THE BACK PAGES

Family crisis? Call Rabbi 911.

LIANNE GEORGE April 24 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Family crisis? Call Rabbi 911.

LIANNE GEORGE April 24 2006

Family crisis? Call Rabbi 911.

tv

An Oxford theologian and friend of Jacko hits the road to fix broken homes across America

LIANNE GEORGE

He’s been described as “Dr. Phil with a Hasidic beard,” and “Dr. Ruth with a yarmulke.” But as the host of Shalom in the Home, a new prime-time reality series on TLC, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is more like a kitschy self-help superhero. Outfitted with an Airstream trailer—containing a state-of-the-art TV studio, surveillance equipment, and a rabbi bobble-head doll affixed to his dashboard—Boteach spent months criss-crossing the United States, tracking down some of America’s most dysfunctional families (Jews and non-Jews alike), to help bring peace and traditional family values back into their homes.

Rabbi Boteach—or Shmuley, as he prefers to be called—is a charismatic 39-year-old father of eight, an Oxford-trained theologian, a syndicated columnist and radio host, and the author of 16 books on families and relationships, including the international bestseller Kosher Sex, which Playboy reportedly paid US$200,000 to excerpt in its 45th anniversary issue. (The Orthodox community was outraged about the excerpt, but Shmuley found it gratifying “to show that sexuality can be holy and hot! ”) In the late ’90s, he served as spiritual adviser to Michael Jackson—a relationship that did wonders for Shmuley’s profile, but which he ultimately found “untenable.” Now, with the launch of Shalom in the Home, Shmuley may finally entrench himself in the pantheon of populist lifestyle gurus along with the likes of Deepak Chopra, Dr. Laura and Tony Robbins.

Although he is a fan of parenting shows like Nanny 911 and Supernanny—“We need them all!” he says, “the American family is in crisis!”—his show’s focus is not problem children, but the family unit as a whole. “One

of the most common perceptions parents have,” he says from his home in Miami, “is that there’s something wrong with my child, and someone should come fix him or her. But parents must first be honest and courageous enough to look at their own behaviour.”

In the premiere episode of Shalom, the affable Shmuley is called in to help Beatrice, a single mother from Philadelphia whose four children are at war with one another. After observing their violent interactions for several days from his high-tech mobile cave, Shmuley begins to examine Beatrice’s hostile relationship with Luis, the children’s father. Married for 17 years, the couple recendy divorced after Beatrice discovered Luis had been having an affair. Shmuley quickly identifies a marital reconciliation as the key to improving the children’s behaviour. (On the show and in conversation, Shmuley often notes that he himself was a child of divorce. And because he knows how devastating it can be for children, his mission is to keep families together.) Picking up on lingering sparks between the two, Shmuley nudges them closer, directing their conversations through earpieces like a modern Cyrano de Bergerac. By the episode’s end, Beatrice and Luis are “dating” again, and their kids, terrified to disturb the truce, dare not fight.

It’s a volatile peace, and the viewer does

wonder if the show hasn’t created false hope for this fractured family. If Luis reneges on his promise never to be unfaithful again, won’t the children be that much worse off? Who knows. Shmuley is off with his Airstream to the next home. (In fairness, he has given the “after care” of these families some serious thought. “It’s a real issue,” he says. “I can’t in my mind become someone who just steps into peoples lives for seven days and then steps out.” Two of the families, he says, joined his family last weekend for the Passover Seder.)

Despite his credentials, religion doesn’t play into Shmuley’s therapeutic approach, except in the broadest sense. “I believe that Judaism holds life-affirming truths that are not directly related to ritual,” he says. Even when he was rabbi at Oxford University, a position he held for 11 years, Shmuley’s focus was on reaching as broad an audience as possible. In 1988, he founded the L’Chaim Society, which has since become the university’s second-largest club, hosting some of the world’s greatest thinkers, including Elie Wiesel, Stephen Hawking and Benjamin Netanyahu. Shmuley was criticized by traditionalists for encouraging non-Jews to join. Ultimately, he decided to leave “the ivory towers of academe” to write books of a more populist nature. “At the end of the day,” he says, “I don’t see myself as a great intellectual. Life is lived in the home and in the workplace.” Or—if you’re a rabbi/reality TV host with broken families to fix—on the open road. M