Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Hasidic Oprah Shows

I did end up watching both Oprah episodes, and I enjoyed them - so sue me!  Part I, was very much as predicted, a sort of sugar coated introduction to the community through the perspectives of two families. The first was the Ginsberg family - I guess meant to represent a "typical Hasidic family". Oprah toured their house, pretended to bake a challah (I wonder if she would be allowed to turn on the oven in their kitchen?), and had lovely conversation with the family, including all their children at the dinner table. Like I mentioned in this post, she gushed over the children's oblivion to popular culture and electronic media (cell phones, television etc.). In the past Oprah asked very similar questions of children when she visited a Fundamentalist Mormon enclave. She was not as impressed then.

Mrs. Ginsberg asked Oprah about the pressure to cave in to the materialism of the secular world, and Oprah enthusiastically confirmed her suspicions. Mrs. Ginsberg responded by sharing her "Aha! moment" of insight into materialism: After she bought a beautiful sheitel, she still wanted more. (I doubt she subsequently donated the "materialistic" sheitel, though. Judging by the mesmerizing effect the sheitel had on Oprah,  it seems she happily kept it along with her newfound insight). Oprah also visited a black Hasidic family, the Abrahamsons, and oohed and aaahd over how well they were accepted.

Yesterday's episode was a little more interesting, for me. The camera zoomed out a little and presented a broader view of the community. There were brief interviews with various business owners: from someone who runs a sheitel shop, to a Hasidic male artist (I always thought that according to stricter Jewish law you weren't supposed to draw figures, and abstract art was preferable - is that a misconception?). In the introduction to the show, Oprah mentioned the segregation of women on buses, though that was not further probed. She discussed the tremendous show of solidarity demonstrated by the Hasidic community in the wake of the horrific kidnapping and murder of Leiby Kletzky. She also visited a mikveh, and interviewed four Hasidic mothers.

It was interesting for me to see the mikveh. I have only ever been in one with my sister-in-law in Israel (and a whole bunch of her relatives and friends) when she married my brother. The mikveh there wasn't nearly as fancy as the one on Oprah, and of course I'm curious as to whether that's a reflection of American vs. Israeli mikvehs, or if Oprah just happened to visit the cream of the crop of mikvehs. I also didn't know about the stipulation of visiting a mikveh after sundown. When we went with my sister-in-law, I figured they were just busy during the day with last-minute wedding prep.

I was surprised, based on how positively spun the trailers and leads ups were, that she did probe some controversial questions. She asked what if women in the community didn't want to become mothers and wives. One of the women could not imagine such a thing. And when Oprah asked how they would feel if their child was gay, the shiny veneer really cracked. Oprah's hostess, Mrs. Ginsberg was quite visibly disturbed and taken aback by the question, and exclaimed that that was "an extreme" situation. The one BT in the group, collected herself, and answered the more politically correct version along the lines of: "I think you're talking about something extreme, and if our child were to do something extreme,  . . . as our child we love them. They're still part of who we are".  Shortly after, Oprah concluded, that meeting Hasidim confirmed what she set out to confirm: we are all more alike than different. I'm not quite convinced that her hosts would agree.

You can see the video here:


  1. Thanks for the wonderful synopsis. I didn't get to watch myself. So happy she asked the "gay" question! I loved watching Oprah when I was home on my maternity leaves :)

  2. Thanks so much tesyaa! Yes - I am definitely her target demographic!!!

  3. I'm reading through the book "Unorthodox" right now, and that lifestyle sounds quite... puritanical.

  4. About the gay question, Oprah might as well have asked what they would do if their children were bank robbers? Sure, we all say we'd love our kids no matter what, but in the face of them shaming the family? It's such a big question that we don't really consider how we'd be if our kids robbed a bank. These mothers don't give a thought to how they'd be if their kids were gay. It simply can't happen. They don't go there. Problem is, being gay is fairly common. Robbing banks isn't.

  5. Andy - I don't think they consider puritanical an insult . . . Atheist though, that's a dirty word. You and I wouldn't survive very long in that world!

    Anon- absolutely. The reaction of the women really betrayed how sheltered they are. The advantage of the same media they were chastising, has made people like "Ellen" household names, and gay people are really no longer such an "extreme" in the outside world.


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