Celebrity photo-shoots are always fraught with pitfalls. I suppose it's not so different for the world of Rabbi Celebrities. But, let's not generalize. I do think, looking back at this shoot, that the circumstances were exceptional. You'll see.
When I set out to shoot a compendium of orthodox rabbis a couple of years ago, I knew that I'd be aiming to photograph both the hidden/humble and famous/outspoken types of rabbis. I chose to write about Shooting Rabbi Shmuley Boteach now, because my preceding post was about Rabbi Yudkin. The correlation is self evident.
I didn't reach out to Rabbi Boteach or his people on my own, but, the desire was there to take his portrait. And, after much procrastination on making contact, fate delivered an impromptu meeting for me. Divine providence?
In Crown Heights, on the intermediary days of Sukkos, every night until the wee hours of the morning, there's a large raucus dance party commemorating the annual water service in the holy temple. The party during the temple times was "off the Chain" let's say. There's tons of details about this in the Talmud, and easily readable in Ein Yaacov (compilation of story telling from Talmud), really wild stuff. Nowadays, down on Kingston Ave and Montgomery Street in Crown Heights you'll find the same spirit....in a male only, hassidic, Mosh-pit.
My relationship to the hassidic mosh-pit has always been distant. I watch, laugh a little, join for a minute, chalk it up to experience, and walk on. This past Sukkot, my wife convinced me to go. It was the last night to go to the party. So I went, just this once.
I got to the party at about 12:30am, watched from outside the crowd for a few minutes, deciding whether or not to actually enter the dance. Fortified my resolve, and entered the crowd. I figured, if I'm doing this, I'll do it right. I pushed as far into the center of the crowd as I could. Somewhere one third of the crowd from the center, the crowd becomes thick, and one's movements are dictated by the sway and crush of the people in the melee. It was at this point that I saw a familiar face, Rabbi Chaim Miller (portrait on view in the rabbi project section). He smiled and waved me over. Rabbi Miller is a gracious touchstone for my rabbi portrait project. And, to my great relief he was there. A mosh pit loves company. After breaking through several sets of interlocked arms and shoulders, being stepped on and kicked, I made it over to Chaim and his posse. Only after I screamed Shalom Aleichem over the din did I notice that Rabbi Miller's guest for the evening, dancing opposite himself, was Rabbi Shmuley Boteach; the most visible rabbi in America. Star of reality TV's "Shalom in the Home," and author of a myriad of books. And we danced...struggled to stay upright I should say....for an hour or so.
As it goes, the dance party breaks up and the participants, ceremoniously/unceremoniously make their way up Kingston Avenue up to Eastern Parkway. During the five minute walk, I talked to Rabbi Boteach. We exchanged information. Rabbi Boteach would be a willing subject, both for the purposes of the project, and as a public figure, always needs new pictures.
I was in touch with Rabbi Boteach's assistant to set up a time when I could come to their headquarters on the upper west side. I remember that we went through two or three broken appointments before we got to settle on Friday, October 23rd, in the morning, tentatively at 11am. Always preferable to set up a Friday appointment in the AM because of the oncoming Sabbath.
On Wednesday prior, I emailed Paige, his assistant, to confirm Friday's appointment. No response. I emailed Thursday, same. Friday morning I decided to push the shoot to happen and started making phone calls, knowing that the shoot would, if it were to happen, take place during the afternoon; Shabbos nerves starting to tingle. Around 11AM, I received an email from Paige apologizing for being out of touch, she had a terrible flu for the past few days and was still out of commission. In the interim, Chloe, Rabbi Boteach's previous long-time assistant was working with the rabbi. Paige, for good measure, set the appointment for the shoot at 3pm. Sundown in Brooklyn would be 5:21pm. This means: shoot fast, pack faster and fly through rush hour traffic from the upper west side to Brooklyn.
My wife, Thursday night, encouraged me to get an assistant to help me schlep. Nobody I hire regularly was available. I asked around the hood (Crown Heights) if anyone had a young able bodied person to suggest for the job. Pinny Rapaport recommended a previous student who could use the work. "His name is Reuven, he can use the work." "How old is he?" "Oh, about 15." Okay, I'll take his number, Thank You." Reuven was actually 14, and very eager to learn, help and get paid. But, Reuven forgot to tell his parents where he was going. And, on late Friday afternoon, I was not only about to break the Shabbos for a portrait, but, in Reuven's parent's opinion, I was a predator. Oy.
Reuven and I packed up the car full of equipment, and we got to the townhouse in the west 70s right on time. at 3pm. But for who? Chloe let us in the house as if it's second nature to let in what looks like a media outlet prepping a video segment. Only after we had brought everything in, Chloe asked," what are you here for?" Paige had not delivered the memo, and might have been altogether delirious when she emailed me confirming 3pm. Rabbi Boteach was at a high profile meeting all the way downtown from 2-3:30, and it was running long. Worst case scenarios started playing out in my head. I told Reuven to set up two sets, I helped get it into shape. Hurry up and wait. Two sets were ready for the Rabbi to walk into and shoot. 3:30, 3:45, 3:55 The Rabbi walked in, mystified that our appointment was set and he had no idea. He had run from the meeting downtown, to the hospital to pay a visit, and then got to us. With one hour and a bit left 'til the shabbos. The Rabbi got changed into another suit. We picked a tie. And we started shooting. I'd say it was about 12 minutes of shooting, beginning to end. He was very professional and a touch self-deprecating. 4:17, I glanced at my watch, thanked the Rabbi, and frenzied the pack-up with Reuven. We used only one set. Reuven had packed the second set while I was shooting. This is when I started getting very panicky threatening phone calls from Reuven's family. They don't know me, and they're understandably upset that there son is miles from home, right before shabbos, with a stranger. I get it.
The car was packed, it was now 4:30, candle lighting 5:03, and I had 9 miles of traffic, and a river to cross, to get back to Crown Heights, and remove the most valuable pieces of equipment from the car, and get them into the house, before 5:21. Not ideal...at all....but doable. The Rabbi came out of the house to see us off and thank us again. His wife seemed a bit more concerned for us breaking the Shabbos. She looked puzzled as we peeled out of there. I think, mostly because she thought we'd never make it. I was a bit more optimistic, even mistakenly optimistic. I'm not sure how many laws were broken on that drive, I'm just thankful there were no traffic cameras in those places.
We walked into my place as the clock struck 5:21. No harm, no foul.
Post: A few weeks later at Rabbi Boteach's birthday party, The rabbi publicly thanked me for the portraits, and lavished praise on the quality and expertise of the work.
Oh, and Reuven? He got back home just fine and explained everything to his parents.