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Shalom in Whose Home?

  I've known Rabbi Shmuley Boteach since 1999, when I was publicizing my first novel, Run Catch Kiss, and found myself a guest on a Fox News show with him. We were brought on as two opposite sides of a … Read More

By / March 30, 2007

 

I've known Rabbi Shmuley Boteach since 1999, when I was publicizing my first novel, Run Catch Kiss, and found myself a guest on a Fox News show with him. We were brought on as two opposite sides of a coin – he the conservative, family-values Jew, and I the provocative, twentysomething sex columnist.

Oprah’s favorite rabbi has flitted in and out of my life a couple times since then. My parents gave me Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments for a birthday a few years back. Then, several months ago, I came in the living room after putting my daughter to bed to find my husband Charles watching Shalom in the Home, Shmuely’s popular parenting show on TLC that has inspired his latest book of the same name. It was the episode with the woman who nagged her children even when they made her breakfast, and I liked Shmuley’s way of dealing with her. Even Charles, who has a healthy skepticism of makeover shows, was impressed with his shrewd psychologizing.

Shmuley and I recently appeared on a panel at the JCC-Riverdale on the subject of sex. Again, we were brought on to be adversaries, but the most contentious things got was when I mocked the way women stop caring about their figures after motherhood and Shmuley felt I was too harsh. Still, I will never appear in public with this guy again: his sound bites are far too studied and funny for me to stand a chance of upstaging him.

Plus, in an orthodox Jewish setting (the audience was largely orthodox), the rabbi is a rock star, whereas a Jewess who’s written sexually themed novels is a pariah. You should have seen the looks they gave the big red lips on the cover of Run Catch Kiss.

Luckily, Jewcy has offered me the chance to play critic this time around.

– Amy Sohn

 

To: Shmuley Boteach From: Amy Sohn Subject: The Perils of Anti-Attachment Parenting

Dear Shmuley,

I’m sorry I was not able to attend your 40th birthday party (our mutual friend Scott invited me), although I was aghast that you are only 40 because your beard ages you, and curious to see what such a celebration would look like.

I live in Park Slope, near Prospect Park, and frequently observe “your people” walking with their many children on Sunday afternoons or playing in the Third Street Playground and I feel a mix of contempt, curiosity, and envy. As an iconoclastic, Brown-educated, sex-writing, feminist, raised Reform Jew, married to an atheistic, religion-hating, genetically Gentile son of divorce, and raising a baby girl with him, I find myself wondering what we the secular community might have to learn from the religious community. I despise the xenophobia, insane rigidity, homophobia and sexism of Orthodox Jews (who I will call here the frum) but I often envy their emphasis on the sanctity of marriage and honoring mother and father.

This is in part because I feel so frustrated by American parenting today. When I look around me at the playground, the local Food Coop or 7th Avenue to see how other parents are raising their children, I am sickened by the total indulgence, lack of affection between parents, and general dog-wagging-the-tail. So what can the un-frum learn from the frum? This seems to me to be essence of your show Shalom in the Home and your new book Shalom in the Home: Smart Advice for a Peaceful Life.

Shmuley, I see you as the anti-attachment parent. You practice (at least on your show) detachment parenting. I agree with your belief in the importance of marital intimacy to family harmony. If children do not witness loving and sexual parents in the home, they will have no idea how to enter into healthy and loving relationships as adults. But in so many of the relationships I see, the children are the center of the family. Parents seldom go out alone or vacation alone, the sex life is nonexistent and by the time they begin to get it back they feel social pressure to have another baby – which only puts it on hold for another few years. Men look at online porn; women watch America’s Next Top Model, eat Ben & Jerry’s, and nurse chardonnays for the intimacy they’re no longer getting in their marriages.

Worse, both father and mother seek this intimacy from the children. When the baby awakens in the middle of the night they argue – not over who gets to ignore it, but over who gets to go in – so eager are they for the company the children provide. Email, newsgroups, television and the computer all offer a kind of connection, however false, that adults are no longer getting from each other.

So I am not surprised that in many of the scenarios on your show, the key to helping the family was to work on the couple. And I am certainly not surprised that in many of the families, one or more children were sleeping in the marital bed. Co-sleeping is in vogue these days, though its consequences are treacherous.

I also agree with your contention that too many American parents are afraid to discipline their children. Today’s parents are afraid to be the bad guy, to enforce boundaries – and this has already had unpleasant results for the children, with today’s high level of antidepressant use among young adults.

What twenty-year-old wouldn’t be depressed if he were raised to think he was the center of the universe? The Maxwell family in Chinatown was a glaring example of this. The 3-year-old son did not sleep in his own room, the father indulged his every whim, and the parents had a platonic relationship. I only wish Dr. Bill Sears, author of The Baby Book and the one who started this mess, could hear you say, “Withholding discipline in the name of loving our children is, in practical terms, to despise our children and to cause them grievous harm.”

I recently visited a preschool program at a local synagogue and witnessed a child repeatedly hitting a teacher in the face. Eventually she was restrained but clearly someone at home was teaching this child that hitting was acceptable. I saw a father at a local restaurant allow his two-year-old to empty the entire contents of the saltshaker onto the table while they were waiting for their food. It’s one thing to give a kid a fork to bang – but to let her take the condiments hostage? I know several four-year-olds who insist on pooping in their diapers and a three-year-old whose mother must get in bed with her each night for up to an hour until she falls asleep, after which her mother sneaks out. What is going on here? Why are so many parents afraid of their own kids?

I do have two fundamental disagreements with your book. I do not think, as you say, that “teenaged sexual activity . . . robs them of their childhood and precious innocence.” I think much depends on the age of the adolescent and the relationship. Two seventeen-year-olds in a respectful, committed relationship may be more capable of lovemaking than two drunken twentysomethings who just met at a bar. And if a teenaged girl is lucky enough to have a committed partner who cares about her pleasure, she will compare future lovers to that first, attentive one, knowing that a man who doesn’t care about her pleasure isn’t worth it. Your categorical insistence on abstinence in teenaged years is naïve, out of touch, and will only encourage children to hide their activities from their parents instead of ask advice on such matters as birth control and STD production, advice they desperately need.

And I think in many of the families you visited you tried too hard to get them to forestall divorce when it was clear that divorce was the best thing for the children. Some of your interventions designed to bring separated couples together (like the Romeros) or keep conflicted couples together (like the Lubners) seemed forced and ill advised. Isn’t the best thing for a child two happy parents? As a child of divorce yourself, don’t you think your parents did you a favor – or are you agonized that they split up and trying to compensate for it in your show?

Amy

Click here to read Shmuley's reply.

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