Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Oprah as God and Torah

Can't stay away from that NY Times "Sunday Styles" section, much as I try. OK, I don't try. In fact, I lunge for that section the minute my hubby lugs in the paper, eager for the escape into that strangely savage parallel universe, where people carry $1,500 purses to hold the credit cards financing their unique adventures to the plastic surgeon, the Hamptons and Cannes.

One story grabbed me this week, aside from the entertainment of searching the wedding announcements for the gay couples, and gagging at the deliciously smug descriptions of nuptial couples' backgrounds ("The bridegroom, also 27, received a doctorate in chemistry in June from M.I.T., where he specialized in nanotechnology research." "His father is a financial adviser in the the financial services unit in New York of UBS, the Swiss bank, and from 1994-2001 was the publisher of Golf Digest...")

No, the wedding news only framed my favorite story, which was reprinted in our local Seattle Times the following day: "Life in the Time of Oprah," by Jessica Grose. Datelined Chicago, Ms. Grose described the life of Robyn Okrant (above), the 35-year-old wife who voluntarily has submitted herself for one year to everything Oprah, choosing to make all choices according to advice dispensed by the favored gurus or the World's Richest Woman herself. Ms. Okrant traces every decision she makes, from her clothing to her hair dye to her mental perspectives to an edict from the show, the magazine or the professional assistants of Oprah Winfrey.

Then she blogs about it. And seeks to get a book contract out of it. "Oprah's like the popular girl in high school who knows how to emotionally blackmail us," Ms. Okrent says in the article. "The way she'll deliver advice is, 'This will make you happy, unless you don't have enough self-esteem to do it...It's the illusion of free choice, but it's actually an absence of choice."

Ms. Okrent's husband, Jim Stevens, says the Oprah fixation has changed his wife toward being "hyperconscious about her appearance." Which might actually be okay, given that emulating Ms. Winfrey's personal life would leave him out of the picture. In fact, striving to become a clone of Oprah Winfrey--or at least a desciple--must leave lots of opportunity for failure. The Styles piece quotes lifestyles editor Sarah Hepola: "I think there was a time when Oprah really lived her advice," she muses, "and I think that time was 1988."

What struck me about Ms. Okrent's undertaking was--forgive me--how much it smacks of the way pious people approach religion. OK, speaking as a Jew, the Torah puts forth down to the most minute details means to approach every aspect of life. Wake up and immediately say "Modeh ani" thanking God for reviving you. Wash off that "tumah" that sullies you during your snooze. Put on your right shoe first. Say your prayers, complete with blessings for taking each step, and wearing clothes. And that hasn't scratched the surface of the system that overlays on each and every decision to be made. True, like Ms. Okrent, you have free will to choose whether to abide by "the rules" or depart from them, but "it's the illusion of free choice, but it's actually an absence of choice," as Robyn notes. If you're going to buy into the system, be it Oprah's way or the Torah, then any veering off just means "you don't have enough self esteem," read, "discipline" or "strength of character," to succeed.

The difference is...well, first off, lots of people DO confuse Oprah with God. But not really. Second is that Robyn Okrent is doing this for just a year, for a kick, or, more likely, for career advancement. People who accept a religion do it not just for life, but for after-life. That's a real commitment. At the same time, the folk who accept religion, be it Torah or Koran or New Testament--think there's truly no alternative. They know what God wants, and after all, He's God; if he doesn't like your path, it's worse than sleeping with 'da fishes. If you're Hindu, you could be a fish.

According to the Styles article, the essence of the Oprah lifestyle is "a spiritual quest," and that's pretty close to what religion offers, too. You can replace the Oprah-ese "shlumpadinka" (which sounds pretty Jewish to me) which dictates fashion choices with the sartorial customs of Catholic nuns or Chasidic Jewish groups. You can substitute Oprah's refrigerator endorsements for physical accoutrements religions use--oh, say a succa, or elaborate rectories.

So, I chuckled at the silliness of Robyn Okrent's pursuit. And then I went to cook my kosher food, say the grace after meals and read my Aish ha Torah emails. Um....why do I feel weird about this comparison?


  1. The paradox is that we have complete freedom to be totally obedient.

    why do I feel weird about this comparison?

    Ask yourself 'who sits on the throne in the center of my heart?' Guessing that your answer isn't "Oprah," I think you're just fine.

  2. Sounds like career advancement to me, and copycat career advancement. This idea of watching yourself do something for a year (like you said, NOT really committing) is so detached and sort of smug-urban-intellectual, and it was already done by that guy who tried to follow the Bible literally for one year ("Year of Living Biblically") and wore white and didn't shave or cut his hair and did many other ridiculous things that make real religion look bad.
    No fair for you, of all people, to put yourself in same camp with these opportunists/exhibitionists. Yuck. Kisses and hugs!