The Matchmaking Rabbi
10th May 1999
‘The whole world is turning Jewish’
So says Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, right, a man with a mission: to marry off Roseanne Barr’s daughters to Nice Jewish Boys. By VICTORIA COREN
THREE handsome young men, affable and smiling, but slightly nervous, are having their photo taken with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. You’d be nervous too. The controversial rabbi is taking them to America as prospective husbands for Roseanne Barr’s three unmarried daughters.
“This is a very serious matter,” insists Rabbi Boteach. “When I did the Roseanne show in America, we got along very well. Roseanne has rediscovered her Jewishness, and she wants Jewish grandchildren. She knows I argue for the return of the matchmaker, so she asked me to assemble some eligible guys. Actually, it was hard to reduce the list.” It is not just Roseanne Barr who has rediscovered her Jewishness. Madonna held a big Seder – Passover meal – at her house this year, where guests included Robert De Niro. Solid Italian Catholics on the outside, these celebrities simply can’t gobble down enough of the bitter herbs and Kiddush wine. This is all fuel to Rabbi Boteach’s argument that “Judaism is the new Buddhism”.
“People won’t actually convert, but in the next century the world will look to it as a source of spirituality,” he says. It’s no wonder that Shmuley Boteach is America’s darling. Author of the bestselling Kosher Sex, he talks openly about matters that other rabbis simply would not mention.
A dervish of energy, at 32 he has already written 10 books and fathered six children. As we sit in his London office he talks brilliantly, nine times faster than is quite normal. American accent strong, bright blue eyes staring animatedly above his luxuriant beard, he puffs on a giant cigar as secretaries run in and out with messages from newspapers around the world.
At the rabbi’s side is a Madonna-style telephone headset; Rabbi Boteach is promoting his new book, An Intelligent Per son’s Guide To Judaism, The new book is less controversial than Kosher Sex, but, although just published, it has already been superseded by his forthcoming Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments, which he plunges into my hands. He is planning Rabbi and Psychic, to be coauthored with Uri Geller: “A wonderful human being. He’s bent a million spoons at my house.”
It is in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Judaism that Rabbi Boteach sets out his claim that the world is about to turn Jewish. He explains, in terms that are likely to bemuse more conservative rabbis, “People are more materialistic, more self-indulgent than ever before. Yet they are also reading more self-help books than ever. Judaism is the only religion that offers you both. We don’t ask you to choose between the pleasures of the body or the sacrifices of the soul.
“We say ambition is fine; make a million dollars, but be charitable. You are obligated to feed the poor, but not necessarily to feel their plight, which is where Christianity puts the emphasis. You can be a selfish bastard businessman, who thinks a man with his hand out is a lazy parasite; Judaism doesn’t care what you think, as long as you feed the guy.”
Rabbi Boteach cannot, on the other hand, see Jewish culture catching on, “Jewish culture stinks. When did you last go to a klezmer [a traditional Jewish band] concert? Kiddush wine is better used as a pesticide than a beverage… I’m not saying this new wave will see the world eating gefilte fish, but the core spiritual values of Judaism will be embraced.”
His traditionalist critics will consider his message excessively media-friendly. But he is qualified to speak about expansionism; the L’Chaim Society, a Jewish educational organisation which he runs at Oxford University, has been a phenomenal success, “Who would have thought,” exclaims the rabbi, “that a Hasidic organisation run by a guy with a yarmulke and a beard would be the second largest society in Oxford’s history, with 2,000 non-Jewish members?”
Like the born preacher he is, Rabbi Boteach answers his own question: “Because the world is longing for these ideas, that’s why. Judaism has no great truths that a man and woman would not learn after 70 years on this earth – that your kids were more important than money, that relationships were more important than your career, that cheating and lying was not a good way to live. But Judaism will teach you these things at 13, when you’re ruled by hormones, so you don’t have to live a life of regret.”
In a 40-minute interview, Rabbi Boteach delivers a seamless sermon amid the mayhem. Yet when a call comes through from a man who lost his mother the day before, the rabbi’s voice turns soft; the cigar goes into the ashtray, and you would think he has all the time in the world.
*An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Judaism is published by Duckworth, £14.95.
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