I appeared yesterday afternoon on Court TV in a segment following Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Michael Jackson's current Svengali, adviser and head of his charity for children.
I was supposed to appear with Boteach, but he steadfastly refused when he arrived at the studio.
What he discussed: Michael Jackson, his new life, the charity they have together, and what a great guy the Gloved One is.
But during the day I learned some surprising things about this self-described publicity-hound. In 1999, the British government criticized his L'Chaim Society of Oxford, London and Cambridge — an organization that was supposed to support and promote Jewish thinking and life on the Oxford campus — when they discovered that Shmuley (his name is Shmuel but he loves the nickname) had been dipping into the funds.
In an e-mail to the Oxford Union, Sonia Tugwell of the Charity Commission wrote on January 8, 2001:
"In August 1999, the Charity Commission opened an inquiry under section 8 of the Charities Act 1993 into the L'Chaim Independent Charitable Trust as a result of concerns that the charity's funds were being misapplied.
"The inquiry established that a number of apparent inappropriate payments were regularly being made by the founder of the charity, Rabbi Boteach and his wife. Fundraising costs and administrative expenses were high in relation to relatively low charitable expenditure.
"As a result of the inquiry, in March last year, the trustees of the charity, after taking appropriate legal advice, reached an agreement with the Boteaches. The result of this was that a sum was paid by them to the charity. The trustees of the charity decided to wind up the charity and the London and Oxford offices were closed last year with our approval. It was agreed that the assets of the Cambridge Society would be transferred to another trust. If there are any funds remaining after outstanding liabilities have been paid, these will be given to other charitable causes similar to those supported by the L'Chaim Independent Charitable Trust."
Boteach (pronounced boh-tay-ach) has in the past claimed that this investigation was a "witch hunt" to oust him from established conservative rabbinical teaching in the United Kingdom. Indeed, in addition to the commission's finding (which had nothing to do with a witch hunt), Boteach was separately banned from preaching in any British synagogue by the United Synagogues of Britain. He currently has no pulpit and no parish, except for the one that pays to see him with or without Jackson.
After the show, which was guest-hosted by Diane Dimond, Boteach and I had a rather public discussion in the "green" room at Court TV. He had refused to appear with me on camera, so his rebuttal to these charges and others had to be off camera. But he insisted the following things: That there was nothing wrong with the payments for his mortgage, and "I can show you that on paper."
Boteach said that a conspiracy of two people who did not like him in the Orthodox Jewish community was responsible for the mortgage business. "We asked advice from the best London lawyers," he cried. "You can see the papers!"
Boteach is vociferous in defending himself, although he has no reasonable explanation for why an Orthodox rabbi has become Michael Jackson's mouthpiece. I said to him: "Assuming your own love of children is well-founded ..."
He interrupted: "I have seven children!"
I continued: "Then why pick the highest profile celebrity in the world who has had pedophilia charges attached to him as your own mascot?"
Boteach said: "I was friendly with Michael for a year before anyone knew about it. I did my own investigation. He never had sex with the child he made the settlement with, and there are no others."
Boteach then asked this reporter if I wanted to hear gossip about myself, which he then repeated. It was an invented grotesquerie, something you wouldn't imagine a rabbi or other clergy person would repeat. It was bad enough that I responded, "I am embarrassed that you call yourself a rabbi."
I wonder, in fact, what indeed is going on here, and who this person is. I do know from reports in London newspapers that Boteach was ousted by the Lubavitcher sect (sort of a cult group in Judaism) and then reportedly was forbidden from having his own pulpit by the union of British synagogues. He denied the latter when I asked him about it.
I reminded Boteach of a quote of his from a 1996 London Independent interview. He said there is an 11th, unwritten Commandment: "Thou shalt do anything for publicity and recognition."
"I was being sarcastic! Do you think I'd actually say that?" Boteach asked.
But an article dated June 1, 1998, in the London Daily Telegraph clearly states: "Ah Shmuley. The shame, the disgrace. [He's been] publicly reproached by Elkin Levy, president of the United Synagogues; forced to resign from the synagogue in Willesden where he preaches, accused of conduct unbecoming, bringing the rabbinate into disrepute." The resignation was apparently in response to the publication of Boteach's controversial book, Kosher Sex, which has been a bestseller and was excerpted in Playboy.
"It seems funny to me," said a source at the Oxford Union yesterday, "that the headquarters for the L'Chaim Society of Oxford is in New York."
Indeed Shmuley Boteach — who was born in the U.S. — is back in New York. For several months he's beaten the same horse: Michael Jackson is innocent of any wrongdoing, is not strange, and should be considered the lovable subject of a daily sermon. Who's buying all this? There aren't too many customers. Jackson had trouble filling Carnegie Hall on February 14 for his charity conference on kids.
Boteach's story is far from over, especially as we await every new development in the Jackson career saga: Will there be a new album? A concert? A reunion with his brothers? Will people take seriously his efforts to become a childcare advocate? And what will the new charity, Time for Kids, do exactly with money it might collect?
More on this peculiar story as it develops.
Last night's screening of Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor posed this question: Is the new generation of moviegoers so used to lower standards of filmmaking that they will flock to a vacuous, overgrown video game?
The answer, I'm sure, is yes. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, Flashdance, The Rock, Con Air, etc.), Pearl Harbor, you see, is not a movie. There is no filmmaking going on here. Rather, it's a nearly three-hour video collage of every awful cliché you can think of — and some that were certainly forgotten. More like an industrial commercial for Archer Daniels Midland Co., Pearl Harbor is told without character, emotion or reason. Clouds roll by in sped-up time. Japanese women wear kimonos and carry parasols. Blue skies are uniformly robin's egg blue.
People are talking a lot without saying anything.
And of course the thing is this: If you put Pearl Harbor alongside Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or even TV's China Beach, it seems laughable and trivial. The war scenes are mostly computer generated and very, very fake. The planes fly repetitively as if they're right out of Star Wars. The hospital scenes are hokey, and the nurses — I mean, my god, China Beach's McMurphy could eat these jokers for breakfast.
So where did the $150 million or more go? I guess into explosions — there are lots of explosions — and into the computer stuff. It sure didn't go into the cast, which is uniformly mediocre in the supporting parts. Tom Sizemore, who already did this job in Saving Private Ryan, is nutty as ever. James King, the model/aspiring actress, is lucky to die. Some of her lines just seem read out of the script from rehearsal.
Alec Baldwin and Dan Aykroyd also have supporting roles, but seem as if they're in a Saturday Night Live parody most of the time. Baldwin, especially, looks like he's about to break out in an imitation of Pat O'Brien.
The three main leads — I discount Cuba Gooding Jr. here, who is simply wasted — are interchangeable. Ben Affleck — I don't know how he kept a straight face in this movie. Who could play such a colorless, humorless, antiseptic, inhuman character? Very dismaying. Josh Hartnett is pretty unmemorable as Affleck's childhood buddy who falls in love with the Girl, capital G, played by Kate Beckinsale as a Liv Tyler clone.
Some weird things go on in Pearl Harbor, too. Nearly all the scenes are orchestrated with music that is melodically similar to a slow version of Flashdance ("What a Feeling"). The Japanese, whom the filmmakers struggle to make sympathetic for international release but who nevertheless sneak attacked Pearl Harbor and killed 3,000 U.S. soldiers, come off as stock characters from a Benihana commercial. And almost no reference at all is made to the Germans or Adolf Hitler, who had something to do with World War II, I can't remember what.
It's all so long ago, way before Carson Daly, Monica Lewinsky and two-way pagers.