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.