"When are you gonna dedicate a book to me, man?" Cory said, more or less jokingly.
"I've only written so many books," Shmuley said. "I dedicated one to my wife, one was to my children -- "
"You finally dedicate a book to a black man, and it isn't even me."
"I know, I know."
"Except he's not a black man. He's a white . . . woman." Cory giggled so hard he could barely get his noodle kugel down.
"And he still isn't even Jewish," Shmuley said.
The Jewish God is a stern and angry God, but maybe it's time for Him to undergo some sensitivity training, because some of his Chosen People are playing fast and loose with the Covenant. Opening up the tribe and letting in the masses. Making Judaism fun, come-one-come-all, circumcisions while-u-wait. "The whole country is going Jewish," Shmuley likes to say. For years in Los Angeles, people have been eating a product called Dorito brei.
The American public's forgiving President Clinton for l'affaire Lewinsky, for example, represented "the triumph of Jewish values over Christian values," Shmuley says. "We're judging him by his public works rather than by his private morality. That's a very Jewish idea. It's blatantly obvious."
Also, he thinks Judaism equips people better than Christianity to enjoy material success and still be holy in God's eyes -- making it ideal in this age of prosperity. "The Jewish message is 'Of course you can have it both ways,' " Shmuley says. "We've accommodated ambition; you just have to give money to charity. Jesus says it's more difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle. You'll never find a sentiment like that expressed in a Jewish work."
Shmuley isn't asking that non-Jews convert; he is merely inviting them to put on a yarmulke and telling them it fits. And in a broad sense, his thesis squares with what much of America has been saying for years, that a lot of Jewish culture has entered the culture at large.
But more is at work here than the influence of Seinfeld and the ascendancy of bagels over doughnuts. In 1994, the nation's Reform synagogues began offering Taste of Judaism, a program that teaches the bare bones of the religion to Jews and Gentiles alike. At B'Nai Israel synagogue in Jackson, Tennessee, 90 percent of Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis's 200-plus participants were non-Jews. "Many of them said they just felt a mysterious affinity to Judaism," Dennis told me. "Many of them were aware that Jews make wonderful marriage partners."
Makor, which opened on the Upper West Side in October, was conceived as a community center and matchmaking operation for Jews, but it has quickly drawn a crowd that's as much as one-quarter Gentile. But the most visible emblem of Judaism's new crossover appeal is the Kabbalah Center. Scorned by almost all Rabbis, it's nevertheless become a household word because of its popularity with showbiz Jews like Sandra Bernhard and Roseanne, as well as its most famous scholar, Madonna. Deepak Chopra referred to himself as a "Hin-Jew" when he spoke at Park East Synagogue last fall. And in October, Michael Jackson made public his affinity for Judaism when he emerged from exile to attend Sukkoth services at Carlebach Shul on West 79th Street, the guest of his good friend . . . Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
This is a moment when many Americans have become disenchanted with the demands of organized religion and more interested in a "spirituality" that asks less of their time and allows for a direct relationship with God. The fastest-growing faiths are the most exotic and spiritual: According to a Roper Center poll, involvement in mainline Protestant faiths in America dropped dramatically between 1960 and 1990 -- United Methodists by 16 percent; Episcopalians by 29 percent. Meanwhile, the popularity of evangelical churches exploded: membership in Pentecostal Christianity grew by 400 percent; in the Southern Baptist Churches by 54 percent.