Shmuley on Oprah

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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was the featured guest on Oprah yesterday, and I figured I would take one for the team and watch so I could report it to all you loyal blog readers.

Shmuley’s appearance was something of a promotion for his TLC reality show, Shalom in the Home, in which the rabbi infiltrates America’s dysfunctional families and tries to get them back on track.

Shmuley obviously has a reputation for being something of a self-promoter and a celebrity hound, but I’ve also heard people I respect express (surprised) admiration for his work, so I went into my Oprah-viewing fairly neutral in my opinion of the rabbi. Here are my notes and thoughts:

– I was surprised by the aggressiveness of Shmuley’s tone. He doesn’t coddle. He rebukes and preaches with an intensity and certainty that was a bit unsettling at first, but ultimately works for him.

– A key point from Shmuley: “We need to redefine success in America.” i.e. success shouldn’t be, first and foremost, professional success, but rather having a healthy, loving marriage and family.

– Twenty minutes in I find myself convinced that Shmuley’s actually a really smart dude. And at least from the clips they’re showing of him working with the families, it does seem like the goal of the show is to help these people. It’s not sheer voyeurism.

– But it’s striking that, for the most part, the families seem to be solidly middle-class, meaning families that have the socio-economic base to more easily live healthy, productive, fulfilling lives. So maybe that’s why it seems more tasteful than you might think. It’s cleaner. Shmuley doesn’t have to deal with serious class issues.

– I didn’t expect there to be many explicit references to Jewish sources, but I was surprised that there were none at all (that I caught, at least). Oprah referred to Shmuely as “rabbi” and obviously, he was wearing his kippah (and beard), but other than that his speech was wholly de-Judaized.

– Unless you count something he said toward the end: “Every day of your life there’s a fork in the road and you can either choose life or choose death.” (A reference to Deuteronomy 30:19 perhaps?)

– Plus, in a short video vignette about American kids and overindulgence, there were two references to over-the-top Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, including the $10 million affair for
Elizabeth Brooks held at the Rainbow room.

In sum: I was impressed. Shmuley didn’t exactly transform the nature of Oprah-wisdom, but he was likeable and smart and did seem to help the people he worked with.

Pending Question: How does Oprah keep her eyes teary for a full hour? It’s an amazing gift. She always looks like she’s one tragedy away from breaking down under the weight of her empathy.

Posted on January 11, 2007

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