Michael Jackson’s life was full of contradictions, and his relationship to Jews and the Jewish community was no exception.
He asked to be allowed to visit the Museum of Tolerance and its Holocaust exhibit one week before its opening in February 1993.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the museum, took Jackson on a two-hour tour ending with the vivid exhibit on the Final Solution.
“When he left the exhibit, Michael was crying, and he wrote me afterwards that he cried for weeks,” Hier recalled Monday.
Two years later, Hier and Jackson corresponded again, but this time the tone was quite different.
Jackson had just released an album, featuring the song “They Don’t Care About Us,” including the lyrics “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me.”
Hier fired off an angry letter to Jackson, who replied with a profuse apology, declaring that “I am committed to tolerance, peace and love,” and promised that an explanatory note would accompany future album sales.
Jackson met another notable rabbi, Shmuley Boteach, in 1999, and the two became fast friends and toured together to promote the Heal the Kids campaign.
Boteach, now a media figure in his own right, spoke by phone during a family trip in Iceland on Monday, reminiscing about his “warm relationship” with the pop star.
“We used to have him over for Shabbat dinners,” Boteach recalled. “At one point, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was visiting, and I wanted Michael to meet him.”
Jackson’s entourage urged him not to meet with the controversial Sharon for fear of offending some of his fans, but the stage icon ignored the advice and met with Sharon, Boteach said.
“Any suggestions that Michael was not friendly to the Jewish community are inaccurate,” Boteach maintained, though he acknowledged that he had not talked to Jackson for the last few years.
In a more formal emailed statement, Boteach wrote that “There was great beauty and gentility in Michael’s soul…I pray that Michael’s death will not be in vain, and that we see a return, even among Hollywood celebrities, to the spiritual and family values that are life sustaining.”
Close followers of Jackson’s permutations had a busy year in 2005. On the one hand, a taped phone conversation revealed that Jackson referred to two former business associates, both Jewish, as “leeches.”
On the other hand, sharp-eyed observers spotted something new after Jackson emerged from a trial in Santa Maria, in which he had been acquitted of child molestation charges.
As Jackson waved to his fans, clearly showing on his left wrist was a bendel, or red string, worn by Kabbalah adherents, particularly supporters of the celebrity-attracting Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles.
After the photo was published, some noted that there were two unusual white spots on the red string, and inquiries about this oddity to the Kabbalah Centre elicited no response.
However, Prof. Jody Myers, author of a recent book on the Kabbalah Centre, noted that some celebrities had been known to add some glitz to the red strings with personal decorations.
These Kabbalah speculations were replaced in the past year with reports that Jackson had secretly converted to Islam, following the lead of his brother Jermaine and had chosen the new name of Mikaeel.
There is now considerable guess work on whether Jackson’s funeral, date still unknown, will follow the rites of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the faith in which he was raised, or Islamic ritual, or a mixture of the two, or none of the above.
Even after Jackson’s death, the Jewish angle has been resurrected with speculation on whether custody of his two older children (and of the estate they will inherit) will go to the pop star’s parents or the kids’ Jewish mother.
She is Debbie Rowe, Jackson’s former nurse, his wife for three years and biological mother of 12-year old Prince Michael I and Paris Michael Katherine, 11, who under Jewish law are also considered Jewish.
A third child, Prince Michael II, was born of a surrogate mother, whose identity has not been revealed.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff on Monday granted temporary guardianship of the three children to Jackson’s mother, Katherine Jackson.
Whether Rowe will contest the elder Jackson’s guardianship is unclear.
Requests for information from Rowe and her former and current lawyers went unanswered, and media reports maintain, with equal assurance, that Rowe will fight for the custody of her children, or that she has no interest in raising them.
To add a bit more spice, a British newspaper has resurrected an old story on Rowe’s alleged claim that she was impregnated artificially by semen other than Jackson’s.
Stay tuned for developments.