Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Oprah and Us: A Lost Opportunity

Her experience "breaking bread" with the Ginsburghs revealed a family that not only does not represent 
a norm even among the most insular in our community, but worse, was only capable of portraying what 
they don't have—completely neglecting to focus on the vibrancy and active pride inherent in 
most Chasidic, and certainly Chabad, families. 


After much anticipation, many of us have finally been privy to Oprah's show on "America's Hidden Culture," featuring an up-close encounter with the lives of Chassidim in Brooklyn. When word got out that Oprah visited Crown Heights and Boro Park to film for this episode, most of us were thrilled that the world's most powerful woman—a woman praised for her incessent and genuine search for the truth—was going to show the world what we're about. 

I myself was glad that her producers had specifically contacted Chabad, for whom meddling with the media is nothing new. Surely, we would get this right. Finally, the world would see the brighter, deeper, more worldly side of Chassidic life.

But having now seen footage of the episode, I, like many of my peers, am still cringing. Instead of my Jewish brothers and sisters effectively communicating anything positive and relevant about Judaism, they completely, and rather inarticulately, verified and cemented every stereotype the public has already accepted about observant Jews. 

Oprah's questions about love and marriage were answered with insecure and scripted phrases on the Jewish view. Her genuine interest in the Mikvah experience was met with the completely misguided words such as "cleanse." Her experience "breaking bread" with the Ginsburghs revealed a family that not only does not represent a norm even among the most insular in our community, but worse, was only capable of portraying what they don't have—completely neglecting to focus on the vibrancy and active pride inherent in most Chasidic, and certainly Chabad, families. 

Had someone just cruised the internet for some basic information on Chassidic way of life, completely devoid of any inner meaning and modern relevence, they wouldn't need to watch Oprah. Which is a crime, being that Oprah is celebrated as a human explorer with an uncanny ability to reveal the truth behind...well, everything. Apparently, we lost the opportunity to show the world what's truly meaningful about the way we live—why it's healthy, why it matters, why you should care.

I feel embarrassed. The entire world is talking about Orthodox Jews these days. And not in praise. How is it that, amidst that, Oprah—OPRAH!—contacted Chabad and we allowed Chassidic Judaism to be portrayed as an archaic, out of touch and blind-eyed community? Were Shluchim not contacted? What about the Chassidic role models in our community? Everyone knows that Oprah reached out to Chabad.org to aid in the episode. Perhaps had they expired every option to give Oprah educated and articulate women (of which we have a plethora!), Oprah would know why Jewish intimacy is a model for the world, instead of a whacky unexplainable custom. Perhaps she would have been moved by Judaism's compassionate view on homosexuals in our community, instead of seeing the clear denial of Jewish mothers (my response to Oprah coming soon). Perhaps she would have gleened insight into why and how women are the true champions, instead of catch-phrases that are easily mocked and taken apart. Had Oprah's visit been viewed as a tremendous once-in-a-lifetime chance to share our beautful truths, perhaps she would have walked away compltely floored at how the Chassidic mission of living and teaching a life where everything is infused with the divine can offer something for every human-being today. 

We are not the no-phones, no-dating, no-television Jews. We are not the "no" Chassidim. We are the "Yes!" Jews, saying yes to technology, yes to passion, yes to the divine world that G-d created just for us. And you know what, Oprah? What's so unique and unknown about us is that we embrace it all in a healthy, wholesome and utterly divine way that is—guess what!— one hundred percent relevent to every human being today. 

Had Oprah interviewed a strictly Mormon family, she would have walked away with the same impression: beautiful emphasis on family, living with G-d, no reliance on technology...and, oh, the values! Oprah walked away with a "realization" that the world over already knows we've spearheaded—Jews are values. She certainly already learned that much from her many interviews with Shmuely Boteach. Nothing new here. 

If Oprah was looking to uncover a mysterious and insular sec of Judaism, Chabad.org should have opted out. Period. And how awful that some amongst us agreed to give her access but couldn't uphold a respectable representation. 

How sad that Oprah encountered a Jewish community that has everything relevent to share with people of the world, and, for some reason, they couldn't give her the gift of truth, inspiration and meaning she has dedicated her life to pursue. We're sorry, Oprah. You looked in the right direction, but apparently we were too busy not looking at our phones and not touching our spouses to truly give a hoot. 

24 LadyMama voices:

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

I Love your blog! Great, depth!

I totally hear and understand the aspects listed here...

Oprah could have made a show in any direction that she chose. Yes, we could have shown how amazing Lubavitch is and how much we elevate technology, social interactions, look amazingly current, etc.. into the entire world! By exclusively interviewing only this segment of Chabad women, I think that they portrayed a few examples of a true Chossid.

True, most of us and our teens have internet, smartphones, DVD players, listen to lots of great non-Nigun music, know the greatest sports teams, actresses, etc... However, a true Chossid goes "above the letter of the law" - so they seemed to show that and not show our typical, average, mid-line (+awesome, and accomplishing, of course) Lubavitch family.

The majority of Chabad families do read other books, have much more worldly exposure, and are more lenient across the board. I was a bit embarrassed how they kept interrupting Oprah and interrupting and each other....

To show Chassidim on Oprah, though, is truly amazing!

Valerie said... [Reply to comment]

Terrific blog!

I watched the Oprah interview and I'm sorry to hear that you were embarrassed by how Chabad families were represented. I didn't watch the interview thinking that the families she talked to were speaking for all Chabad families. As a Reform Jew, though, I felt like I got one perspective that I hadn't ever gotten exposed to before. I felt like there was a lot more to the tradition than I knew and I felt the pride those families felt in their traditions.

I look forward to your continued perspective on the Oprah interview and other topics.

Oh also, I am so with you on the word "hubby." It makes my skin crawl.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

I agree with much of what you wrote...I understand the extrem is what they were looking for , the shock value...I only wish they would have also shown failies who looked more "normal", have jobs in the world, and dress modestly, but current and beautiful AND shown how we use computers, internet and of course--- cell phones!

MyCuisina.com said... [Reply to comment]

MyCuisina.com said... [Reply to comment]

Perhaps she would have been moved by Judaism's compassionate view on homosexuals in our community..."
Really? That definately sounds nice on paper...but seriously? The Torah has some pretty strong words to use about homosexuality and orthodox communities are not exactly known for their acceptance of homosexuals.

Miriam said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you so much for this article. I am glad to know that I am not the only one who was very bothered by the portrayal of Orthodoxy in these segments and strongly felt this family did a poor job representing Chasidim and Orthodoxy.

I cringed with embarrassment at the silence to Oprah's question regarding homosexuality and their attempts to respond saying that the very notion is "extreme", as if homosexuality skips over their homes. I was frustrated as they tried to portray themselves as overly insular and perhaps overly idealistic (really...do the kids not KNOW what tv is? And really...did she just happen to use Oprah's phrase AHA moment coincidentally? Come on, Ginsburghs).

And how exactly does the pressure of materialism evade Chasidim? Though it may not be a material pursuit of larger and fancier TV's, even Chasidim have the pressure of keeping up with the Joneses (think: Bekeshe, sheitel, etc)

Though I am not Lubavitch myself, I have strong admiration for the Lubavitch individuals that I know, and great respect for Chabad's worldwide efforts. I know Lubavitch people to be worldly and intelligent and I am sad that--like you said--the people who could best represent Judaism did such a stinky job. I just wish we could get another chance.

Rikki said... [Reply to comment]

I agree with you Mimi, I felt like the women, particularly, did not speak with their own voice but rather the voice that they are "indoctrinated" (if i can use that word) with. At some point every Jew, male and female looks at their life and religion and makes it their own personal and individual journey. This was not reflected in any of the conversations. These women's words were nonspecific and showed no struggle or internal intellectual contemplation. In short they sounded insincere. That was my take on this show

Fashion-isha said... [Reply to comment]

Most of the people I know were raving about what a Kiddush Hashem the show was and how amazingly it represented Jews. I personally didn't watch it because i was too busy with my Chesed events, but then again I totally trust your perspective. The perspective of my friends is still extremely "Lakewoodized", meaning the more insulated they appeared the better. I personally would love someone to spend the day following people like 'us' around with a video camera, you with your husband rocking his Jewish music and your super tech know how and blog ability while taking care of your baby and doing your lofty work inspiring Jews all over the world to light candles for Shabbos; and me attending Fashion Week completely tznius while making it back home in time to make dinner for my family while planning charity events, posting blogs and hanging on facebook to shmooze with my likeminded amazing Orthodox friends til 2 am...That would make a fun show...no?

Naomi said... [Reply to comment]

Completely disagree. I personally know this family very well, and I'd never compare myself to them in religious devotion in any way. But to disrespect and "feel embarrassed" by such holy and pure people, is beyond my belief.
Sure, they should have shown the cool hipster "chasidim" of crown heights discussing their awesome parties with married people flirting back and forth, newest episodes of "true blood" and 3,000$ sheitels ("THE yes chassisidim! YES to technology! YES to passion!). That would probably inspire millions of people. You can live your own life the way you wish, but to belittle people that live Torah in its purest form, that care only for doing the will of Hashem and bring Mashiach, is just plain rude.
Hate to break this to you, but to almost all non Jews, and the great majority of the frum world, lubaitchers are not really counted as "chasidim", along skver, belz, bobov or vizhnitz. And there is a reason for that. i don't think the Lubavitcher Rebber would have been embarassed by the Ginsbourgs. Can't say the same thing about his hipstered out, too cool for school chasidim in Crown Heights.

Oh, and about homosexuality, what world do you live in? Homosexuals in the frum community anywhere frumer than modern orthodox, are not only disregarded, but have zero support and are often disowned by their families, if anyone here is naive, it is you.

Batsheva said... [Reply to comment]

This family is clearly an extremely chassidishe, frum family. They are dedicated chassidim of the Rebbe. Although they did project a more insular view of the outside world than most Lubavitchers would, they are one family. No one family can 100% accurately represent a group so vast and diverse. Anyway you spin it, the rest of us would say, "That's TOTALLY NOT the kind of Lubavitcher I am or my family is." And I certainly don't think choosing a modern, hip, fashion-conscious, celebrity- conscious Lubavitch family would be an appropriate or proper representation of what we are- which is Chassidim of the Rebbe.

Chabad Chassidus really really isn't about "saying YES to passion." While is-hapcha and making the material world a dira betachtonim are significant concepts in leading a chassidishe lifestyle, is-kafia, saying no, holding BACK, actually comes first!

We talk about accepting and showing love and warmth to those who aren't as religious, or are struggling with Yiddishkeit. This acceptance and love too often doesn't go in the other direction. People who practice a high standard of Yiddishkeit and Chassidishkeit should be praised, respected, and at the very least, not mocked.

Above all, I think the bottom line is that it's not really about what Oprah and the world thinks of Chassidim. We need to live the way our Rabbeim dictated to us, regardless of whether Oprah and her viewers are into it or not.

Princess Lea said... [Reply to comment]

I'm not Lubavitch, but I know enough about the community to know that the Ginsbergs were not a typical Chabad family. C'mon, how many Lubavitchers are on the blogosphere? There's a televised telethon every year with Jon Voigt!

But for the most part, the show was OK.

What I was irritated about was how Oprah lumped together taharas hamishpacha, wig-wearing, and other matters as being specific to "hassids." I wonder if she realized that all observant Jews, no matter what they look like, keep the laws of niddah the same way.

After I saw the show I was having hypothetical conversations with Oprah in my head, how I would have explained matters in our community.

But in the end, this was a result of who-knows how many hours of editing. It's very possible Oprah decided to trim more detail from the episode, where matters were explained clearer. Everyone loves a freak, and making us look like nut-jobs gets ratings.

Interviewing observant Jews who look like everyone else is not interesting to Oprah. I'm sure there are plenty of homes who would have been happy to speak with her, but she wants it to be the "ultra" group.

What I always feel should be clarified is that Chassidim are not "ultra-Orthodox," they are observant Jews. We all try to keep the 613 to the best of our ability, and none of us does it "better" than the other.

Naomi said... [Reply to comment]

Another thing is that they represented chasidim, not Lubavitchers. If you went to a Ger or Spinke chassidim's home, they would be just as sheltered, insular or yiddish speaking.

Naomi said... [Reply to comment]

Another thing is that they represented chasidim, not Lubavitchers. If you went to a Ger or Spinke chassidim's home, they would be just as sheltered, insular or yiddish speaking.

Boruch Merkur said... [Reply to comment]

I am definitely sympathetic to the spirit of this critique but the case would have benefited from more detailed support, especially for those who don't plan on watching the interview. Was there no positive message portrayed? Was it really that bad? Most importantly, was there reference to the Rebbe? Moshiach?

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

I agree with this blog post completely. In response to some of your comments, you all seem to think there are only extremes, ultra chassidish or too modern, but thats untrue. what I would have liked to see represent us were the ultra chassidish but educated and stylish. I know tons of qualified women who present beautifully but completely tznius but are not nearly as out of touch as these women were. what was wrong with these women was not their being chassidish, but being so unwordly, way beyond what the Rebbe would have encouraged, and worse, they were actively trying to sound more sheltered than they were. It did seem insincere if not straight out false when they claimed not to know what a tv looks like (dont their kids watch "im a chossid"?) Even if u approve of them, they were the worst candidates for this segment, which was a powerful forum that could have nspired people, but this kind of glorified ignorance is unimpressive no matter how chassidish u are.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

...in addition, Oprah didn't interview skver or ger, she came to Lubavitch and this was not anywhere close to an accurate depiction of lubavitch women. I don't even believe these women answered accurately or represented themselves honestly. It was so not genuine. and, i believe if these women fully understood chassidus they wouldnt have been so scared to be themselves and be proud of the ways that they are in touch with the world, bec its all about elevating the gashmiyus and living in the current world but bringing Hashem down here.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

This post is Lashon Hara in its highest form about a pure Torahdik family. The sin of Lashon Harah about an entire G-d fearing family is far more grave than the undesired impression that the interview left. Shame on you, authoress.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

All thgey were there to represent is their own families, and trust me, I know all 3 very well, they were being themselves and not putting on a show. If you don't agree they were the right people to put on the show, all you can blame is Oprah's team, there is really no reason to be insulting these holy Yidden. Are you embarrassed they were representing you? They weren't, they represented the holy jews whos focus in life is Torah, if that's embarassing to you, then I'm sorry for you. Instead of giving opinions and insulting, go out and do some mitzvos, like those embarassing women, so unstylish, oy vey.

Brocha Chana said... [Reply to comment]

I do agree with you about the misrepresentation of the typical Chabad family being so isolated from the rest of the world. Most of our children DO use computers, watch approved videos, and PUH-LEEZ we know about Mickey Mouse (I suspect the children in the family portrayed must be familiar with Mickey Mouse as well -despite thier claimes to the contrary).

Still I believe that you exaggerate the faults of the Oprah episode. You do realize, don't you, that many brighter things might have been said by the women who were interviewed but that the editing was done by Oprah's NETWORK? That the best responses might have ended up on the cutting room floor?

Also, dear blogger, you had time to come up with a "gay" response but the women interviewed were blind-sided by a question they had to answer on the spot!

And noone claimed we don't date for marriage. It was made abundantly clear that we believe couples should have chemistry and they are not just pushed together.

You make the episodes sound like a complete disaster - which it wasn't at all. I thought it was mostly a kiddush Hashem. The charity boxes in each room, the recognition of G-d in everyhing we do from waking in the morning to entering our homes with Mezuzos...

So in my assessment - it was a mixed bag...

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

The suggestion that these women are more insular than "even the Rebbe" would want them to be.... these are people who were raised in chassidishe homes and who learn the Rebbe's sichos on a regular basis and are sincere... people with real bittul. I would expect that if anyone here has a serious issue with anyone 's shitas that the matter would be handled with respect and ahavas yisrael-those women should matter more to you than what Oprah thinks. The fact that that respect is lacking makes me wonder what kind of Judaism exactly you are so enthusiastic about.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

I'm so glad you posted the follow up, "something found", because I was actually in complete agreement w/ your original post, but disturbed by the whole thing. I kept wondering where's the gam zu litovah, or whats the take-away here?..and the irony that this show came out right around chof beis shvat. I found the whole thing so unsettling, and was wishing something good could be found. I like that you dug deep and found a nice way to say that even if we reacted the way we did, perhaps there are other jews out there being touched by some of what was conveyed. I met a girl at work who is Jewish and not religious and she said she watched the show, and right away i felt i had to defend us, that no we are not all like that. Then i felt bad thinking maybe this girl who is seeing the whole thing w/ different eyes had a good reaction and i wouldnt want to ruin that. I think what was so hard, at least for me, was that I am a lubavitch woman, but didnt recognize myself or my chassidic philosophy in those women, and it was disconcerting. maybe its a sign of the times, that the longer we go without the Rebbe, the more we are all changing shape, some of us are blending in more w/ the litvish community and some are blending in w/ the modern orth community, and all of us desperately trying to hold onto what the Rebbe gave us. I wish the best for all of us.

Chana said... [Reply to comment]

I believe the main issue lies in Opera's angle. Opera knew what she was after, she used Chabad.org/Lubavitch as a way in (us being so media-friendly). She was not looking for more "balanced" or "worldly" representatives; she was looking for the stereotypical Hasidic family which is less common in Lubavitch. She may even have specified that she wanted a family from Boro Park.
She was trying to cover "Hasidic Brooklyn" - if Chabad was the only angle, it would have been a different story.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Opra winfrey does not want to see modern day chassidic people who live in the same lifeystyle and world as she does- that would make the show boring. She was looking for an authentic chassidic family who does live as a chassid lives(beyond the letter of the law) you may not like it, but that is what a real chassid is. I myself am not close to that but i also know that the ginsburgs portrayed something that is real and that many chabad families live as. Happens to be that Mrs. ginsburg herself is a brilliant educater and successful school directer and knows the ins and outs of every sicah given over by the rebbe and is very much aware of the world we live in today. i think the problem you have is that you don't necessarily identify with what being a real chassidic person is. I myself am not like the ginsburgs but i do have the common sense to know that what they are is the essence of what chassidim are like, and that is who Oprah winfrey was interested in meeting.
success with your journeys...as with all of ours

Der Shygetz said... [Reply to comment]

"world's most powerful woman"

Umm, that would be Angela Merkel last time I checked. Sadly, even Nancy Pelosi is way, way ahead of Oprah when it comes to real power.

The rest of your post, with the exception perhaps of the gay issue, is also off the mark.

It would have been best had they had R' Manis Friedman or someone present the actual Chabad view on homosexuality, but that is too deep for Oprah's format (I guess - the last time I turned on a TV in the US, Reagan was finishing his second term.)

Those who had to see it as a kiddush Hashem saw it as just that. It was not aimed at anyone anywhere on the Chabad spectrum at all.

In any case, this family lives as the Rebbe told us to live.