I chat by phone with author and radio talk show host Rabbi Shmuley Boteach Tuesday, August 3, 2004, starting at 3:13 PM PST.
"You've had a lot of interaction with journalists over the years. What have you come to love and hate about that interaction?"
Shmuley has me repeat the question.
"The love part is the privilege of bringing your message to a wide audience. The hate part is when its a tabloid story or you don't feel you are being treated fairly by a journalist."
"How often has that bad experience happened to you?"
"Thank God, seldomly. I consider myself fortunate. I've had a good relationship with the media."
"How many journalists are there that you will not return their calls because you regard them as unethical?"
Shmuley asks me to repeat the question.
"I could count them on one hand."
After putting in four hours on his radio show, Shmuley's biking with his kids.
"What do you love and hate about journalism on American Jewish life?"
"I can barely hear you. Sorry. I'm on a cell phone."
I repeat the question twice.
"I think the quality of American Jewish journalism is very good. I think it's honorable and it is not tabloid."
He talks to his child. "Hold on a second. We'll stop and do that."
He returns to me and then his cell phone loses connection.
A minute later, he calls me back. "It focuses on issues. I don't see them muckraking or creating artificial disputes within the community. Some of the Jewish publications are respected well outside of the Jewish community. Many of them are."
"Who do you think is doing the best job?"
"A lot of people. I like The Jewish Week in New York. I like the Forward. I like the New Jersey Jewish Standard, which is the one I read weekly. I think JTA does a very good job. I like Moment Magazine. Those are the things I read religiously."
"Have you noticed any differences between dealing with journalists from Jewish publications and dealing with journalists from secular publications?"
I hear kids playing in the background. "Hold on one second, Luke.
"Come on, sweetie.
"Have I noticed a difference? Not really. If anything, Jewish journalists tend to be more serious. You don't have tabloid Jewish journalism. Not that I know of. It must exist. I haven't been exposed to it."
"Do you feel safer when you are dealing with a journalist from a Jewish publication?"
"No. It's still the same."
"When is it legitimate to report about the private lives of public figures?"
I have to repeat the question three times.
"I guess when it directly impacts on their communities, on their politicians, on the nation."
"Let say someone saw you at a gambling wheel..."
"I can't hear you. What?"
"Let say a journalist saw you at a gambling wheel at Las Vegas or New Jersey or wherever they have those sorts of things and you were sitting there for hours gambling. Would that be a legitimate news story?"
"You want me to deal with hypotheticals?"
"It's a bit of a strange question. Why is it being personalized?"
"Ok, let's just take a generic Jewish leader."
"Again, I can barely hear you."
"Take a generic Jewish leader. I'm just trying to figure out specifics on when it is appropriate to report on their private lives."
"Hold on one second.
"Chana, come this way!
"Yes. Take a generic Jewish leader and you see the person is a chronic gambler. Do you report on it? Do you not report on it? What sort of protocols should go through a journalist's head?"
"Luke, it's really breaking up. Repeat the question again. I'm sorry. Can you hear me?"
"I can hear you perfectly fine."
The connection dies out on Shmuley's end.
He calls me back. "I don't understand what you are doing here. Who's your publisher?"
"I don't have a publisher for this book yet. The publisher of my first book was Prometheus. I've interviewed every editor of a major Jewish newspaper and about 40 other prominent Jewish journalists."
"I'm not an expert in Jewish journalism. I'm a talk radio host."
"You're the most public figure in [Orthodox] American Jewish life."
"I remember you warmly. I want to help. I'm reluctant to talk about subjects I don't claim expertise in. To call me the most public Jew in American Jewish life is flattering but preposterous. I'm not Steven Spielberg."
"In American religious life..."
"I doubt that."
"Let me just give you this question. I interviewed Ami Eden, the national affairs editor for the Forward. I was talking to him about the issues I was trying to talk to you about but the phone connection kept breaking up. When is it legitimate to report on the private lives of public figures. Here's a quote he gave me: 'If there was ever a rabbi who would merit a full-blown article about his marriage and love life it would be Shmuley Boteach. He's putting himself out there as an expert in the way you should do it.' I wanted to get a reaction to that. You put yourself out there as an expert on love, relationships and marriage. Other people put themselves out there as experts on similar things. [What is legitimate for journalists' to scrutinize?]"
"Why does it have to be about me? You're not asking about my expertise. That's why I'm asking what is this for and who is this for? You're not asking about my expertise. You keep personalizing it."
"Your expertise is that you have dealt with more journalists writing about you..."
"That has nothing to do with this. You're asking about the fact that I write books on marriage. When you're dealing with editors in the Jewish world, that makes sense, but I am not an editor of any Jewish publication."
"Do you feel that by putting writing such books and putting yourself out there as a public figure, do you fear what that could do to the sacred part of your life?"
"I don't believe in living in fear of anything. My next book is called, Face Your Fears. It's about living courageously. I'm proud of my books on marriages and relationships and if I can strengthen people's marriages, I will endeavor to do so."
"Is there any area in reportage on American Jewish life that is missing? Are there aspects to the story that are not being told in its depth and passion?"
Long pause. "The real story of assimilation. Why it is that so many Jews don't find the tradition compelling. What alternatives they're finding and how best to engage the next generation of Jews. I think that people scratch the surface on it."
"Could part of the reason be that there is little compelling journalism on leading a religious Jewish life?"
Shmuley asks me to repeat the question.
"That's possibly one of the answers. I'm doing far more mainstream stuff. I don't think I could speak about that authoritatively. No doubt great journalistic minds should be brought to bear on the great questions of Jewish existence."
"Has Orthodox Judaism made it difficult for Orthodox Jews to do compelling journalism? Through unbalanced concern with lashon hara and inadequate teaching of the English language?"
"I don't think so. I don't think that has hindered Jewish journalism in the past. Jewish journalism has been around for a long time. I wouldn't see that as a particular impediment."
"Do you know any Orthodox Jews who are also great journalists?"
"I don't know enough about the subject. I consider Gary Rosenblatt is a very good journalist. He almost won a Pulitzer. He's an Orthodox Jew."
"What did you think of his series on Baruch Lanner?"
"I don't know it well enough. I thought it was a tragedy for the Jewish community."
"Is there any common frustration you have trying to transmit your values through journalists?"
"No. By and large, I think that journalists are very open to Jewish values, particularly non-Jewish journalists. The Jewish ones, of course."
"Do you think you have been successful transmitting your values through the filter of secular journalists?"
"Partially. I'm grateful that they have taken my values seriously even though Judaism doesn't have a high profile in the United States, though it is growing."
"Have you changed in your approach in how you deal with journalists? I'm thinking of your book on heroes and it seemed to mark a change in you."
"That book was a personal statement of my core beliefs that we have to get back to an ideal of heroism of doing right because it's right even when no spotlight shines. I wouldn't think of that book as marking a change in my interactions with journalists. I think that book marked a change in my ideas about celebrity. Before that book, I believed that celebrity could help espouse a positive message. I came to believe that the problem with celebrity was that it would ultimately drown out the message. It would be about the personality rather than about the message.
"These days I'm almost a journalist. I'm a radio host."
"Has being a radio host brought about any realizations on your part on how the news media works?"
"I don't know. For me, the radio is a forum for discussing whatever I used to discuss in smaller groups. I don't see it as journalism. In the same way a rabbi speaks from a pulpit, a rabbi speaks from a microphone. You have to conscious that a lot of non-Jewish people are listening, so you have to universalize your message."
"Has it been your experience that journalists are among the most secular groups in America?"
"No. I write for Christian political Web sites."
"Would you still do the Howard Stern Show?"
"It depends on which subject. He's a mixed bag. If it were on a substantive subject, probably. I try not to do non-substantive stuff anyway. If he wanted to talk about facing your fear, yeah, if they invited me on, I probably would do it. He has been very respectful to me in the few times that I was on, respecting me as a rabbi. I didn't feel compromised.
"Howard Stern is Jewish. He's a proud Jew. But he does things that can't be condoned. Particularly the degradation of women, something that I speak out against and write about all the time.
"It's a tough call with Howard Stern. As a person, there's an essential decency to him, which is why he has great popularity. In my interactions with him, I've seen that essential decency. I saw him recently at a birthday party. He came over to me and said hello. He's not one of these arrogant celebrities. There are substantive things that he can represent. He speaks up proudly for Israel."
"Would you still do a Dr. Susan Block Show?"
"Umm. Susan is a Jewish woman. I naturally have an affinity with not only Jewish people, but Jewish people who are proud that they are Jewish. If you remember that show I did with Susan, she went out of her way to make me feel comfortable. She put on all her clothes. She and I have had very warm interactions since. I don't know enough about what she is doing now to comment one way or another. To the extent that I understand she has become far more explicit, the answer would be no. I like Susan, but even the Sex Week at Yale made me a bit uncomfortable. Susan was one of the speakers. There were a lot of highly respected speakers. It was Yale University after all.
"I was a speaker at Hillel [a Jewish institution at many colleges]. I got to choose a respectable subject."
"How do you reconcile Jewish demands of tzniut (modesty) with publicly speaking about sex and have you changed in this regard?"
"No. I speak about it in a modest way. That's how I reconcile it. I'm not explicit at all. It's an important subject."
"Have you feared the encroachment of the hedonistic secular entertainment world into your life as you have so frequently interacted with it?"
"With the exception of having befriended Michael Jackson, I barely encounter it at all. I'm not part of that world. I lead a simple homely existence. My life revolves around writing, teaching, broadcasting. I'm home almost every night with my kids. While I'm speaking to you, the reason this has not been the easiest conversation is that I am riding bikes with my kids, but I didn't want your call to go unreturned. The idea that it encroaches upon my life is a misconception.
"I was around Michael Jackson, but it's not like I met all his friends. We did have that friendship but that was the extent of it. No, I am not concerned about that at all. I don't go to parties. I don't even get invited to them."
"You've been able to use the news media to transmit your values and it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience?"
"I feel fortunate to have been able to help make Judaism more high profile and the ideas of Judaism more mainstream. The media has been open to that."
"With fame, comes public criticism and ridicule. How has it been for you dealing with your vociferous critics?"
"First, I am not famous. I am known within the Jewish community, but not outside. Yes, I have a lot of critics. I guess everybody wants to be loved but it is more important to do what you believe to be right. I try to be more interested in ethically examining what I stand for than wondering whether I'm pleasing people."
"Do you have a home in Orthodox Judaism?"
"Definitely. A very warm one. I get invited to Orthodox communities around the world all the time. I'd like to believe that people who believe in what I do outstrip critics by orders of magnitude."
"You recently made a sharp attack on Madonna. When do you decide to write about an idea and when to make it personal?"
Fifteen second pause. "I don't often write about celebrities. I write about celebrity culture. With Madonna, it came down to the New York Post story..."
Shmuley runs off to look after his kids. "Hang on, hang on. Wait, wait, wait.
"Luke, I'm going to have to go soon.
"The story that said she was going to simulate sex with another woman and have Hebrew letters all over her show and to promote Kaballah. The intermixing of Kaballah and publicly simulated sex is not acceptable. I'm glad she's into Kaballah but she should not be a spokesman for it."