This coming Friday night, Sept. 25, NBC will air a one-hour, prime-time “Dateline” special hosted by Meredith Vieira, featuring a book I am publishing on the 30 hours of conversations I conducted with Michael Jackson. The book, “The Michael Jackson Tapes: A Tragic Icon Reveals His Soul in Private Conversation,” contains the most insightful, raw, painful and authentic conversations for public distribution that Michael ever had. It was Michael’s desperate wish that our conversations be produced and the book be published so that his heart might be known to a public he understood was greatly suspicious of him. He wanted to share a deeper side of himself that our friendship had begun to uncover. The depth and searing honesty of the conversations contained in the book are sure to change the public’s perception of Michael forever.
The choice to air the TV special launching the book on a Friday night, although it unavoidably demands that the normally live program will have to be prerecorded in deference to the laws of the Jewish Sabbath, goes hand-in-hand with a recurring theme in the book. Michael and I always dreamed of introducing a national family dinner night, an evening when parents would prioritize their children without distraction. Friday night was the natural choice since Michael, a non-Jew raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, loved the Jewish Sabbath meals he ate at our home with his children. A superstar whose life was frenzied and harried, he welcomed the utter serenity of an evening where cell phones and TVs were off and the only sound was that of intimate conversation and gentle laughter.
A year ago this dream became a reality when my organization, This World: The Values Network, unveiled “Turn Friday Night Into Family Night,” a national initiative to have families of every denomination, ethnicity and persuasion adopt Friday night as the time to turn off the noise that so invades the modern home and focus exclusively on their children. NBC kindly agreed to highlight our Friday Night National Family Dinner initiative as a central part of the program and further agreed to air our Public Service Announcements, featuring leading personalities like Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Kathie Lee Gifford, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Rachel Hunter and others who have recorded 30-second advertisements promoting our family dinner initiative (the ads are available at our Web site, FridayIsFamily.com).
To be sure, Michael has strong critics and my book and our conversations do not in any way whitewash his shortcomings. But he was extraordinarily eloquent when speaking about how he was scarred by a childhood that, due to incessant touring and performances, lacked the basic staples of a nurturing upbringing like regular family dinners and quantity time with parents. He wanted to make sure that moms and dads understood the risks of shortchanging their children’s natural right to be the center of their parent’s world. In one moving comment, which will be played on the NBC special, he expressed to me just how badly he wanted to establish a regular holiday for kids: “I want the holiday so badly, that’s my dream. We should mention it to the U.N. To me, it is criminal not to acknowledge the children, our greatest asset. If there were Children’s Day when I was little and I could look at my father, ‘OK, Daddy, Joseph, what are we going to do today?’ Do you know what that would have meant for me? He’d go, ‘Well, do you want to go to the movies?’ That would have meant so much to me. You just need that one moment of attention.”
Michael, sadly, did not live to see the establishment of a regular day dedicated to parents prioritizing children. His tragic life, in which he medicated away his loneliness until it finally consumed him, serves as a morality tale to the rest of us. Our children do not need fame and fortune but love and attention. We can make a weekly children’s holiday a reality in the lives of our children, today. The Jewish Sabbath leads the way.
A day consecrated by the Bible to family and community, it ought to become a universal celebration of conversation, generosity and togetherness. The recipe is simple. We call it “The Triple Two.” Every Friday night, give your kids two hours uninterrupted by television, movies or video games. Invite two guests, to teach your children hospitality. And prepare two substantive subjects for discussion in order to deepen the family’s interests and awaken your child’s intellectual curiosity.
TIME magazine reports that the more families eat meals together, the less likely their children are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use. A 2005 study by Columbia University found that family dinners get better with practice. The less often a family eats together, the worse the experience is likely to be, the less healthy the food and the more meager the talk. Among those families who eat together three or fewer times a week, a staggering 45 percent say the TV is on during the meals. Just imagine how a child feels when parents sit down to eat dinner and the TV is blaring in the background. The message is clear. You’re too boring for me to focus on you for half an hour a day. Studies show that such kids are also more than twice as likely as those who have frequent family meals to say there is a great deal of tension among family members. They are also much less likely to think their parents are proud of them.
The pain of parental neglect affects so many today. This is the perfect time to rededicate ourselves to a campaign like “Turn Friday Night Into Family Night” that would be a step forward to healing the American family.
It is my hope that the millions of people who will watch the NBC special will be inspired to join the millions of Jewish families who throughout the world and throughout time have always “turned Friday night into family night.” The Jewish Sabbath is our people’s greatest treasure and it is a gift that should be shared with the world.
Many will say that given the serious allegations against Michael Jackson, he is a poor catalyst for the creation of a national family dinner night. Perhaps. But I have always been moved by the illuminating teaching of Judaism’s greatest thinker, Maimonides, who said, “Embrace the truth regardless of its source.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new book, “The Michael Jackson Tapes: A Tragic Icon Reveals His Soul in Intimate Conversation” will be published Sept. 25. He is the founder of This World: The Values Network. His Web site is shmuley.com.