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.
Boteach has asked Pascrell to explain why he signed the Gaza 54 letter or to disavow it. If he disavows, Boteach will drop the issue in the campaign, he says. “I won’t win at any cost,” he promises. “Israel’s security is more important than my victory in November.”
Victory for Boteach, however, is a long way off. Nearly 50,000 people voted in the Democratic primary, compared with 9,000 on the Republican side. The district includes parts of Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic Counties. Patrick Murray, the director of the Polling Institute of Monmouth University, describes it as diverse, with urban ethnic minorities in Hudson County and both blue-collar white voters and affluent Jewish voters in Bergen County. Murray says his organization will not conduct any polls of the district, since he views it as “extremely likely Democratic” and does not think the national GOP will help fund Boteach’s campaign. His low name recognition in the district will only add to the natural Democratic advantage, according to Murray.
Prager contends that a Boteach victory would be a political earthquake that would reverberate nationally. That might be a good line to energize the crowd, but it also underscores how slim Boteach’s chances to defeat Pascrell really are.
Boteach once joked that “God gave ten commandments at Sinai, and the eleventh commandment, which they expunged, but which has come down orally, is ‘Thou shalt do anything for publicity and recognition.’” If anyone can overcome low name recognition, it’s Rabbi Shmuley.
What are his positions on the issues?
Boteach believes that people do not actually want free things provided by the government. “Nothing is as comfortable as your own bed,” he explains, so sleeping in the bed that you bought with your hard-earned money allows you to “acquire and maintain your dignity.” All people, Boteach believes, desire the kind of dignity that can exist only when government is limited.
The biggest issue of this race, he believes, will be the economy, but not simply because growth is down and unemployment is up. Rather, he argues, liberal economic policies deny us true happiness. He cites God’s message to Adam in Genesis 3:19 — “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat.” That was a blessing to man, not a curse, says Boteach. And the cradle-to-grave welfare state denies people the happiness that comes from their controlling their own lives.
His belief in limited government at home leads directly to a fervent support for the Arab Spring. “Arabs are my brothers,” he says. The increased personal autonomy that he calls for at home he wants Arabs abroad to enjoy as well. He criticizes President Obama for not going to the U.N. General Assembly to tell the world that Bashar Assad’s days are numbered even if America does not commit ground troops to Syria. About Qaddafi, Boteach gloats, “Qaddafi is getting the best sunburn roasting in hell.”
Boteach has honed his skill as a public speaker throughout his years in the pulpit and in the public eye. He is a compelling speaker and has immense stage presence.
But he’s also new to the world of politics. When an anonymous citizen approaches with offers of advice about political strategy, a more seasoned candidate will smile, nod, and say something along the lines of “That’s a good idea. My campaign manager is standing right there. You should tell him all about it.”
Boteach, on the other hand, gets visibly excited when people give him advice. Several supporters promised to help him campaign in Passaic County. Hearing that, Rabbi Shmuley walks straight to one of his campaign staffers, wraps his arms around his neck, and tells him with great intensity how important Passaic County is to the election. Maybe it is, but it’s a strange scene.
As unconventional a congressional candidate as Boteach is, his opponent is a conventional liberal Democrat with few notable accomplishments to his name. New Jersey voters, it seems, routinely submit to such bland congressmen as a form of political self-flagellation. Boteach is anything but bland. He’s a captivating and thought-provoking speaker, a serious thinker, and a true political outsider.
In other words, just what Congress needs, but almost certainly won’t get.
–– Noah Glyn is an editorial intern at National Review.