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“I think [Jewish] viewers will pay far more attention to his background,” said William Helmreich, a professor of sociology and Judaic studies at the City College of New York whose specialty is American Jewry.
Booker, Helmreich said, “seems to like Jews in his gut.”
Few non-Jewish candidates have ever courted the Jewish vote with Booker’s insider knowledge of the community and its ways. As he tells it today, Booker’s exposure to Jews played an important role in the development of his own sense of identity.
Booker was born in Washington in 1969, two years after racially charged riots tore apart Newark and sent its previously substantial population of Jews fleeing for the suburbs. Booker’s parents — his father, Cary, raised by a single mother in North Carolina, and his mother, Carolyn, from Louisiana — soon after moved the family to northern New Jersey. The couple had spent their formative years as activists in the civil rights movement, participating in lunch counter sit-ins. They were among the first black executives at IBM.
Harrington Park, N.J., where Booker’s family moved, is a wealthy suburb in Bergen County with fewer than 5,000 residents, a median household income of more than $100,000 and, even today, virtually no black residents. When Booker’s family arrived shortly after his birth, looking for a home, they were initially spurned despite their well-off background. A local real estate agent told them that the house they wanted was already sold — but he was happy to offer it to a white couple that showed up shortly after.
The second couple, it turned out, were “testers,” from the local Fair Housing Council, to whom the Bookers had turned. The owners apologized to the Bookers and eventually sold them the house, where young Cory grew up next door to the children of bankers, contractors and radiologists.
Years later, Booker would tell graduates of Hampton University about how his parents called their family “the four raisins in a tub of vanilla ice cream.” Booker remembers fellow students in his elementary school asking to play with his hair because of its texture.
Nevertheless, Booker maintains pride in being raised in a place like Harrington Park, with its colonial homes and high-quality public school system. He says his parents instilled in him an ethic of hard work and pushed him and his brother toward honor roll grades. The family didn’t pretend that racism didn’t exist, he says, but instead taught their children that acceptance of all cultures was key to their future. Booker easily made friends in the classrooms of Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan and later at Stanford University.
There are no synagogues in Harrington Park. Although Booker remembers attending bar mitzvahs growing up, it was, he says, his time as a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford University during the early 1990s that forged the future politician’s connection to Judaism. Through a relationship with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, then an emissary for the Lubavitch Hasidic movement on that campus, Booker became immersed in studying the religion and shared parts of black culture with the rabbi. The first book he gave Boteach was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”