"The world didn't see intellectual prowess and passion of
an articulate kind. But they saw good."
Oprah and Us: Something Found
By Mimi Hecht
This past week, I published my reaction to Oprah's episode on "America's Hidden Culture" featuring the lives of Chassidic (Chabad) families. I shared my strong disappointment and embarrassment from what I felt was the interviewees inarticulate, uneducated and blind-eyed portrayal of a Judaism that I deeply treasure as relevant for all mankind. I blamed the Chabad organization that was contacted to help for missing an enormous opportunity to enlighten the world.
Entitled "Oprah and Us: A Lost Opportunity," my article has had me inundated with comments and e-mails from people of all walks of life, many whom share my cringing reaction but also from those who feel that the episode indeed made the right impact. I have since had a chance to more calmly consider the deeper truth of this whole situation. I have searched for insights into both Oprah's and the general public reaction. I have looked within myself to wonder what so deeply bothered me.
So, for all those that felt I was speaking for them in my unrest over this episode, I have more to say that can hopefully quiet our nerves and encourage a bit more mindfulness.
I must admit that, for better or worse, I am an idealist when it comes to conveying the essence of my Judaism. Like many of my Jewish brothers and sisters who have spent time studying Judaism to make it purposeful and meaningful in our lives, I have jittery legs when it comes to giving secular Jews and the world at large a beautiful glance at our nation, our faith. While I would never attest to know it all, I certainly have made it a point in my life to have the answers to hot-button questions and know just how to reveal a nicely packaged Judaism that overflows with relevancy, intellect and inspiration. To me, Mikvah and our structure of marital intimacy is a blessing with inherent truths applicable to all mankind. To me, keeping modesty should be unavoidable to women everywhere because it is not about covering flesh but revealing our divinity and walking through life as a healthy and empowered woman. To me, my role as a wife and mother is neither a "basement" nor a "foundation," rather a force to be reckoned with.
I have an itch for people to know the deeper reasons behind our seemingly archaic and whacky customs. I believe as strong and sturdy as a mountain that Judaism is relevant to every person of the world. But alas, I was not chosen to give my take, to share my fiery quest to unearth and spread Judaism's depth. Instead, the family approached was one of a more simple, gentle and quiet obedience to the same Judaism I passionately embrace.
And yet, as much as my peers and I cringed and protested from seeing our Judaism, our Chabad, being explained from the mouths of those seemingly unprepared women—there is something undeniable about Oprah's reaction. The world's reaction.
Our reaction as Jews who "know better" is warranted, but it's important (even just for our sanity) to take a look at how the world saw this episode. The same world who is seeing Orthodox men on TV hurl stones at women, the world who thinks Chassidic men are all abusers, the world who see Chassidic women as subservient — the world that sees us as pariahs of a cold, scared kind. This same world, who sees all our invented garbage and believes it, finally saw a warm, gentle, intimate and unafraid "Orthodox" Judaism. I've perused the reactions. In short it goes like this: "Wow, they seemed so kind" or "I didn't know this about Hasidic people" or "I wish I was raised like that" or even "I'm not scared of them anymore." Blog after blog, comment after comment, and Oprah-fan after Oprah-fan has affirmed my happily-discovered sense that, from this episode, the world saw good.
They didn't see intellectual prowess and passion of an articulate kind. But they saw good.
I know that Oprah did not leave Brooklyn having a deeper understanding of the relevancy of our obscure laws and customs. On one level, it can be considered a shame. But, ya know, Oprah came looking and indeed something was found. She found goodness. She found warmth. She found commitment. She saw the beauty on the faces of G-d's children who cling to his ways with a "stiff neck" and a gentle heart. She saw humble vibes instead of high horses; a friendliness that tossed away the world's impression of us as cold and uninterested.
And most of all, she saw in "us" the ability to reach a "stranger"'s heart, despite our supposed insular and strange ways. Now that is something. Apparently, you don't have to be cool, articulate, worldly or even all that passionate to inspire another to truth. Just one taste, one touch of authentic Judaism — no matter how much the presentation lacks — is enough to shake a false impression, pierce another's soul and embed more healthy curiosity into minds all over the world. That, my brothers and sisters, is the true strength of our people. That, my friends, makes me beam with pride.
So, really, to the Ginsburghs I am thankful. Because however deep and true and relevant I feel my own Chassidic lens might be to Oprah and her viewers, I am indebted to you for showing the world we have a heart. A completely caught-off guard, simple, indistinct...yet totally beautiful Jewish heart.