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Talk Therapy

A visit to a Hasidic family in Brooklyn—where nobody knows who she is—magically transforms Oprah back into the person she once was

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Oprah Winfrey joins the family for a traditional meal. (George Burns/Harpo, Inc.)

After more than 30 years in broadcasting, most of which she has spent as arguably the single most recognized woman in America, if not the world, Oprah Winfrey has finally managed the impossible: She is interviewing a family that has no idea who the hell she is. And she didn’t have to track them through the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea, or pilot an OWN-branded luxury catamaran through pirate-infested waters.

No, all Oprah had to do was take a chauffeured SUV over the Brooklyn Bridge to Crown Heights, a place “that is like another place, maybe a little townlet in Europe,” in the words of Aaron Ginsburg, who with his wife Shterna and their nine lovely children is one of the main subjects of “Oprah’s Next Chapter: Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn” a two-part special that will begin airing Sunday night on OWN.

By “Hasidics,” as she refers to them throughout, Oprah is actually speaking of Chabadniks, the most camera-ready of all Hasidic movements and the only one with whom she interacts. I am a totally secular pseudo-atheist—I don’t believe in God, and I’m afraid He can hear me when I say so—but I have never personally met a Lubavitcher I did not find utterly charming. The Ginsburg family, complete with adorable and well-behaved children in Von Trapp-style coordinating jumper outfits, is no exception, answering Oprah’s softball questions in the initial episode with typical breezy cheer: “Having nine kids is a blast!” “Separation between the sexes brings us closer!” “You can’t even tell it’s a wig!” (Oprah, no stranger to a good sheitel herself, is duly appreciative.) Shalom bayit is lovely, but it’s not exactly high-octane viewing.

Yet there is something profoundly illuminating about this special, even for those of us for whom revelations of separate stoves and ritual baths are old hat. The fascination lies in watching Oprah herself, as she struggles, with barely concealed shock, to grasp her own irrelevance in the lives of these people. Oprah may be known for her common touch in interviews, yet she sees herself—quite rightly—as anything but common. Before any given chat can begin, each interview subject must first pay homage to her fame—weeping, hurling themselves into her arms, thanking her for the privilege of being permitted to lay bare to her their souls. Even the FLDS women on the Warren Jeffs polygamist compound told her how much they loved the show.

The Chabadniks, on the other hand, greet Oprah with the sublimely cheerful indifference you might display when meeting, say, the lady who does the restaurant reviews on the little TV in the back seat of New York City cabs. They know she has a TV show, they know her name is Oprah, but they have no idea what Oprah means, and one suspects that they wouldn’t think it was any big deal even if they did. After all, what good is worldwide fame to people this committed to eschewing worldliness? It’s telling, too, that of all the Hasidic practices Oprah interrogates—the arranged marriages, the husband-and-wife two-week no touching rule—the one she keeps coming back to is the fact that none of them have ever watched television. “You don’t know who Shrek is?” she, with increasing desperation, asks the Ginsburg children, who laugh good-naturedly at the nice lady making up the funny words. “Or Miley Cyrus? Or Beyoncé?” She even resorts to name-dropping her own achievements, hoping for some shred of recognition. “I have a magazine,” she tells Shterna, who responds with a blankly encouraging nod, like if you told your grandma you just started a Tumblr. “The kids love to read,” the husband offers gamely, and Oprah exclaims: “I had a book club!” “That’s good,” he replies calmly, encapsulating four millennia of nearly incomprehensible Jewish resistance to assimilation and conversion in an offhand two-word sentence. He might have been talking to Jesus Christ himself: “So you think you’re the Son of God. That’s nice for you.”

It all comes to a head in the second episode, when Oprah has her vaunted sit-down with four Hasidic “wives and mothers,” in which no question is “off-limits.” She’s in her element here, sitting regal as a rebbe in the Ginsburg’s attractive, Talmud-lined library; there’s even a woman who has heard of her, a ba’al teshuva named Brocha, who greets her hostess with a pleasant “I haven’t seen you in 15 years,” as though it was Oprah, and not she, who had retired from public life, as though she was a Sally Jessy Raphael, or G-d forbid, a Rolonda. I don’t mean to imply that the Hasidic women treated this stranger in their midst with any disrespect; far from it. They just blithely, obliviously refused to be any more impressed with her than she was with them.

Then, a wonderful thing happened, something I believe attests to the greatness of the Jewish people, and perhaps the Queen of Talk herself. Divested of special status, Oprah did something I haven’t seen her do in years: She began to relate to these women as her equals. She listened to their explanations of their faith, their family, and their spirituality not just with camera-friendly attentiveness, but genuine openness. She allowed them to speak directly to each other; she let them interrupt her, she even let them talk over her. At the end of the discussion, she looked directly into the camera and solemnly intoned that she had accomplished what she set out to do, the mission she had laid out all along: to prove incontrovertibly that “we are more alike than we are different.” It’s even truer than she knows.

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Rachel – excellent article, and beautifully written. (i loved this line in particular: “I don’t believe in God, and I’m afraid He can hear me when I say so.”)

Nice article, but Lubavitchers are a lot more savvy than they let on. But still, I am sure that teh family had very little knowledge of who she was, and certainly were not impressed.

philip mann says:

I love these atheist lines, the one quoted above, and a previous one, about a non-practising atheist.

Very good article by the way-a chance for Oprah not to be recognised.

Jill Selikow says:

Hi Jilly,
This article is just for you, being such an O-fan Can you just picture the scene and conversation.Send it to Dani and Jami. I,m sure it will have some meaning for them in the style of “picture this………”
Good shabbis. Love Mom

Wonderful, funny article. (I guffawed at the book club line.) I’ve long wondered about my fascination with Crown Heights, and now I’m beginning to get a clue.

Awesome article! I do have one tiny correction for you though; Oprah never wears wigs or hair pieces of any kind. Surprising and unimportant, I know, but I used to work for her and if she were here she’d want credit for rocking her own locks.

O

Thank goodness she interviewed Chabad women who are very wordly in the views. It must be a very eye opening special I will watch it for sure on Sunday evening.

Richard says:

Nice article.
I of course know who Oprah is.
I am like many other secular pseudo atheistic Jews.
I have actually never seen any show of Oprah’s or any show that she’s been in or read “her” magazine (I have a magazine too, actually several, they come in the mail every week) but I’ve caught her in passing, as it were.
I always had the impression, of this I am sure I am not alone, the she is a person who is more impressed with herself than anyone else could or would be impressed, with her.
I doubt very much the opinions reported in this article. It just makes for good reading, nothing else. The one thing Oprah cannot do is not draw attention to herself.
This Oprah is saying Look at me, I’m not drawing attention to myself.
How about that?
Let her live and be well, you know the rest.

Rachel says:

Jackie, I am impressed and humbled. That is some gorgeous hair.

Interesting…last week (or was it earlier this week) Oprah was gaga over Budhism. that sure didn’t last long. Keep on lookin’ O, it’s out there.

brynababy says:

Richard, You are a self-important idiot. Oprah is admired and respected by millions of people. She is a lovely, good person who does good things for others. Methinks you sound more like the self-impressed person than Oprah would ever be.

I wonder if Oprah realizes that these ultra Orthodox Jews will be voting Republican in the fall, that they don’t support a women’s right to terminate a pregnancy and that don’t support gay marriage. The ultra Orthodox community of Kiryas Joel, NY voted over 93% in favor of John McCain in 2008. I am hoping the interviews will be available on YouTube after a few days delay.

And blacks voted 98% for Obama. And a majority of Americans don’t support homosexual marriage.

Actually Dan, a majority of Americans DO support same-sex marriage. Review the latest polls.

Rachel, this is a terrific article. I laughed out loud. In a place where Heaven meets Earth, this family brought Oprah down to Earth.

miha ahronovitz says:

“Chabadniks, the most camera-ready of all Hasidic movements..” What about the Breslov hassidic movement? Unlike Chabadniks,who do have a mellowed description of miracles, as synonymous with nature, the Breslovers go beyond and invoke miracles through prayer and “hitbodedut” (Meditation). The Chabadniks minimize the practice of hitbodedut. It will be a pity if the Hasidic Jews image become synonymous to Chabad.

This is a lovely article. One of the very few I’ve seen from Tablet Magazine lately that I can say I actually enjoyed reading. I’ll definitely tune into the OWN special tonight. Miss Oprah and her 457 pairs of shoes could probably learn a lot from the Lubavitchers!

Gordon Schochet says:

This is all well & good, but who — or what — in the world is “Rolanda”? No, I won’t follow the link to find out: in fact, I’d probably rather not know.

A very interesting column. I am a Reform Jew and, while I have heard of Ms. Winfrey, I have never seen her television show, too.
But your lovely story made me think of Regina Spektor’s song, Man of a Thousand Faces, who discovers “a place that no religion has found[:] a path to our alikeness.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRdNaoeix8A

S.l. Block says:

A nice, if naive description, complete with romanticized generalizations about ultra-orthodox Jews in general and Chabad in particular. Members of the family go shopping, pass newsstands and are aware of what goes on in the secular world in and beyond Crown Heights. Totally unaware of who Oprah is? Might the television crew and equipment, plus signed authorizations, have offered a hint? Please!

Beautiful article. Loved every heartwarming word. To “Rocky” : This Crown Heights Chabadnik will not be “voting Republican in the fall.” Please don’t generalize.

“The Chabadniks, on the other hand, greet Oprah with the sublimely cheerful indifference you might display when meeting, say, the lady who does the restaurant reviews on the little TV in the back seat of New York City cabs. ”

Alas, I think you’re underrating the average American’s fetish for anything remotely in the celebrity sphere. I (unfortunately) know more than a few people who would become excited and giddy if they encountered the woman they’d been watching in cabs.

I mean, hell, people get really excited when they meet the critic from the local paper. Why wouldn’t they get excited about the one on a taxi TV screen?

Shoshanna says:

Great read! Thanks :)

PBDfender says:

Great article! Big fan of the author’s!

I guess no one else thought it problematic that the author compared Jewish kids to the Von Trapps?

Dr. M. Mock;Degen says:

Dear Rachel Shukert,
Chabad surely knows how to handle PR. That is how they succeeded over the years to make Lubavitch/Chabad a known entity in the Jewish and non-Jewish world. However there is more to this organization than its PR. Obviously their PR is so overwhelming that people are taken in and do not observe its problematical sides. Hassidism and in particular Chabad have elevated the veneration of their Rebbes to a level and an extent which interferes with the authentic Jewish notion of the relationship between an individual Jew and Hashem and the idea of having a free choice. Chabad shares some of its characteristics of religious and spiritual leadership with new religious movements and cults. Being without a leader for some years did not move Lubavitch to a more balanced position as the extreme adoration of the last Rebbe is still there, including the messianic expectations of him. Another problematic issue is that adherents who opt out are out. Sympathy from Chabad side not seldom turns into adversity in such situations.
It seems to me that too often also journalists are impacted by the clever PR of Chabad, which by the way does not accept Ethiopean Jews in its schools, receives huge amounts of money from prominent Jews who have fathered non-Jewish children and vehemently opposes that one inch of land conquered during the war in 1967 will be given to Palestinians. Not exactly my kind of Jewish ambiance I would like to join, nor to sympathize with, nor to write in superlatives about.
Sincerely yours,
Dr. Minny Mock-Degfen
Rehovot/Israel

Oy Gevult !

miha ahronovitz says:

After seeing the program of Oprah this is just as spontaneous as Survivor or The Bachelor, both heavily scripted soap-opera presented as reality. First, supposedly no one heard of Oprah, but all women, men and children were visible proud and emotional for being the center of attention. Most Chabad rabbis and people I know have Internet connections, otherwise how can they read http://www.chabad.org or send and receive the broadcast emails to keep in touch with followers and communities.

The whole program shows Oprah’s respect for Judaism values, but it portrays an the anachronistic , yet heroic Hassidic life style as a fairly tale. Arranged marriages always work, forget about love, no one heard about Chassidic gays (all they have to do is read Haaretz newspaper http://bitly.com/xj6cVY ). The word divorce does not exist but Chabad dedicates talks about it “Divorce is a tragedy, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do” http://bitly.com/A5cyUy This has not even been touched in Oprah’s interview, as would be interesting to know how a woman with nine children remarries after a divorce.

After the program, I wondered why not every Jewish and non-Jewish family does not adopt a similar way of life. Because even the Chassidim’s life style is their “gimmick”, their “being different” spiel, their shtick. for some this is happiness. If saying I never heard of Kafka, Oprah or Shakespeare is a source of pride, we have a real issue here

Lou Adams says:

The far left never stops pushing it’s agenda and never stops judging others who do not think exactly like they do.

I’m with Miha Ahronovitz. I find it very hard to believe that these Chabadniks were truly as media-ignorant as they said they were. And I also agree that although Oprah was kind enough to show Chabad Chassidism in a positive light, the story based on the people who she chose to interview, was something of a fairy tale. There are gays in the Chabad community. There is divorce. There are problems – the community just doesn’t like to acknowledge them.

i thank God that these people don’t know who these nasty celebrity who just promote sex are. because maybe their children would be rebelling against them, and start behaving slutty. so its a good thing that some true devout people dont know these wicked celebrities. and they live their own lives

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Talk Therapy

A visit to a Hasidic family in Brooklyn—where nobody knows who she is—magically transforms Oprah back into the person she once was

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