Shimon Peres was the whale who had eluded me. It was about 20 years ago. I was the rabbi at Oxford University. I was heavily immersed in the great campus battles for Israel that were just beginning. And I had already booked or hosted most of Israel’s great leaders, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Yitzhak Rabin to Arik Sharon to Yitzhak Shamir. But Peres was a tough one. Not only could I not get him to agree, I couldn’t even get him on the phone.
I traveled to Israel from Oxford several times a year to hunt down my speakers. Everyone wanted to speak at Oxford. But Peres’s office gave me excuses.
Until one day.
I called his office and asked to speak to him again. The receptionist told me to hold. And then, the familiar and famous gravelly voice came on the line. “Is it true that you’re the one who wrote Kosher Sex?”
Huh, you mean that’s what it took. Not my battles on Israel’s behalf but my Kosher Sex book. All along I could have gotten him on the phone if he knew I was the author?
I replied that I was.
He continued in a perfect but heavily accented English. “So tell me, what is Kosher Sex?”
I replied that I would tell him all about it. But only face to face. He had to give me a meeting. He passed me to an assistant, the meeting was set, and a day or two later I was in his office in Beit Amot Hamishpat, where Israel’s former Prime Ministers are given offices and where I normally visited Yitzhak Shamir.
He was warm and jovial and got straight down to business. “What is Kosher Sex?” His assistants – and there were about five in the room – all laughed.
I felt confident. Israel, he was the expert. But Kosher Sex, that was my terrain.
“It’s sex that combines passion and intimacy. It’s sex that is supercharged with erotic passion but with intimate commitment. Will you speak for me at Oxford?”
He laughed. And the meeting went along like that. It was a blast. I rarely had such a rock-rolling time.
Here was one of Israel’s’ greatest founders and leaders. A Nobel Peace Prize Winner. Father, in many ways, of Israel’s nuclear program. An icon of peace. And we were talking about a book that I had just published, and that had just been translated into Hebrew by Modan publishers, called Kosher Sex. And Peres knew about it because I was doing interviews in Israel about the book.
He agreed to come.
A few months later I introduced him to our students at Cambridge University. A capacity audience came to hear the living legend. But, amazingly, a group of Palestinian and British students tried to have him arrested on charges of war crimes because of Israel’s attacks on Lebanese terrorists while he was Prime Minister. They were serious. Fortunately, the British police were not inclined to arrest one of the world’s most respected statesmen.
The next evening Peres spoke to another huge audience for us in London. He and I spent a great deal of time discussing personal matters. He was always warm, engaging, accessible.
I asked him about this connection to Jewish values, something he talked about all the time. And if I remember correctly, he told me his grandfather was a rabbi and he was particularly close to him.
But one thing I remember perfectly and I will never forget. I was sitting across the table from Shimon when I asked him why he had had Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear secret revealer, arrested in a Mossad operation in Rome.
Peres look right at me. “Because he was a traitor,” he said, deeply enunciating the last “r”.
He said nothing more about it.
I continued my friendship with the great man over the next few years. When I was Michael Jackson’s Rabbi, I wanted to surround him with men of great learning and wisdom. Serious men who could give Michael light and guidance. I took him to meet Elie Wiesel, and they developed a friendship. And then I told Michael he had to meet the other great Jewish Nobel Peace Laureate, Shimon Peres. We spoke with Shimon on the phone. And we brought Shimon’s granddaughter, who was working in Los Angeles, to meet Michael at home at Neverland.
I remember seeing how Shimon spoke to his granddaughter. He was all affection. All love. All tenderness and compliments.
But the best part of seeing Peres was at Davos at the World Economic Forum over the past few years. Israel was, to say the least, not very popular in Europe and certainly not at the WEF. Two years ago the rock star of the conference was the President of Iran, Rouhani.
And yet, every year, the person who was arguably most respected at the entire conference, by almost everyone, was Shimon, who stature towered over everyone else. Here he was, president of a country that was unfairly despised by so many. Yet he was loved and respected.
And most beautiful of all – at Davos there is a Shabbat dinner every year. Shimon was a regular and always spoke. The last time I heard him speak there, he spoke beautifully, in the presence of Prime Minister Netanyahu and about 200 of us, about the Parsha of the week, the importance of Judaism and Jewish values, and the special place and role of the Jewish people. He spoke with a kippah the entire time. And he graced and honored the Sabbath with his beautiful words.
He did the same for the Jewish people and Israel. For decades.
Yes, I disagreed with him profoundly on many of his policies, especially the Oslo accords that led to truly painful results.
But I never doubted that Peres loved Israel with every fiber of his being, was totally committed in every sense to the future of his people, and made his life a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name by serving as a light to the nations.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 31 books including his most recent, “The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.