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.
Back in February, I published a column in the Wall Street Journal that I think is worth highlighting here. It showcased how religious filmmakers, fed up with the portrayal of their faith communities on TV and film, have started to wrest control of their narrative by making their own culture to compete in the mainstream.
To understand why this has become necessary, it's necessary to understand just how badly Hollywood has misrepresented religion on screen:
"I learned who Rachel was in church," muses a troubled character with the same name in the hit series "House of Cards." "Jacob fell in love with her while she was watering a lamb, and she became his wife after he worked seven years to earn her hand in marriage. Rachel had one son, Joseph. He became a king." There's only one problem with this account: It's wrong.
Read the rest at the Wall Street Journal, and find out how filmmakers of faith--Muslim, Christian and Jewish--are fighting back.
Back when my mother attended university, she was charged exorbitant sums of money for a mandatory meal plan from which she couldn't eat, because none of it was kosher. For some time, this was typical of college campus life. But in recent years, things have begun to change.
I chronicled this remarkable shift for Tablet, beginning with the unlikely story of how kosher food came to Harvard's dining halls:
The great knish controversy erupted at Harvard in the spring of 1992. It began with a toaster oven. The unassuming appliance was introduced into the dining hall of Dunster House—one of Harvard’s 12 residential dormitories for upperclassmen—as a courtesy to kosher-keeping students. Until then, observant Jews had been restricted to consuming the few kosher staples on offer, like sliced bread and tuna fish. Now for the first time, with the aid of their new toaster, they could sample such delicacies as rabbinically certified frozen knishes and pizza bagels.
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.”
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 spent half of last week covering the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). It's a political pageant that draws over half of Congress, dozens of administration officials, scores of dignitaries, an army of journalists, and thousands of delegates from across America.
So naturally, the first thing I did when I got there was design a bingo board. Since there are particular buzzwords and catchphrases that the speakers are pretty much contractually obligated to say ("Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East," "all options are on the table for dealing with Iran"), it's a fun game to play. Certainly, attendees thought so--some even tweeted pictures of their boards during the speeches.
One thing you couldn't help but notice at the conference was the visible presence of Orthodox Jews. Regular readers (ok, my mom) will recall that I first wrote about the increasing political engagement of this group at the Republican National Convention. At AIPAC, I talked to the major movers in the Orthodox Union, among others, to get a sense of the Orthodox involvement in the country's largest pro-Israel lobby:
“The official buzz is Iron Dome, but the unofficial buzz might be velvet dome,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a longtime Chabad emissary in Washington, D.C. (who famously kashered the White House kitchen), referring to the velvet skullcaps worn by the numerous Chabad attendees. “You used to see maybe a couple dozen yarmulkes at the AIPAC conference. Now there are many hundreds.”
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.