09.29.09

Michael Jackson's Rabbi

Shmuley Boteach, Jackson’s onetime spiritual adviser, has just released The Michael Jackson Tapes. Nicole LaPorte talks to the media-savvy rabbi about life with Jacko.

“It’s not like there’s a precedent for this!” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach said the other day, referring to his oxymoronic role as a traditional-values-preaching man of the cloth who also happens to be a sophisticated media maven.

Boteach, after all, Twitters, blogs, records daily podcasts, and, of course, has his own Facebook page and Web site, where he pawns his wares: books, Bobble-heads in his bearded and bespectacled likeness, and “I’m a Rabbi Shmuley Groupie!” T-shirts.

“It’s not exactly like having just another one of my friends over, but it’s almost like that. The Sabbath is a great equalizer.”

His self-promotion is grounded in his own scripture. “Thou shalt do anything for publicity and recognition,” Boteach has said on many occasions. To the New Media Rabbi, who lives in New Jersey and whose mission is “to bring Jewish values into mainstream culture,” self-promotion is simply a way to “be out there” instead of “secluded in a monastery or in a yeshiva.”

But none of his 20 books (including Kosher Sex), Oprah appearances, TV shows ( Shalom in the Home), and accolades (after becoming the first Jew to make it to the finals of the Times of London’s “Preacher of the Year” contest in 1998, Boteach went on to sweep the competition in ‘99), have given Boteach an opportunity to “get out there” like The Michael Jackson Tapes, Boteach’s new book that is based on 30 hours of taped conversation between the pop star and his onetime spiritual adviser.

Over the last few days, Boteach has been on a bender of hype—he’s appeared on Dateline NBC, the Today show (twice), Larry King Live (“the full hour”), and his plugged his book on The Huffington Post where he writes a regular blog.

Abby Ellin: My Surreal Night with MichaelIt’s ironic, of course, seeing as Boteach’s soundbyte message about his book is that Jackson’s insatiable hunger for celebrity is what killed him—and is what’s killing America.

But Boteach insists that The Michael Jackson Tapes is an antidote to the “circus” that Jackson’s memorial service at the Staples Center in Los Angeles became, and what Sony’s upcoming documentary, This Is It—based on footage from Jackson’s planned London concerts—promises to be.

“I find it extremely distasteful for Michael’s memory that there’s almost no focus on the tragedy of his end,” Boteach said. “The Sony thing coming out is about what a versatile performer he was. He looks—from what I’ve seen—terrible. He’s gaunt, nearly emaciated, and clearly taking a quantity of drugs that could kill him, and that did kill him.

“The Sony movie is Michael the performer. This book is Michael the man.”

Jackson and Boteach, who’s always had a penchant for A-listers (when he was a religious emissary at Oxford, he recruited Boy George and the Argentine soccer sensation Diego Maradona to speak), were friends from 1999 until 2001. Their closeness ended when, as Boteach tells it, Jacko’s handlers turned on him, fearing that his efforts to rehabilitate the “burned out” and “indolent” superstar—he says he was urging Jackson to lead a more structured life, return to his own religion (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and family, and be more accessible to the public—were making him too “normal” and hurting his celebrity.

Jackson turned, too, and when he died, the two were no longer speaking. According to one of Jackson’s former managers, Boteach is on an “enemy list” that Jackson kept, though the rabbi dismisses this as “one of the most ridiculous stories I’ve ever heard.”

Jackson’s fans meanwhile, are outraged that Boteach decided to publish the conversations—which portray the King of Pop as a deeply fragile and insecure man (“I’m an ugly lizard”) who “just wanted to be loved”—and there are pleas all over the Internet to boycott the book.

(The conversations were originally intended for a book, but, according to Boteach, when Jackson was charged with child sexual abuse, the plans were scrapped.)

The book retreads over much material that was more sensationally exposed in Martin Bashir’s 2003 documentary about Jackson, but portrays the pop star more sympathetically—more broken and tragic than criminally weird.

As for the hottest button issue—Jackson’s relationships with children—Boteach says he never witnessed any wrongdoing, but stops short of saying that it’s impossible anything might have happened, saying that Jackson gave “surprisingly compelling answers [about his feelings toward kids] but they only further enhance the question as to whether his interest in children was an unhealthy, even criminal, obsession.”

Many of Boteach’s memories of Jackson portray the star as an arrested kid himself, one whom Boteach got to know quite well during the time they were close. One Thanksgiving, they went to the movies together with their kids and saw Toy Story, sneaking into the back of a public theater, and sneaking out before the lights came up. When FAO Schwartz shut down for a periodic visit from Jackson and his children, the pop star invited Boteach and members of his brood (he has nine children) to come along, too. Though the poor Boteach kids were only allowed to spend $12 each, because their dad didn’t want to take advantage of Jackson’s largesse.

Then there were the regular Shabbat dinners chez Shmuley, where Jackson was a regular guest.

“We treated Michael like everyone else,” Boteach said of the special dinners.

He paused for a moment. “It’s not exactly like having just another one of my friends over, but it’s almost like that. The Sabbath is a great equalizer.”

As for Jackson’s eating habits: “He was a vegetarian. We always made him vegetarian food. At the best of times, he was a finicky eater, but he still ate.”

Last week, Shabbat coincided inconveniently with Boteach’s appearance on Dateline— the show tapes live on Friday—forcing him to pre-record the segment. He also couldn’t watch the show when it aired, but said that being forced to tune out was “positively liberating.”

“I’m a passionate Orthodox Jew, and we don’t use electronics on the Sabbath or the Jewish holidays,” Boteach said. When the Dateline episode aired, “We had a beautiful Sabbath dinner with friends, and they asked, ‘Aren’t you curious?’ I said, ‘I’ll see it when Shabbas is over.’”

A few days later, on Yom Kippur, when reporters were calling and emailing for interviews, Boteach was similarly sanguine. When the sun went down, “I broke my fast, ate something, and went to my email.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.