Dr. Oz, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach — the host of TLC’s Shalom in the Home; the author of Kosher Jesus, Kosher Sex, and Kosher Sutra; the spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson; and now, the Republican nominee in New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District — stays behind to continue chatting with his supporters.
Rabbi Shmuley — his campaign rarely uses his last name — defeated two relatively unknown candidates in the Republican primary. Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, explains that voters did not perceive his opponents, Hector Castillo and Blase Billack, as serious alternatives. Also contributing to the Boteach victory was a large Jewish turnout in Bergen County. House majority leader Eric Cantor cut his campaign $5,000. Buoyed by the support of Bergen and Hudson Counties’ Republican establishment, Boteach won 58 percent of the vote.
And with that primary victory Rabbi Shmuley became perhaps the most unlikely congressional candidate this year. A small man — “I’m small, but a mighty giant,” he says — with a full beard that’s carefully tied under his chin to hide its true length, he looks and talks like a rabbi on a mission.
Which he is. He first became involved in local politics in 2009, when Moammar Qaddafi tried to pitch his tent on property that the Libyan government owned next door to Boteach’s home in Englewood. Seeking to prevent the dictator from moving to his peaceful town, Boteach organized a rally on his front lawn to pressure the local government, which up to then had shown little interest in Qaddafi’s plans to take up residence there.
On June 10, Boteach held another rally on his front lawn, this time to kick off his campaign against congressman Bill Pascrell. Prager, who has been Boteach’s friend for more than 20 years, warmed up the crowd, telling them that Pascrell’s “moral compass is broken” — a reference to the congressman’s signing the notorious Gaza 54 letter, which criticized Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Prager — tall, clean-shaven, stoic — has a markedly different speaking style from that of Boteach, who waves his arms and punctuates his points by smacking his fist against the palm of his other hand. It’s not uncommon for Orthodox Jews to get heated when discussing esoteric points of Jewish law, so it’s unsurprising to see him this animated when explaining his position on corporate- and estate-tax rates.
His opponent, Pascrell, recently whupped fellow Democratic congressman Steve Rothman in a bloody primary. The way New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District was redrawn effectively forced the two friends to battle. Given their almost-identical voting records — they do differ on support for Israel — they were unable to distinguish themselves from each other on the issues. The two campaigns quickly devolved into a series of personal and misleading attacks.
Promising to have none of that, Boteach invited the congressman to his home for a traditional Friday-night Sabbath meal. “I believe in chicken-soup diplomacy,” he jokes. “I believe in the power of knaidelach [‘matzo ball’ in Yiddish].” Pascrell has accepted the invitation.