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Increasing harmony within the Jewish home is certainly a worthy subject of media inquiry. Television's Channel 1, financed by our licensing fees and committed by charter to producing programs with religious content, devoted its prime-time show The Jewish Home to this subject last Saturday night.
"Shalom Bayit," literally, means peace in the home. The term has taken on ironic connotatiosn in Israel because of its use by rabbinical court judges as a reason to send women seeking divorces, even abused women, back home to try again.
In anticipation of International Anti-Violence to Women Day, my e-mail this week contained numerous messages related to the breakdown of family harmony. One announced a campaign to support battered women's shelters by sending SMS text messages. A second sadly confirmed that Rachel S., the Orthodox woman whose tragic story of being denied contact with her children was the basis of Naomi Ragen's play Women's Quorum, would probably have her complaint dismissed in court. The third was about twins removed from a neglectful home.
With eagerness, I turned on the TV to see how family harmony could be promoted.
THE HOST, a producer and two experts sat on a podium - all men. Rabbi Simha Cohen, an experienced marriage counselor and author, offered advice that sounded a lot like the 1990s bestseller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. She has a huge need to express herself, and he has a hard time listening. She wants him to acknowledge her feelings when she says she's tired, and he wants to give her solutions.
Cohen described a typical household scenario with a husband coming home from a hard day at work to confront his harried stay-at-home wife. But in the real Israel, in those homes where there are two parents, most women work outside the home and shoulder the home responsibility too. This, and not overblown emotional needs, is the reason she is indeed exhausted.
Attorney Benny Don-Yechiya, a specialist in family law, shared an anecdote about an unhappily married older man who rejected divorce because he's "too old to hate another woman."
Truth can be poison, continued the attorney. Cohen backed him up by quoting the troubling mishna from the Ethics of our Fathers: "Don't talk too much with a woman," citing a gloss by Rabbi Bartenura that a man is apt to forget to filter his conversation when talking to his wife. A practical example on dissimulation: Let's say your wife expects you to sing "Woman of Valor" on a Friday night but doesn't deserve such praise. Rather than insult her and create a row by refusing to sing, just think of your worthy mother.
Cohen admitted that a woman in an audience he addressed accused him of hypocrisy - tzviut - which comes from the word for "color." His first response was to make a joke about the woman's "colored hair." Ha ha.
The discussion was punctuated by filmed reports from the field. The first did feature a woman counselor who teaches interpersonal communication to singles at The Hebrew University. In another, we watched Bratzlav Hassidic rabbi Shalom Arush demonstrate his brinkmanship in halting divorce proceedings between wives and their verbally abusive husbands. We met a mystic who supposedly can tell a woman why she's not finding her mate just by meeting her and learning her name. Another purported mystic, "Rabbi Elijah" was featured because he'd correctly predicted the "blows" that the United States would receive because of the country's insufficient godliness before the hurricanes. Such hateful prognostication was congratulated and Rabbi Elijah was invited to expound on problems in France.
Next was a newly black-hatted healer who reportedly sacrificed his wide following as a meditation teacher in India to become observant and return to Israel. He related how for five years he lived with a Chinese woman because he believed in bridging cultures. They had a daughter together, whom he delivered. He no longer sees his little girl because his former lover resents his love of the Creator, but he misses his daughter because "she's part of him." Now he's married to someone else and has a son. To be joyfully married, you must look inside yourself, he advised, a process facilitated by his breathing exercises.
I'm not making this up.
Don-Yechiya brought his doll collection to the studio. These sculptures of husbands and wives include one of a mother-in-law separating the couple. The Internet is full of mother-in-law jokes, laughed the program host. Cohen produces dire but unattributed statistics about the negative role mothers-in-law play in marriages.
Get the idea? The show reinforced gender stereotypes, promoted doubtful mystics, patronized women, bashed mothers-in-law, and ignored serious issues.
Can't we do better than this for religious programming? A good start would be the inclusion of women who would change the tone of the discussion.
A colleague comforted me: Hardly anyone watches The Jewish Home. With the ill-informed, stereotyped content offered, who'd want to waste their time? Indeed, last Saturday night's prime-time episode attracted only 3.8% of Jewish TV viewers in the Jewish state.
Is that the good news or the bad news?