Five years to the day that his friend Michael Jackson died, Shmuley Boteach, 47-year-old Orthodox rabbi and relentless self-promoter, is sitting at a cafe in Malibu contemplating the nature of fame. It is an overcast, gloomy summer afternoon — unusual but appropriate, he says. What he feels today is “sad, a bit of a void, an absence” and some regret. Boteach, who lives in New Jersey, is in town visiting relatives, but it is Jackson who is on his mind.
Boteach met Jackson through a mutual friend. At the time, Boteach was Oxford University's rabbi. He'd just published a controversial bestseller, Kosher Sex, and was lecturing about it when the friend called him up and said the magic words: “Michael Jackson wants to meet you.”
It was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting, but they spent hours talking. Jackson asked Boteach to come back the next day. And the next. Then they were meeting regularly several times a week.
Though Jackson was “a seeker” and enamored of Judaism, what they bonded over was the purpose Boteach tried to bring to his life. Jackson's great desire was to help children. But the allegations of child sex abuse made against him years before seemed to preclude anything one-on-one.
So Jackson and Boteach cooked up a charity, Heal the Kids. If the issue was child neglect, they decided, the solution was parental involvement. They worked on it together for the next two years, encouraging family dinners and bedtime storytelling, speechifying at Oxford about a “children's bill of rights.”
Jackson's handlers weren't happy. “When I met Michael, he was lethargic, directionless. He wasn't finishing his album,” Boteach recalls. Once the charity work revived Jackson, his managers pounced. “They started having secret meetings with him. 'Now that you're back, you should do a 30th-anniversary concert.'?”
It came to a head after a book signing in Newark. In the car on the way back, one of Jackson's managers said, loud enough for Boteach to hear, “Michael, what are you doing? A few years ago you would have been paid millions of dollars for an appearance like that. Now you're getting nothing to give out books in Newark?”
“Michael, you can't agree with that,” Boteach countered. “This is what's going to give you the sense of purpose you always craved. Elevate your celebrity for a cause larger than yourself and then your celebrity won't be a burden to you.”
Boteach gave Jackson a choice: normalcy, or a life that was fodder for the tabloids. “I'm not hanging around if I can't influence you positively,” he said.
Jackson chose the concerts.
The first took place Sept. 7, 2001, the second Sept. 10, in Madison Square Garden, nine hours before the planes struck.
Jackson invited Boteach but the rabbi sent his regrets.
Shortly after Jackson was arrested on charges of child molestation in 2003, Boteach told CNN his greatest fear was that the pop star's life “would be cut short.” Because “no life could sustain this level of?…?abnormality.” Boteach gave him five years, tops. “He died five years and three months after that interview,” he recalls now.
After Jackson's death, Boteach's phone rang off the hook. How did you know, people asked? Are you a prophet?
“Prophet? What are you talking about? How did the rest of you not know? How could you watch him slurring, coming to court in pajamas, and think it was a tabloid joke? How long did you think he could do this before tragedy would strike?”
Don't get him started on the funeral. “It wasn't a funeral. It was a concert.” It was absurd, he says, and painful to watch. “How do you take a man's funeral and make it into a thing for which you get sponsorship? This was a human life, for God's sake! A man had died at 50, a very young age. A father, a son.”
He looks away. His leg is jangling fast now, shaking his whole body.
“How did he die in the end? Simple. They gave him a burden he could not handle. Fifty concerts? Michael wasn't in a mental emotional space to do one concert. So he started taking all this prescription stuff to numb the pain, fear, anxiety.”
Jackson, he thinks, could have learned a lot from someone like Bono. “He's one of the biggest rock stars in the world, yet he seems to have an extremely healthy and well-balanced life.” He ticks off the assets: Bono is a religious man (Christian), who consecrated his fame to a cause larger than himself (Africa, relief of Third World debt), who's had a stable family life for the past quarter-century (long-term wife, kids), and who maintained relationships through his life (same band members all these years).
“Michael? People in and out of his life constantly. There was the absence of a foundation,” Boteach says.
Boteach was a healthy influence on Jackson, he insists, not because he was a rabbi but because he was a regular guy. “Any person who believes in normality could have been a positive influence. I live a humdrum, normal life. He needed that.”
Boteach was on a family trip in Iceland when he got the call that Jackson had died. The oldest of his nine children began weeping in the back of the van. Boteach felt anger, rage, which transmuted a few hours later into grief and loss.
He did not attend the funeral. “The circus continues,” he thought when he saw it on TV. “They're gonna make money off of him even when he's dead.”
He has not visited the grave. He is not sure where Jackson is buried, even.
The things Jackson wanted never happened. Not the official Children's Day holiday, not the museum of toxic childhood celebrity he wanted built in Neverland to chart child stars' trajectory — the rise to prominence and inevitable crash and burn. “He wanted children to learn what celebrity had done to him before they rushed to celebrity themselves.” The rabbi sighs. “But I am not the custodian of Michael Jackson's spiritual legacy. What I am is someone he opened up to.”
The day is growing short and Boteach has his own books to publicize and offspring to tend. They want to go to the beach. He will, he resolves, speak to them later today about his once and former friend, the King of Pop.
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