Over the past 25 years, Mark Paredes has worked as a national outreach director for the American Jewish Congress, a regional director for the Zionist Organization of America, an attaché at the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, and a State Department diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. He speaks fluent Hebrew, blogs for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, and has lectured in synagogues across America. But despite this résumé, Paredes isn’t Jewish. He’s a Mormon bishop.
Between his personal and professional responsibilities, the 46-year-old interfaith activist has arguably done more grassroots work than any other person in America to advance Jewish-Mormon relations. He’s braved Jewish audiences who’ve grilled him on the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints’ discontinued practice of posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims, and he’s patiently explained the intricacies of the different denominations and worldviews of American Jews to members of his own faith community.
As regular readers know, I have long been interested in the intersection of Mormonism and Judaism, two religions that share much more in common than is typically realized. This week at Tablet, I wrote about one of the most fascinating people I've come across in my investigations of that world:
Among other things you'll learn in the rest of the profile: what Mormons mean when they say they are part of "the House of Israel," why an anti-Mormon Jewish pop song was recorded in the 1980s, and why Paredes wants Judaism to start proselytizing. Read the whole thing.
53 years ago from this past Friday, what Israeli President Shimon Peres has called "one of the most dramatic debates in the history of our people" took place. I wrote about it for Tablet, on the day of its anniversary:
It’s a familiar chain of events: A prominent scholar and public intellectual visits an elite college campus to speak to students. In his remarks, he shocks his audience and the Jewish community by questioning the right of the Jewish people to a state, and asserting that the Zionist treatment of the Palestinians is morally equivalent to the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Naturally, the address elicits strong condemnation from the local Israeli ambassador.
What happened, and what can we learn from it today? Find out here.
There are many things one would expect an Israeli Prime Minister to bring up on a state visit to the Vatican. The Spanish Inquisition is not one of them. But that's exactly what Benjamin Netanyahu did this week when he met with Pope Francis, gifting the supreme pontiff with a copy of his father's history of the inquisition.
Over at Tablet, I explain why this was actually a pretty savvy move:
[T]his isn’t your typical history of the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, Ben Zion Netanyahu’s revisionist account of the event was so controversial that when he passed away in April 2012, the New York Times chronicled the debate over it in his obituary. Understanding the book’s unique argument enables us to understand why Netanyahu chose to give such an ostensibly undiplomatic gift to the Pope.
At 65, most people are contemplating retirement. Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, is not one of those people. I spoke with Sacks--a fascinating cross between a rabbinic sage, a Shakespearean orator, and an Oxford don--about his plans for the future, and why he stepped down as Chief Rabbi at the height of his popularity.
But the most compelling moment in our conversation came when I asked Sacks why, in his dozens of books, he never wrote about his two bouts with cancer. Was there no theological insight he gleaned from the experience?
“It’s very simple,” he said. “I saw my late father in his 80s go through four, five major operations. This was not cancer, it was hip replacements and those things. And when you have operations in your 80s, they sap your strength. He got weaker and weaker as the decade passed. He was walking on crutches at my induction—he was alive for my induction, and that was very important to me.”
As the annual United Nations gathering of heads of state kicks off in New York today, I profiled Israel's ambassador to the body, who may just be the world's funniest diplomat:
One Thursday morning this past July, Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, holed himself up in his office with his communications team. He was supposed to be chairing a staff meeting, but Iran and Syria had just announced their candidacies for the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, and Prosor wanted to make sure that the absurdity of two of the world’s most egregious human rights abusers running for its highest human rights body was not lost on the press. “The staff is still waiting for the meeting to start, and nobody has any clue what’s going on,” said Avishai Don, one of Prosor’s former speechwriters. “So, the crowd in his office slowly gets bigger, as we’re thinking of a funny way to say the inmates have taken over the asylum.”
At the end of August, Peter Beinart published an essay titled "American Jewish Cocoon" in the New York Review of Books, arguing that American Jews haven't sufficiently opened themselves to dialogue with Palestinians. His piece is sharp, sometimes harsh, and certainly worth reading in full. Over at Tablet, I offer a response aimed at filling in the other side of the story:
When I was an undergraduate, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance invited the Palestine Solidarity Committee to the movies–specifically Boston’s Jewish and Palestine Film Festivals. It was a creative concept for a coexistence event. The response from the PSC, however, was less inspired. The organization explained that while PJA was welcome to join them at the Palestine Film Festival, and that some PSC members might be interested in attending the Jewish one, under no circumstances could the fact that Palestinians accompanied PJA to the Jewish Film Festival be advertised. PSC would not officially co-sponsor such an outing. In other words, the Jewish community was welcome to offer its empathy and legitimacy to the Palestinian perspective, but the Palestinian community would not reciprocate. The event did not take place.
Read the whole thing and learn about how many young Jews are, in fact, reaching out to Palestinians, only to be rebuffed by an ascendant rejectionism among their interlocutors.
On Thursday night, Newark mayor Cory Booker won the Democratic primary for New Jersey's open Senate seat. With 1.4 million Twitter followers and a track record of larger-than-life exploits like saving a constituent from a burning building, Booker is perhaps the most famous local politician in America.
But one thing many still do not know about Booker is that he is one of the most Jewishly knowledgeable non-Jewish politicians in America, tracing back to his days as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he became the unlikely president of the local Chabad House.
You can watch him tell the story of his Jewish journey, drop divrei torah and other gems of Jewish thought in the video supercut I compiled:
Booker's affinity for Judaism, which clearly goes beyond the typical ethnic pandering of mainstream politicians, is not a quirky coincidence. It's actually a reflection of his political philosophy, as I explain in Tablet, by way of a comparison to President Barack Obama:
Booker is often compared to another charismatic African-American Democrat: Barack Obama. In fact, the first person to have drawn the parallel may have been Booker himself. “Cory was obviously someone who was identified early on as someone who may be the first black president,” recalled Booker’s friend Ben Karp. “I was in the car with him in 1999,” Karp went on, “and I said to him, ‘Well, who do you think your rivals are? Harold Ford or Jesse Jackson Jr.?’ And Cory said to me, ‘Yeah, but there’s this guy in Chicago and his name is Barack Obama, and he’s super-talented.’ ”
Read the whole thing to find out what those differences are, and what they say about Cory Booker's brand of politics.
My latest in Tablet excavates a historical gem:
This week marks the anniversary of the verdict of one of the most famous trials in American history. On July 21, 1925, a jury in Dayton, Tenn., convicted high school teacher John Scopes of violating the state’s law against teaching human evolution. The trial, which pitted celebrated attorney Clarence Darrow against three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, lives on today thanks to popular reenactments on stage and screen. But here’s something you never saw in “Inherit the Wind.”
What did Darrow ask Ginzberg, and why? Read the whole thing and find out.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is infamous for his bombastic takedowns of critics in public forums, from union leaders to school teachers. His antics, though dubbed "bullying" by his opponents, have made him a hero among many conservatives across America.
Yair Lapid, the second most powerful politician in Israel, seems to be following a similar rhetorical playbook as he works to fulfill his campaign pledge to wrest control of Israel's political establishment from the country's ultra-Orthodox. Over at Tablet, I write about his latest sparring match with his Haredi opponents:
This past week, Yair Lapid delivered his first speech as Finance Minister of the new Israeli government. In most countries, this might not sound like edge-of-your-seat material. But Israel is not most countries. What began as an effort by Lapid to explain his austerity budget quickly devolved into a shouting match with the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) members, who accused Lapid of unfairly targeting their community with his cuts.
Read the whole thing here, including subtitled video of Lapid's biting ripostes in the Knesset.
As regular readers know, I'm not a fan of pundits bashing politicians for their religious beliefs. Like the Constitution, I don't believe in a religious test for office. And as a reporter, I've found that such attacks tend to stem from ignorance and political opportunism rather than principle or genuine concern.
Today in Tablet, I wrote about one hypocrisy evident in this unfortunate discourse:
Imagine if a group of prominent religious leaders went to Washington, D.C., to advocate against abortion. Imagine these clerics filmed a television ad in which they made a faith-based appeal for the cause, citing scripture while dressed in full religious regalia. And suppose this campaign were funded by a political action committee backed by one of America’s wealthiest politicians. Can you imagine the outcry from the commentariat? How quickly such an initiative would be denounced by liberal columnists and politicians as a religious encroachment on our country’s politics—a dangerous theocratic imposition on our secular democracy?
I see journalism as an excuse to interrogate people who interest me under the guise of professional obligation. So when I report, I tend to collect a lot more information from my sources than can fit into my pieces. Here I post some of the greatest hits for your entertainment, along with other brief thoughts on religion, politics and culture. Well, that and funny YouTube videos.