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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2003-09-29

Shmuley Boteach in London

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Over the past decade Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has made a name for himself not only as an author (penning the likes of Kosher Sex and Why Can’t I Fall In Love?) and counsellor, but also as a friend of the stars, hanging out with Michael Jackson and grabbing headlines in the process.

But not any more. Because Rabbi Boteach has turned his back on the celebrity world – and is so concerned about the public’s obsession with stars and their lives that it forms the basis of his latest book The Private Adam. Initially inspired by a sermon he gave at the 1998 Preacher of The Year competition (he came second), the book focuses on how celebrities have been elevated to hero status over more ‘worthy’ role models, and how the balance can be redressed. Rabbi Boteach clearly feels strongly about the issue, and the time he has spent with public figures both on a social and professional level leaves him well qualified to write on the subject.

We meet at the Tsar’s Bar at London’s Langham Hilton Hotel during a brief promotional trip to the capital. The bar serves 107 different types of vodka, but Rabbi Boteach bypasses the extensive menu in favour of a Budvar beer. He clearly feels strongly about the cult of celebrity and is perfectly happy to go into more detail, becoming steadily more animated as he explains just why he thinks fame is a dangerous thing…

What inspired you to write about this particular topic?
A number of things. I think celebrity is something all of us wrestle with, everybody wants to be famous these days. We used to want to live a life of dignity, suffused with good deeds, now we want total strangers to know our name. Now my intention in life was to be a rabbi working to promote Judaism, which is still my intention, and without a plan as I published more I became known slightly. I really wanted to understand why recognition was important to me. When I wrote books on relationships I started counselling some celebrities and I saw that celebrity was something that was deeply damaging and I wanted to understand that as well. I think that was magnified by the time I spent with Michael Jackson – not that I’m specifically referring to him, but I met many celebrities through my association with him. It finally came into shape back in 1998 when I participated in the Preacher Of The Year competition, and I wanted to talk about the two kinds of heroes that have animated history, and that was my sermon – and I lost, I was the runner-up. And even though the following year I came back and won the competition, the year before was much more meaningful to me because of the subject and I always wanted to turn it into a book.

Your family are mentioned a lot in the book – was this quite a personal project for you?
Absolutely, because as I said I think at times I was bitten by the celebrity bug. I think I’m weaned off it now, and I would like to think that this book represents my repudiation of it. I actually truly believe now in leading a wholesome life which is low-key. I think you can hardly point to a celebrity today who has a wholesome life. By and large they’re on their 15th marriage, their kids are in rehab, they’re deeply unhappy. I wanted to write a book that trumpets dignity over celebrity rather than celebrity over dignity.

Why do you think we’re so fascinated with the concept of celebrity and public figures?
Because it’s exciting, they have the lives that we wish we had, they jet around the world, everybody wants to be them, everybody knows their name. In a vacuous and shallow age, things like having your airplane is more significant than having your own children, than having a fulfilling marriage. And that’s what’s interesting, the one thing these celebrities don’t have is contentment and happiness. In fact, they’re insatiable gluttons for attention, they’ll do the most insane things just to stay in the spotlight – Demi Moore will date someone much younger than her, Madonna will kiss Britney Spears at the MTV Music Awards, and you ask yourself – did The Beatles have to do this? Did John and Ringo smooch during a concert? They had real talent, they didn’t have to. And notice that celebrities who have longevity are the ones who run away from celebrity, who are reclusive - George Harrison, John Lennon, Barbra Steisand, for example. Those who court the public without any kind of restraint end up becoming the laughing stock.

Do you think world events, such as September 11, have changed our perception of who we consider to be heroes?
Well, there was hope after September 11 that the genuine heroes would rise in our estimation and we would want to emulate them. In the United States when I grew up boys wanted to be policemen, firemen – today they want to be NBA Basketball stars, or George Clooney. There was a bit of a return to the wholesome hero after September 11, but it didn’t last – lasted about a month. Who wants to be a public servant who earns the equivalent of about £20,000 a year?

How do you handle your own celebrity status as author and counsellor?
I don’t have it. I’m not a celebrity at all, I lead a very ordinary life. I have no celebrity status, I’m not recognised by anyone, I raise my seven children, I have dinner with them seven nights a week – except when I have to travel on things like this. My friends are not famous, they’re just ordinary middle-class people. That wasn’t always true, but as I said, I think my year with Michael Jackson and meeting a lot of celebrities weaned me off them and I’ve become a real critic of the whole celebrity lifestyle. I have no problem with people liking Michael Jackson’s music, I have no problem with them liking George Clooney’s acting or David Beckham’s football skills. The problem is when they become obsessed and fixated, where you talk more about Beckham’s fathering skills than being a father yourself, more about his marriage than working on your own marriage. When you become more interested in Julia Roberts’ dating patterns than the issues in your own marriage. We’ve crossed a line, we don’t just go and watch a movie like Terminator, we then come home and read a magazine with 40 pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his family, and in the process our own lives are severely neglected.

Did spending time with celebrities give you a better persepective on how to approach the book?
Well I didn’t spend a lot of time with celebrities. I spent enough time to know I didn’t want that lifestyle for myself. I’m much more means orientated than I was now, instead of goal orientated – I don’t write a book for it to be e best-seller. I write a book and if people read it, I’m very happy and if they don’t I hope I did the right thing by writing something which was wholesome. Very often people don’t read it! I think means orientation is the secret to a more satisfying and fulfilling life, rather than goal orientation.

Which public figures do you admire and who is your role models?
I admire President Bush, Elie Wiesel, with whom I’m fortunate enough to enjoy a friendship, I admire Rabbi Harold Kushner, one of America’s foremost rabbis, who writes wonderful books about spirituality. I admire my wife, who’s not famous, for putting up with me and being an outstanding mother. I admire my own mother – so it’s not just public figures. My mother raised five kids, she had two jobs to support them – she’s a hero.

How long does it take you to write a book?
Depends on what I’m writing about! This one took about 12 months. I lived this, I was so enamoured with the message that there are classical and biblical heroes, and which would I choose to be. I approached publishers with this idea in 1999, but there were other publishing obligations I had to fulfil before I got around to this, and it was a real labour of love. I consider it my most important book. I don’t believe in greatness, I believe in everyday decency, in humility and gratitude, and writing this book has I think made me into a better person.

What do you enjoy about the creativity of the writing process?
I love it! I find it hard, writing’s never easy for me, I love the idea of putting your convictions down on paper, it helps you clarify them and reminds you of what your convictions are. I think that’s what I like the most about writing.

What’s the first book you can remember reading?
Besides the Torah…Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I love it. I just bought it for my kids.

Which authors do you admire?
I love narrative histories and outstanding biographies. I enjoy Henry Kissinger’s books, I like political books – history is my greatest passion – I love outstanding spiritual authors and people who can really write about life in an engaging manner.

What do you hope people can learn from reading Private Adam?
The glory of everyday heroism. To begin to value their lives more and see themselves as what they are, which is heroes. When you work an honest job to support your family, you’re a hero. When a husband and wife are faithful to each other against the human predilection to be otherwise, they’re heroic. When you sit there slogging it out doing your kids’ homework, you’re a hero. And I want people to re-embrace those moments even though no movie will be made about it, no biography will be written about it, it is heroic and it is historic, nonetheless.

Do you know what you’re writing next?
I’m writing a book called To Live Without Fear. I think we live with increadibly irrational fears these days from our kids being kidnapped to the fear of rejection to the fear of making mistakes – I think we’re compromising our own potential, especially in this age of terrorism. I think there’s a palpable sense of fear in the United States, Jews are afraid of Islamic terrorism, and this book is helping me confront my own fears.

What kind of audiences come to your talks – is it mainly Jewish, mainly non-Jewish or a mix of both?
I mostly these days speak to non-Jewish audiences. I don’t give a lot of talks in synagogues – not intentionally, I tend to just give talks to secular Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, I have a radio show in the United States which is syndicated nationally, mostly to non-Jewish markets. So by and large I’m addressing non-Jewish audiences.

Do you enjoy visiting the UK?
Absolutely. I grew up here, when I arrived I was 22, when I left I was 33. I became a man here, , my wife and I had only been married six months when we came here, six of my seven children were born here. I miss a lot of it, of course. Look, in many ways I’m happy to be back in the States because I’m quintessentially American, my whole approach to things is very American. It was one of the things I was criticised for, while working in the Anglo-Jewish community, is having a typically American approach to things, and I came here planning to stay four years and I stayed eleven. So of course I miss it but I feel as though I’m also in my element in the States.

What do you think are the main differences between British Jews and American Jews?
Oh, I think that the differences are colossal. American Jewry are much more outspoken, not only are they outspoken, they’re intentionally so. They believe in Judaism being a player, they bring enormous pressure to bear on the American government in support of Israel, which is something I admire no end. I think they’re just much more at home. They’re fully American and fully Jewish at the same time, they see no contradiction between the two. It’s also a community which is far less centralised and the idea of a reform Rabbi and an orthodox Rabbi not being able to share the same platform is unheard of in the States. Then again, I always found Anglo-Jewry to be a very generous community, they have so many Anglo-Jewish charities. There’s a lot to be said about the community here, but then again I am an American Jew so I was always a bit of a fish out of water there, and as I said I think I am more in my element back in the States.

As a Rabbi and known counsellor, what’s the most bizarre request you’ve had?
Because I write extensively on the subject of homosexuality I receive many emails per weeks from gay Orthodox men and women – men who have married and not told their wives they’re gay – that’s very common. I wouldn’t belittle any of the requests by calling them bizarre. I have women who want to have sex-change operations – Christians who write to me in their hundreds. I find it all very interesting.

The Private Adam is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is out now.