On Thursday, I traveled from Manhattan to Brooklyn on the promise of Ted Cruz and matzo, which, somehow, felt like an imaginary fairy tale made up by some publicity Tinkerbell bent on putting a New York-sized stamp on this already whacked-out presidential election.
Outside a makeshift matzo factory at the Chabad Neshama Center in Brighton Beach, hundreds of spectacle-ravenous people lined up, hoping to enter the premises and get a good look at Cruz as he interacted with unleavened bread, and Jews. A shield of police officers and private security kept the crowd at bay. (The last time I saw this many people trying to squeeze their way into a Chabad was on a college campus, where they jockeyed for a free meal and religiously-sanctioned booze.)
The officers kept me at bay, too. In fact, they kept most of the press cornered, as only representatives from pre-approved media organizations—including the AP and The Wall Street Journal—would be granted access inside the factory. The rest of us, many of whom were there as representatives of Jewish publications, with Jewish readers, who would be interested in Jewish things, like matzo, would be kept out.
So we climbed steps and held acrobatic poses, working our calves for leverage, as Cruz took the short walk from his big black car to the front door of the matzo factory. We took pictures, trying to get that money shot of the would-be president whose make-up was, as usual, spot on. For that one moment, with admirable chutzpah, all of us, whether we were allowed in or not, acted alike, flashing our cameras and iPhones to capture proof that we were there.
A smiling Cruz made a bee-line into the factory but stopped to take pix with a group of men who yelled, “The Hasids love you!”
Cruz, after all, was there for a reason. And it wasn’t, as shocking as this may sound, to eat Exodus crackers.
Though the Southern Baptist Texan senator won the Wisconsin primary on Tuesday, he still trails Donald Trump in the delegate count. And with the New York primary looming, Cruz, like many of the other candidates, is campaigning in New York City’s neighborhoods.
According to Rabbi Zev Reichman, who is one of the 25 rabbinical leaders on Cruz’s Jewish Leadership Coalition, there are over 200,000 Russian Jews in the Brighton Beach area, and they are overwhelmingly registered Republicans. Their voting bloc is apparently so powerful that “they were able to elect the first republican to New York State Senate in recent memory,” Reichman said, referring to former New York Senator, David Storobin, who was one of the key figures behind Cruz’s matzo-making extravaganza.
Down the block Cruz went to the Brighton Beach Jewish Center where he granted one-on-one interviews with four select news organizations behind closed doors. I asked one of his campaign volunteers which media companies got the chance to interview Cruz in private, but she wouldn’t say. (I actually snuck in, but was soon kicked out, because I had forgotten my hall pass.)
At the proceeding town hall, the crowd was decidedly pro-Cruz (and if they weren’t they kept their lips sealed). Many donned his red campaign kippah swag, cheering “Jews for Cruz,” as the presidential hopeful gave a stump speech about his hawkish support for Israel and his conservative values. Cruz, however, did not touch upon those so-called New York Values.
Cruz only took two questions from the audience, both of which were plush softballs, ready to be belted. One man wanted to know what would happen if Trump won the primary (Cruz said he’s not going to let that happen), and another asked if Cruz would support yeshivas (to which the short answer was—yes).
But Passover, of course, is all about tackling the tough questions. I heard a reporter ask a Cruz supporter if he wanted all 11 million illegal immigrants purportedly in the country deported, like frontrunner Donald Trump, after which the interviewee decided not to answer any more questions, while his friends—in true Talmudic fashion—came to his defense, picking a verbal fight with the reporter. Perhaps that’s why Cruz wasn’t taking questions from the general press, either. Or maybe it’s because he was nervous someone would ask him if he genuinely liked the way the matzo tasted.
Raquel Wildes, a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School, is an Audio Consultant at Tablet.