IT IS NO ACCIDENT that, of all the days on the calendar,
Shmuley Boteach, the "Kosher Sex" rabbi, and Michael Jackson, one of the most
idiosyncratic of all American pop music stars, chose Valentine's Day for their
moment on the Carnegie Hall stage.
The event tomorrow night is no Michael Jackson moonwalk, no music video on
stage, no "Thriller." Jackson will neither sing nor dance. What he will do is
talk for five or 10 minutes to introduce a deadly earnest panel discussion,
featuring Boteach and a bevy of experts, on the subject of parents, children,
love and relationships-or, as Boteach (bow-TAY-akh) described it, "a debate and
discussion about balancing, being a success in the bedroom, the boardroom and
the family room."
The rabbi and the rock star met for the first time about two years ago in
Jackson's New York townhouse through a mutual friend, Uri Geller, whose Web
site proclaims him "the world's most celebrated paranormalist." Using only his
mind, Geller has performed feats such as bending spoons, stopping cable cars
and halting escalators. For such a man, launching a friendship between Michael
Jackson and Shmuley Boteach is not much of a trick.
"I think your first reaction is that he's a really big star, arguably the
biggest star in the world, and you first want to meet him because you're star
struck," Boteach said. "And that was certainly true of me. After you get to
know him, you fall in love with him as a human being. He's a very kind, gentle
and loving soul, and you don't always expect that in superstars."
Before the two met, the lyrics in a Jackson song from the 1995 "HIStory"
album raised accusations of anti-Semitism: "Jew me, sue me, everybody do
me/Kick me, kike me, don't you black or white me." Yet Boteach said one of the
reasons they get along so well is that Jackson is a very spiritual person. "He
was raised a Jehovah's Witness. Now, I think he has a very deep-seated and
passionate belief in God, and he tries to learn from all religious traditions."
Like any friends, the two men have spent time in each other's homes.
Accompanied by his wife, Debbie, and their six children (their seventh child
was born just last Friday), Boteach visited Jackson's Neverland Valley ranch in
home in Englewood, N.J. It was just as Jackson and Boteach like it: a nice
quiet evening, including the dinner itself and then a few cartoons, at the
request of the children. "Michael loves playing with our kids, and our kids
love playing with his kids, Prince and Paris," Boteach said.
Even when Jackson and Boteach are on opposite coasts, they communicate
often, especially around the issue of children.
"Michael is very passionate and always pointed out to me the degenerative
nature of child rearing today, where kids are raised by video games and
television, where they never have family dinners with their parents, where they
never are read bedtime stories by their parents," Boteach said. "Michael used
to call me all the time from California, sometimes wake me up in the middle of
the night and he would say: 'Did you hear? There was another shooting.'
Whereas, most of us have become immune or desensitized to the recurring stories
of children shooting each other with guns in playgrounds, Michael cries every
time he hears it."
So, in August, during the Boteach family's visit to Neverland, the two men
resolved to do something about it. That resolve matured into the Heal the Kids
Initiative, a project of Jackson's Heal the World Foundation. In addition to
the event at Carnegie Hall tomorrow night and one at Oxford University in
England next month, the two men are working on a book. "It's a book about what
parents and adults can learn from children," Boteach said. "It will be
published, God willing, in September."
BEFORE THEN, the rabbi has two other books about to be published.
"Confessions of a Rabbi and a Psychic," with Geller, is scheduled for
publication in March. Just two months later, "Why Can't I Fall in Love?" is
scheduled for publication. "It's about the whole modern-day culture, the
singles scene, where people date and date, and they don't fall in love,"
Boteach said. "It's about how we can regain our mental virginity."
For now, their top priorities are the Carnegie Hall event tomorrow night
and Jackson's major speech at Oxford next month. In those efforts, Boteach and
Jackson have a definite agenda: "reprioritizing" children, reminding parents
how important they are to their children and how much they can learn from their
"What we're trying to do is raise awareness," Boteach said. "So we have
this big event, and we specifically chose Valentine's Day...because we want to
go for the belly of the beast."
The beast in question is the set of erroneous and harmful attitudes about
children that Jackson and Boteach detect in American culture.
"There's this perception that singles have fun, and singles have romantic
love, that parents, you know, their spark died long ago, and children get in
the way of romantic love, and children are a burden and a pain," Boteach said.
"But these great singles, who have Valentine's Day to send each other moldy
chocolate, that's where the action is. So we wanted to go for the belly of the
beast and to try to show, on the contrary, it's children who teach parents the
beauty of love, so that they can also reclaim that love in their own lives."
This event is something of a grand public debut for the Heal the Kids
Initiative, first envisioned during his family's visit to Jackson's ranch. The
evening is jointly sponsored by Jackson's Heal the World Foundation and The
Seminar Center, a New York-based educational organization.
Even though Jackson will not sing on the grand stage at Carnegie Hall, the
event had already sold 2,000 tickets (at $45, $55 and $65 each) by the middle
of last week, Boteach said. Their next big event, on March 6, is already a
sellout: the full-fledged speech by Jackson at Oxford, where Boteach was the
rabbi for 11 years.
"Here, at Carnegie Hall, he'll be talking more about the initiative,"
Boteach said. "In Oxford, I hope, God willing, the plan is, he'll be giving an
earth-shattering lecture. And I don't use that word flippantly. It's going to
be a very, very interesting speech. The ideas are entirely his, and we sit
together and just try to find the words for it."
In the eyes of the world, the Boteach-Jackson alliance is strange, even for
these times of shifting allegiances and cross-cultural bonding.
Boteach, 34, is an Orthodox rabbi, ordained by the Chabad Lubavitch
movement in Hasidic Judaism and sent to Oxford in 1988 by Menachem Mendel
Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe. At Oxford, Boteach was wildly successful in
attracting young people to events sponsored by his L'Chaim Society. Even in his
success, however, he managed to raise rabbinic eyebrows within his own
Some Chabad leaders apparently felt that Boteach was focusing too much on
non-Jews, and some found his book, "Kosher Sex," an "inappropriate" field of
scholarship for a Hasidic rabbi, even though it is far from salacious. Its
central idea is that sex is holy, and Boteach takes both orthodox and Orthodox
positions on such issues as masturbation and extramarital sex: No and no.
Boteach acknowledged that he is "somewhat saddened" that he is no longer
formally connected with the Chabad Lubavitch movement. "Lubavitch is the
passion of my life," he said. "All my kids only have Lubavitch names." He still
regularly visits Schneerson's grave in Queens and draws inspiration from the
During his time abroad, Britain's Charity Commission investigated Boteach's
L'Chaim Society over the purchase of his house. Though the society's bank
accounts were frozen for months during the investigation, which Boteach
characterized as a "witch hunt," the commission found no evidence of
wrongdoing. Still, Boteach has his share of critics. They consider him, among
other things, publicity crazed and extremely rough on his staff, too much of a
popularizer, a mainstreamer, a diluter of Orthodoxy.
Now, back in the United States, his unerring instinct for publicity has
made him a household word, with a torrent of books, a column on the Beliefnet
Web site and a series of public appearances. One appearance also featured pop
religion figure Deepak Chopra, and another was a debate with pornographer Larry
Flynt. The L'Chaim Society, no longer an organization with a large membership
base of students, has become little more than Boteach's lecture bureau.
For his part, Jackson also carries with him a jumbo-jet-size load of
baggage. First, there is the general impression that he is surpassingly
strange, a man whose collection of quirks is as famous as the man himself: his
oddly altered face, his hats, his glove, his fascination with military regalia,
his Peter Pan-like clinging to childhood, described in this lyric from one of
his songs: "It's been my fate to compensate for the childhood I've never known."
In 1993, he went through a personal and public-relations hell: the
accusation that he had molested a 13-year-old boy. The civil case was settled
out of court, and no one brought criminal charges. On top of all this, he
joined his own showbiz family to another megawatt lineage by secretly
marrying-and later divorcing-Lisa Marie Presley. Then he married Deborah Rowe,
a nurse for one of his doctors, and they had two children, Prince and Paris.
The couple has since divorced.
Though the molestation case went away, its memory still clings to Jackson,
like an unfortunate word-association game. Still, Boteach doesn't buy it.
"Not everybody believes this garbage that was said about him in 1993,"
Boteach said. "Most people understand that he was never charged with anything.
Most people understand that, if he had done something wrong, there would
probably be other children to have made similar accusations...Then those other
children never came forward. I would say the majority of the people who I meet
say they don't believe a word of it."
So drastically has Jackson changed his appearance, and so powerful are the
quirks and legends surrounding him, that some people wonder how real is the
person inside. But Jackson's true personality is no mystery to Boteach, who
stands out from the Orthodox rabbinical world almost as much as Jackson stands
apart from the rest of showbiz. Boteach discounts what he reads in favor of
what he sees.
"I know Michael extremely well," Boteach said. "When he's in New York, I
see him almost every day. When he's away, I talk to him almost every day. The
fact is that he is an exceptionally fine human being, with a very kind heart,
who is very sensitive to human life, who has a passionate desire to help