Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is proud that some of his best friends are not Jewish. It was one of the first things he said when we met. "Lots of non-Jews are great," he said. "They're going to save Judaism."
In 1988, the Chabad Lubavitch organization of Crown Heights dispatched the 22-year-old Shmuley to Oxford University with instructions to set up a Jewish-outreach center on campus. Within two years, he made the L'Chaim Society, as he named it, second in popularity among campus clubs only to the Oxford Union, the debate club. Lectures he hosted drew as many as 2,000 students. Often, most of them were not Jewish, and often, the speakers came from the secular world, including Mikhail Gorbachev, the Latin American soccer star Diego Maradona, Jerry Springer, and Boy George, who spoke about his addiction to drugs and the value of shuva, repentance.
"I realized I could do more than hold Shabbat services," Shmuley says. "I realized there were so many ways I could attach a Jewish theme. And by doing so, I made Judaism cool again to Jews. You'll see: I have friends who are Wasps, Mormons, Arabs -- people who know more about Judaism than a lot of Jews."
Shmuley, who is all of 33 now, says Judaism is finally on the verge of "going mainstream" within the Western, predominantly Christian world. "Judaism is going to be to American culture what Buddhism was in the eighties," he says -- a belief system from which nonbelievers borrow bits and pieces of philosophy and customs on the side. "This is going to be the Jewish millennium. There are a lot of Jews who have left their Judaism behind. But now everyone -- both Jews and non-Jews -- is going to embrace Judaism, because everyone's realizing that what the Jews have been talking about for 6,000 years makes good sense in the professional world."
In December, Shmuley invited me to Shabbat lunch at the midtown apartment he and his family were borrowing for a few months. Joining us was one of his best friends, Cory Booker, a former Rhodes scholar he knew from Oxford. Cory is black, a practicing Baptist.
"Most Jews don't know it, but the parallels between the Kabbalah and Hinduism are amazing," says Deepak Chopra.
"I think I met a girl for you," Shmuley told Cory. Shmuley loves to set people up. He once appeared on Roseanne's talk show with three young Jewish men from England, answering a challenge to find husbands for her three daughters. He's also pitching Matchmaker, Matchmaker, a game show he would co-host. And he's in the process of launching LoveProphet.com, an online dating service.
For Cory, Shmuley said, he had in mind a TV news producer he met in Los Angeles: bright, accomplished, black.
"What does this girl look like?" Cory wanted to know.
"Why does it matter what she looks like?" Shmuley said. "My man, don't you believe in bashert -- that what's meant to be is meant to be?"
"Shmuley, I want a woman to excite my mind, my body, and my spirit," Cory said, then gestured toward Shmuley's dutiful, retiring wife, Debbie Boteach, who was putting cholent on paper plates for their six children. "You don't understand how it is because when you were 20, you found the woman who had everything."
Shmuley -- it is impossible to meet him and not consider him a first-name kind of guy -- tugged at his rabbinical beard, without irony. "It's a tough singles scene in New York," he said. "Everybody wants to marry up." His best-selling 1999 book, Kosher Sex, places the blame on premarital sex; true romance is only possible, he says, if people limit themselves to one partner over the course of a lifetime. "Sexual compatibility is a myth," Shmuley said. Debbie smiled politely.
"Yeah, all right," Cory said. "Tell me about my bashert. Is she light-skinned, Shmuley?"
They make an interesting pair: Shmuley has a high, chirrupy voice and the demeanor of someone so eager to please he even pokes fun at his eagerness to please, referring to himself as "a name-dropper." He is short and barrel-like, and tends to tilt his head back at a quixotic angle to keep his beard from bending against his chest -- a physiognomy that even when he is somber of mood, or when he is flustered because the bitter end of some argument he is making has gotten away from the rest of it, suggests he's about to tell a really good joke.
Cory, on the other hand, is tall, smooth-faced, and supremely confident. He's 30, has degrees from Stanford and Yale Law School, and has learned so much about Judaism that he served for one term as student president of the Oxford L'Chaim Society under Shmuley. He is an anti-machine city councilman in Newark, will probably be mayor of Newark in a year's time, and may well run for a higher office by the time he is 40. You would vote for him. Also, he was once a high-school football All-American on offense and defense, the same year as Emmitt Smith. Barbra Streisand was interested in making a movie about his friendship with Shmuley, but Cory balked, since it would have involved inventing a conflict between them for the third act.
Shmuley had at the table the galleys of his new book, Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments. He opened to the frontispiece and read the dedication: "To Michael, who taught me of humility." "Michael" is Michael Jackson, a new friend of Shmuley's.