Tonight, OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, is airing the second part in its “Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn” special. Oprah visits Crown Heights, and after last night’s episode where she toured a Chabad family’s home, tonight she sits down with a quartet of Hasidic women for an in-depth interview about sex, children, spirituality, and good wigs.
Over at Tablet Rachel Shukert has a great commentary on the episode that aired last night (though she didn’t mention my favorite moment: when Oprah noticeably stopped listening to her hostess because she was distracted by the hostess’s wig). But Shukert’s view is that in tonight’s episode, Oprah is able to get over herself enough to deliver a powerful and meaningful interview. And to a degree it’s true—tonight’s episode is much better than last night’s, and has quite a bit more substance to it. But what the episodes really reveal is how intoxicating Hasidic life and culture can be to an outsider, but also how ill-prepared it is for any deviations from the norm.
Oprah’s questions are understandably pitched in ways that won’t ruffle too many feathers. “Are women valued in [Hasidic] relationships?” she asked last night. I can’t imagine she expected the couple she was talking to say, “No, but we make excellent apologetics.” And tonight, after getting the lowdown on the mikvah, and Hasidic sex rules, she starts trying to push a bit more, albeit rather gently. She asks the women what happens if a woman doesn’t want to get married and have a family. The hostess has a (presumably now-mortified) niece who is 22 and somehow not looking to get married. The other women think this is odd, and one says, “I personally don’t even know people who don’t have that as their dream.”
The major bombshell happens when Oprah asks, “What happens when one of your children is different…and by different I mean GAY.” (She speaks in all caps, I’m not making that up.) The women are initially speechless, and eventually settle on repeating, “What you’re saying is very extreme.” They can go so far as saying that there’s a strong connection between a mother and her children, but there’s no discussion of how that would manifest itself if one of your kids is GAY.
And noticeably, Oprah doesn’t ask what happens when a kid grows up and doesn’t want to be Hasidic anymore. Perhaps Oprah, like a newbie at Ohr Somayach, can’t imagine ever wanting to leave such a magical world. It’s a conspicuous absence, though, when a much-hyped new memoir comes out on Tuesday, telling the story of a woman who chose to leave the Satmar community. Surely Oprah, who spends so much time in shock that none of these women know who she is, can understand how someone might want to live in a home with a TV and a regularly scheduled date with the Oprah Show.
Oprah’s chat with Hasidic women is compelling, it’s good TV, but while it does give a glimpse into Hasidic life for the viewers, it stops short of asking questions that would force the women to take even a short glimpse out of their world in Brooklyn.