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by Avraham M. Goldstein
As these words are being written, the news of Senator Joseph Lieberman’s selection as Al Gore’s running mate has instantly relegated Dr. Laura Schlessinger to the rank of second most famous Orthodox Jew in America. Second, because with up to twenty million listeners tuning in to her top-rated radio show each week, she used to be first. And she has used this exposure to open a window onto Judaism’s true stand on today’s key moral issues.
The trip to Yiddishkeit has been a long and winding road for Laura Schlessinger, husband/manager Dr. Lewis Bishop, and son Deryk. This giores tzeddek, true proselyte, was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish father and an Italian mother. The family moved to Italy and then came back to the U.S. Dr. Laura recalls a childhood with “no religion” in her life.
When she was about thirty, already highly credentialed in psychology and associated fields and a successful California talk show host to boost, she was asked to speak at a Beverly Hills synagogue. She had “the oddest feeling” walking in, and told her audience, “I feel a little breathless being in this building, and I’m not quite sure why.” Her inner yearning for Judaism had begun to surface.
Her real epiphany, however, came one morning nine years ago. Flipping through television channels with five-year-old Deryk, she froze at the site of Holocaust footage. Deryk, now fourteen, remembers asking, “Who are those people?” His mother replied, “They are Jews.” Deryk persisted, “What’s a Jew?” Said his mother, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Little could she have known that she was also about to find herself.
Recalls Dr. Laura, “I started reading books about Judaism. When I got to the part about Jews being a nation of priests, I said, ‘Bingo, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.’ ”
Dr. Laura’s journey of discovery led her to a Reform temple in Los Angeles. The family went to Passover services, and here she had another revelation. Her father had once said about Judaism, “I will not be a member of a religion where they celebrate the mass murder of children.” Yet here she saw the Seder participants spilling wine from their cups to memorialize the Egyptians who had suffered during the Ten Plagues. “He lied to me!” she remembers thinking.
Yet an attempt to placed Deryk in a Reform religious school failed on grounds of hypocrisy: the school saw nothing wrong with serving non-kosher meat. Next they tried a Conservative temple, but again came away unsatisfied. The reason? Dr. Laura says that while the rabbi teaching the class she attended was nice, “he never talked about G-d.” It was form without substance.
Along the way, the family picked up additional Jewish practices, including keeping kosher. All three also underwent a Conservative conversion. At the same time, her radio show was gaining in popularity, and she was quite open on the air about her religious awakening.
Dr. Laura started to correspond with Rabbi Reuven Bulka, a prominent Orthodox rabbi in Ottawa. She was slowly becoming aware that not all Jewish groups shared Judaism’s traditional values. Her association with Rabbi Bulka proved invaluable when she was assailed after a presentation she made for a secular Jewish group. She had made the benign observation that the only thing missing from a fund-raising video about the group was the fact that giving charity is a mitzvah. In her words, “It doesn’t matter if you feel” like giving; tzeddakah is mandatory.
“It was a very ugly thing,” Dr. Laura says. “Media all over the country reported that I had been rude in front of a Jewish organization. I was stunned. What hurt was that everyone had been telling me to be careful about talking on the air about becoming a Jew, that anti-Semitism would snap me. It wasn’t; it was the Jews who came up and snapped me.”
She credits Rabbi Bulka with pulling her through this trauma. “He was on the phone every afternoon, trying to talk me through this. He told me, ‘I don’t want to go down in history as the rabbi who lost Dr. Laura!’ ”
It was at this time that, as she humorously puts it, she, Lew, and Deryk elected to “upgrade” their Jewish status. Having become aware that a Conservative conversion did not pass muster in the eyes of traditional Judaism, the family flew to Canada, where Rabbi Bulka converted Laura, Lew, and Deryk k’halachah, in accordance with traditional Jewish law. Deryk now attends Shalhevet, a yeshivah in Los Angeles. This summer he went to Israel with Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.
Today the family makes its spiritual home at the Chabad of the Conejo, in Agoura, California, and has developed a close relationship with the synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Moshe Bryski. Dr. Laura recalls their first visit to the shul. “The first person we saw said, ‘Welcome. Would you like to come to our house for lunch?’ Everyone was just so nice. We all liked it a lot, so that’s been home.” She says of Orthodoxy: “I’m enthralled with the mentality” of people actually living their beliefs.
As Dr. Laura discovered religion, her show changed focus from psychology to ethics. Having realized the truth of Biblical morals, she began challenging callers for not putting their children first, for divorcing, for aborting pregnancies — for refusing to take responsibility for their lives.
Dr. Laura makes no bones about Judaism’s true position in favoring traditional values such as marriage and family, and its disdain for alternative lifestyles, elective single motherhood, and divorce.
How does she reconcile Jewish law with her largely non-Jewish audience? “I always say to callers, according to Jewish law, this is the law; let’s see how we can extrapolate to your situation.” Dr. Laura admits that she is a novice when it comes to the Jewish view of things. “Sometimes during a break I call Rabbi Bryski and say, ‘I have ten seconds; here’s the situation. What’s the law?’ ”
Her approach has earned her the respect of her largely Christian audience, which sees in her a kindred spirit. “People have a newfound respect and understanding for Judaism,” she says. And how do Jewish listeners react? Says Rabbi Bryski: “When Dr. Laura goes on the radio and talks about Torah, it strengthens the self-image of the ordinary Jew who is listening.”
The public perception of Judaism has been falsely colored by the Jewish left, both secular and religious. It has painted Judaism as the repository for almost every anti-moral cause imaginable. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Dr. Laura’s take-no-prisoners approach to morality has invited vitriol, especially her oft-quoted comment that homosexuality is deviant behavior. She has declared time and again that she harbors no personal animosity towards gays and lesbians — that she is denouncing the sin, not the sinner. Rabbi Bryski says, “Gays have taken her words out of context. When anyone tries to say, ‘No, this is what she really said,’ they get shouted down. And the media is a willing accomplice to this.’ ”
She says, “The hate that I have gotten from the secular Jewish community is flabbergasting.” Rabbi Bryski adds, “When Dr. Laura went public that she was going to convert to Orthodoxy, it sent shockwaves through the Reform movement. She is their target number one.”
Groups that support the mainstreaming of deviant lifestyles have pounded at potential advertisers for Dr. Laura’s upcoming television program, to the point that Procter & Gamble withdrew as a sponsor. Yet she refuses to dilute her message in order to silence her critics.
She professes astonishment at her lack of support from Orthodox Jewish quarters. “I have been disappointed at how silent the Orthodox community has been. The people to come to my defense, and in defense of G-d’s laws, have been basically Christian Protestant.”
Dr. Laura continues that this silence encompasses issues beyond her own. She notes that conservative Republicans ask her why the only Jews they hear about are the ones tearing down moral institutions. “Why are the only rabbis we hear from the ones that want to have same-sex marriages?” they want to know. Again, she has no answer.
Are the Orthodox simply more segregated, so that they are uninvolved in promoting an agenda? “If you’re going to change the world, if this is a tikkun olam moment, you have to be out there doing it, not just insulated in your group. I always thought the Orthodox are the keepers of the flame, but if there’s a flame in the wilderness and nobody can see it, it doesn’t matter.”
Dr. Laura’s Take On the World
What is the prime reason for the decline in our moral climate?
What is the key reason for marital difficulties today?
You spend two or three minutes with a caller. Is this enough time to give them what may be a life-changing answer?
Are you concerned that you demean or embarrass callers with your tone?
I’m never asked, tell me about the times you cried when somebody called. I only hear about the tough talk. But the prophets were pretty threatening too. Do you hate the prophets and only like the priests? I’m more like the prophet. I’m going to take a pot, put it over your head, and bang on it. I’m going to make sure you hear me.