Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Oprah and Us: Something Found

"The world didn't see intellectual prowess and passion of 
an articulate kind. But they saw good."

Oprah and Us: Something Found 

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. 

13 LadyMama voices:

Chanalesings said... [Reply to comment]


Elisheva said... [Reply to comment]

This follow-up article is a wonderful thing and reading it made me feel very good.

It takes strength to see the positive in something that you have an immediate and inherent bad reaction to; but Mimi, you did it graciously.
There are many ways of living "Jewishly" and the world can learn something from all of them.

(I am very interested as to how you would have answered all of Oprah's questions - an idea for a future blog post, perhaps?)

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

And this is a "true" approach to "redemptive" Judaism-you've redeemed yourself and others with your recognition and appreciation that intellectual prowess isn't the beginning and end all to relating and giving over the "Jewish message" to all our brothers and sisters world-wide-love of each and every Jew is...thanks...good Shabbos,

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Was gonna say... Specifically those who believe it to the point where they follow blindly are the ones the world should learn from. The world knows religion and understands there are extremes, what are goal as "lamplighters" and what I like to call the last bit of purity left in this world is to impress the universe with our portrayal of inborn, natural, (subserviant), and everlasting love for our one true creator and all he creates. -anonymous

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Good second-take. It was important that you did this. Yasher koach.

Evelyn Krieger said... [Reply to comment]

Incredibly honest and insightful!

sina @ the kosher spoon said... [Reply to comment]

That was beautifully written. I commend you for being able to take a step back from your initial reaction to look through the positive lens and the positive reactions I've seen post-interview.

Bracha Yanni said... [Reply to comment]

Dear Mimi,
I must say that I truly appreciated both your articles. In life there is always the first reaction and then a more calm, collected, passive AND THOUGHT OUT reaction. I too felt that there was a certain lack of passion and inspiration in the way the woman spoke. But perhaps to the world the simple and embraced Judaism is what they needed to see. The Ginsburg family love torah and mitzvos and that sincerity was seen. Truly that message was properly portrayed. It is to us Chabad and chassidic woman who live this life every day that need the inspirtion and depth to help us in our lives. Perhaps thats not what needed to be said to the world. It reminds me of a recent living Torah that I watched. The Rebbe spoke so strongly about going on shluchos and going out of our comfort zones to inspire and help another Jew. Chasidim were complaining that they didnt have a bottle of milk for their children. At the same time the Peace Corps were sent out to the farthest end of the world without milk and had basic or barely basic necessities to live on. The Rebbe made a parallel between these two enormous world events. He emphasized that sometimes Hashem sends a message through the main stream world. Jews were inspired to go on Shluchos because of the "mesiras nefesh" of the peace corps. Perhaps Oprah too is a shliach of the Rebbe and she in her "hidden" way became a chasid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe spreading a message of World Jewry and Acts of Goodness and Kindness all in the Rebbes name. It is through that vessel, just like the peace corps that will inspire a deeper and stronger message.
I believe that the positive message was there in her show and embraced by the world! Be proud and live it proudly!

Faygie Fellig said... [Reply to comment]

i appreciate your second article. I am much older than you and therefore had a different reaction to the Oprah interview. Had I been young like yoiu i would have reacted the first way. but I am older and wiser so I reacted the second way. I think some of us that are steeped in this generation of internet etc. find it hard to believe that there are those that truly live a 'clean' chassidishe life with the same values as the generation before us. Hard to imagine for those of us who are a little more involvd in the world out there. You can see the genuine nature of all the women interviewed. I think they portrayed Lubavitch as pretty close to perfect. And maybe some of us are uncomfortable with perfect....

K said... [Reply to comment]


I didnt personally see the episode but after reading both the posts you made about it, i totally see your point of view! I always love modern but spiritual People!!
love K

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

you have redeemed yourself in my eyes!! Your first article seemed so (un-like you) close minded!!! you need to put yourself in the viewers' eyes for just a moment, take yourself out of Jeudaism, out of the Lubavitch as you know it and imagine a blank slate watching the show. It is mind blowing. All the interviewees were very careful and chose what I believe were the RIGHT words. they had limited time and used it beautifully. Take off the Lubav lense and you will see a whole new side of the interview. bravo Mimi, proud of you :)

Ilana said... [Reply to comment]

While I agree that it was an elementary introduction to our practices, it fit with Oprah's audience. I work with many secular Jews and they all came and talked about the show with me. Eyes were opened because of the simpleness. Now it is our turn to express the depth, color, and intellectual power behind Chabad.

Der Shygetz said... [Reply to comment]

This time you got it :). Oprah (or any popular TV personality) and "intellectual" are diametric opposites. People saw what they needed to see, which was good. Best of all, it came out at a perfect time, as Debauched Failedwoman was busy trying to make a quick buck and get her 15 minutes of fame with her Unorthodox and untruthful picture of Torah life.