June 15, 2010
Shmuley Boteach’s 18-Hour Day
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
“So we have a car, we have the hotels, right?” Boteach asks his assistant in New Jersey while driving up Santa Monica Boulevard. He’s hurriedly maneuvering through traffic in his rental Prius, on the way to meet his friend Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, senior executive producer of the celebrity news show “Extra.”
“You have to create an itinerary with everything, the phones — I want to know from Gary the exact schedule, like what time do we have to be at the Vatican on Tuesday? What time do we have the papal audience? And, by the way, that woman from Apple that called? If she can get us one or two iPads, ask her to, OK? And tell Lisa I’m happy to do publicity of the book in Italy — they still haven’t paid us for the last trip, but I’d like to further promote the book ...”
Although he is loath to admit it, he sounds stressed. “Oh this is my life,” he says, rummaging through his assortment of portable devices. “So, are you gonna write in this thing how environmentally conscious I am?” Even though the Prius is his for the day only, he’s made himself at home: In the console is a thick, half-smoked cigar. “I’m the occasional cigar-smoker, like when I’m really stressed, but I don’t like them, so I sorta start and then I leave them, as you see.”
Shouldn’t a rabbi be advocating prayer or meditation to relieve stress? “Gosh, meditation?” He sounds exasperated. “On one of the ‘Shalom in the Home’ episodes, they had me doing yoga — oh, I hated it; it was hard. I couldn’t do it. I discovered how inflexible my body was.” Boteach, who is medium height with a slightly rotund build, hates the contrivances of institutionalized exercise. “You know I’m this big advocate of marriage, and so often people say to me, ‘You know, what if I’m just not cut out for marriage?’ — the jury is still out on whether that’s true for anybody — but what if I am just not cut out for meditation? What if it’s like my temperament and meditation just don’t mix?” Instead, he prefers natural activities, like walking, bike riding and swimming, which he often does with his nine kids. Family time has become very important to him.
Boteach did not have a happy childhood. He was born in 1966 in Los Angeles to Yoav and Eleanor Botach, who divorced when he was 8 years old. (He later changed the spelling of his name.) Though the family lived comfortably — his father ran a successful real estate business and his mother worked as a bank teller — his parents’ split devastated him, and his mother quickly moved Shmuley and four of his five siblings to Miami Beach, Fla. The pain of the divorce and, especially, the separation from his father, who remained in Los Angeles, became “the most animating force” in his life. “I think divorce is the great tragedy of modern American living. It’s so common that we don’t even see it as tragic anymore; it’s like normal. But it was never normal for me, and it lasts forever. Divorce never ends.”
When his mother enrolled him in a Chabad summer camp when he was 9, Boteach was desperately seeking surrogate father figures. He became infatuated with the young rabbinical students he encountered at Chabad, and soon fell in love with the Lubavitch Chasidism they practiced, with its emphasis on community, piety and outreach. He first met the Rebbe — as Schneerson is called — when Boteach was 10, and he earned a private audience with the Rebbe two weeks after his bar mitzvah. The Rebbe gave him a special blessing, which he recalls with crystal clarity: “I met him at 3 a.m.; I was invited into this office, and he said to me that I would grow to be a source of light and joy and nachas to my family, my school, the Jewish people and the whole world. It blew me away; it was an incredible thing to say to a 13-year-old. No one takes 13-year-olds that seriously.”
Boteach had found not only a father figure, but the spiritual exemplar around whose teachings he would build his life. He dreamed of becoming “a disseminator of Judaism on a significant scale, a great Jewish ambassador, one of the Rebbe’s premier emissaries” — only, he had to acquire an education.
For the next seven years, Boteach immersed himself in yeshiva studies; attending Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon in Los Angeles, Torat Emet in Jerusalem and Tomchei Temimim, Chabad’s central yeshiva, in New York, where he received his ordination. At 19, just before Boteach earned smicha, the Rebbe dispatched him to Sydney, Australia, to open a rabbinical college, and later to Oxford University, where he stayed for 11 years. At Oxford, Boteach founded the L’Chaim Society, and it was there that he began to emerge as a force in the Jewish world.
“I didn’t want to build a Hillel or Chabad house only,” Boteach says. “I wanted the Jewish presence at Oxford to be so strong that the whole city would be affected by it.”
Boteach turned the L’Chaim Society into the university’s second-largest student club, recruiting an impressive array of high-profile speakers to campus, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Stephen Hawking, Shimon Peres and Elie Wiesel, as well as pop icons Boy George and Michael Jackson. As Boteach’s prominence grew, his relationship with Chabad-Lubavitch UK began to sour, however. Certain leaders felt his outreach to non-Jews was getting excessive — and might, therefore, encourage intermarriage. They were especially incensed at the election of an African American Baptist, Cory Booker (now the mayor of Newark, N.J.), as president of the L’Chaim Society. Boteach says he was ordered to annul the membership of some non-Jewish students; he refused, and a major falling-out ensued.
Though the choice cost him his community, he continues to defend his decision: “I reject Jewish insularity wholeheartedly,” he declares. “To take a myopic view and say we’re just gonna make falafel balls for Jewish students and only have Shabbos for Jewish students and not try to influence the entire university with Judaism seemed to be a waste, a total waste.” The price he pays to this day is living on the fringe of the Chabad community. He is a perpetual insider’s outsider, who feels Chabad “to the core” and practices a Chabad lifestyle but doesn’t really belong. And while he’s done well heading off on his own, he still feels the burn of a bad breakup.
“Chabad was the love of my life — it’s the path I continue to pursue; it’s the way I’ve raised my kids. I was in pain that I couldn’t continue working formally for Chabad — I miss it still today — but I had no choice. I disregarded a direct order; I could not do it, I would not do it, and Thank God I didn’t do it.”
For all his iconoclasm, Boteach’s teachings are, at their core, deeply traditional. Much of what he extols through his books — the importance of marriage, the failings of materialism — are Torah values dressed up with provocative titles. “Kosher Sex” is about rekindling emotional intimacy in marriage; “The Kosher Sutra” about sustaining erotic tension — and his advice, while clear and insightful, isn’t overly profound. Boteach’s intellect is not the product of a Ph.D. but of his own life experience filtered through the teachings of Jewish tradition. “Torah is supposed to teach you how to live; the word Torah literally translates as ‘instruction,’ so I draw upon Judaism’s wisdom to guide people.”
That Boteach is not perceived as too saintly or too cerebral actually endears him to people — there is no character too zany, or too debased, that he can’t find some way to relate.
“Shmuley! Shmeggegge! What’s going on with Rome?” Gregorisch-Dempsey squeals when he enters her office on the second floor of the “Extra” set. Tucked inside a nondescript building in Glendale, her large, cozy lair looks like a page out of a West Elm catalog. And Gregorisch-Dempsey, an attractive and vivacious 50-something blonde who speaks in punctuated spurts, is reclining with her knee-high-boot-covered legs resting on top of her desk. No need for any mug — she’s the boss.