Supernanny With a Beard
A celebrity rabbi takes on the American living room
Honestly, it was a girl’s dream come true. Queer Eye called, and they were looking for my husband.
To be fair, David does have excellent taste. He’s just a bit of a…minimalist? So I figured hey, if the Fab Five could set him up with three more pairs of shoes—even two!—I’d feel slightly less self-conscious about the vast amount of real estate taken up by my collection of cowboy boots.
David’s first reaction: no way. The world, he said, does not need to see Carson going through a rabbi’s underwear drawer. As it turned out, however, the producers were looking for clergy attached to some sort of social action project that could use some spiffing up: a dismal soup kitchen or run-down playground that needed a makeover.
After exhaustive consultation with every rabbi he knows, David was still wary, but agreed at least to audition. With the focus off his wardrobe, he reasoned, the show might be a great opportunity to spotlight something we don’t see so often on TV: images of a rabbi both maintaining appropriate gravitas and looking friendly, accessible, cool, three-dimensional—”normal.”
Ultimately, the Queer Eye producers went with someone else. But until David gets his own show, there is Shalom in the Home, starring megarabbi Shmuley Boteach.
On his new show (Mondays, 10 pm, The Learning Channel), Boteach cruises the country in his Heal Mobile, a tricked-out Airstream that’s half therapist’s couch, half mobile surveillance base, to bring peace to warring families: the surly kids mad at their dad for cheating, the banshee mom unable to speak below a shriek, the 9-year-old girl with “anger issues” who, I swear, came thisclose to spinning her head around 360 degrees and projectile puking on the camera crew.
Boteach is sort of like Supernanny with a beard, except his primary mission is not discipline. When parents sit in the Heal Mobile to watch video of their rugrats mouthing off or destroying the house, Boteach is quick to point out that their kids’ obnoxitude is all about them. Only when the parents pipe down, forgive each other, or face the pain of their own parents’ divorce will kids set the table without being asked twice. Encouraging families to cooperate might involve a game of hoops or a camping trip with “trust activities,” plus direct coaching from Shmuley through a Secret Service-style earpiece.
Does Boteach actually wind up helping these families? I’m pretty sure he gets them off to a good start, though I would have been more entertained if Mr. and Mrs. Lubner had opted to leave their feral 9-year-old in the woods. Despite the clown-at-a-party cadence of Boteach’s voiceovers, his manner is pleasantly sincere, perceptive, and respectful; he’s firm when necessary, but never a bully like Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura. I was especially impressed—moved, even—by how seriously Boteach took a 16-year-old’s offhand complaint that her squirrelly boyfriend had a habit of yelling at her. (“You’re hurting me, too—that’s what makes me raise my voice,” quoth the manipulative punk.) Happy ending: girl learns she deserves better; furious father scares punk straight.
Selfishly, however, I’m more interested in whether Boteach, with his presence on this show, is helping the Jews. And specifically, the rabbis among them. Given the wide breadth of his book topics (dating, misogyny, fear, “kosher” sex), a vast multimedia resume stretching from Oxford University to Neverland Ranch, and perhaps the caffeine intake of his publicist, Boteach has become the go-to Jew—”America’s rabbi,” if you will—on everything from psychics to pedophiles.
But arguably, this conventional, watchable show on TLC will bring him to a larger mainstream audience than ever. And what impression will that audience—the nonreligious, the religious who have never met a Jew or a rabbi, the unaffiliated Jews who have come to distrust “organized religion”—come away with?
Shalom in the Home will do nothing to disabuse strangers of the assumption that my husband has a beard. But does it reinforce other Jewish or rabbinical stereotypes? Well, there are brief moments of the kind of Jewish corniness that makes me want to stick a fork in my eye, such as shots of the ghoulish bobblehead rabbi on Boteach’s dashboard. And what does he say when he meets the family on the basketball court? “Short Jews can dunk!” What do I say? Me darf zikh sheymen far die goyim. Cringe.
But Boteach is exponentially more appealing—and intelligible—than he has been when interviewed on, say, Fox, where he’s nearly driven Tony Snow to drink with loony tirades like this: “There’s two million men and women who are part of a warrior class that protect us, and a lot of us are hiding behind plastic sheets, for God’s sake, Tony, and we are the inheritors of Washington, MacArthur. We have to learn to be contemptuous of evil again.” By welcome contrast, and I don’t necessarily mean to damn with faint praise, no one will come away from Shalom in the Home thinking, “I wanted to give the Jews a chance, but that rabbi is crazy!”
Shalom, overall, makes Shmuley look like a good guy. This, I believe, is good for him, and good for rabbis, Orthodox and otherwise. I like that he, on the show, upends the stereotype of the stern rabbi who says “Feh!” to the secular world, who is attuned to the minutiae of halacha but not the breadth of human experience, who (like me?) is unable to walk through life without his but-is-it-good-for-the-Jews? glasses.
More upside: I know that rabbis in many movements—and their wives—complain that people tend to think of rabbis as larger-than-life God People, not as actual humans, people with pasts and warts and dishes to do, people who are also rabbis. (I know. I’ve seen their faces when I mention that my husband watches American Idol.) We learn from the show’s goofy, cartoonish opener (narrated, gag me, by his mother), that Boteach himself is a child of divorce. This, he reminds us frequently on the show, is what motivates him to help others find shalom bais, peace in the home. While this conceit irritated me at first, it does help us see him as a guy with feelings, a rabbi who cares not just because he wants to make things Good and Right, but also because he’s been there.
Yet, for all its rabbi-hype, the show is only stealthily religious. Apparently, only one of the families Boteach helps this season is Jewish. And of course, shalom bais is itself a Jewish concept—though we’re obviously not the only faith or culture that values a home sweet home. Otherwise, even with Boteach’s charismatic presence, the show is not even really kosher-style—and I’m of two minds about this.
Of course, it would make no sense for Boteach to march in and try to get a Methodist family to both “use ‘I’ statements” and observe Shabbos. And it pretty much makes my day to see someone real or fictional on television who’s explicitly Jewish, yet basically mellow about it. Someone who’s not The Jewish Guy, not a Jewish joker, not a caricature, not tormented in some way by his faith. Someone who’s Jewish and really pretty fine with it. (For this reason, David and I love Hesh on The Sopranos. Of course, he is also a criminal.)
Still, I have to say that one of the show’s most real moments comes (alas, in one of the “outtakes” shown during the closing credits) when Boteach encourages the once-wayward husband to swear that he’ll cut off contact with the other woman. “Swearing: that’s a sacred oath between you and God,” Boteach says—and you can tell from Luis’ face that Boteach’s language really speaks to him. There is a broad “God” language—talk of a higher power, the “universe,” a connection to something larger than ourselves—that does speak to many people, religious and not, that inspires them to try to act like they’re not the only person in the world. So why isn’t there more of this?
The producers of Shalom in the Home say they conceived of the show rabbi-free, then cast Boteach. But I wonder, just a teeny bit, why it seems to shy away from opportunities to offer even this type of broad spiritual language where it might work—or at least make sense coming from a rabbi? I mean, otherwise, why hire a rabbi? Does this mean that it’s “okay” to have religious people on TV as long as they’re not, you know, too Jewish?
But enough conspiracy theory. Shalom will do no harm. What would help, I think, is if Boteach were not the only big-shot media rabbi, if he were not one of the few “out” Jews (fictional or otherwise) on television. He represents himself quite well, but he does not represent all rabbis. Not all rabbis are Lubavitcher; not all are hirsute; not all suck at basketball. (And so far as I know, none has been on Queer Eye.)
I know, you’re thinking of all the rabbis you have seen: the rabbi on Sex and the City who converted Charlotte, the rabbi on Grey’s Anatomy who dealt with the perennial pig-heart-in-a-Jew issue, to name just a couple. Still, it would be nice to see an even wider variety of rabbis—and of Jews of all stripes—on TV, doing a wider variety of rabbi and Jewish things, even just day-to-day life stuff. Why? So that viewers can see those fellows in black hats, say, as actual humans. So that the unaffiliated can ask whether it’s really necessary for that one bad experience they had in third-grade Hebrew school to make them hesitate to get married under a chuppah. So that people of all faiths can get even the teeniest taste of the massive diversity of Judaism and its clergy.
I’d say the same for other clergy, too. Might be especially nice, for example, to meet a fictional priest without a dark side.