Fix-it man

If Shmuley Boteach is still a broken American male, why take his advice?

shmuley boteach 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
shmuley boteach 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach St. Martin's Press 320 pages; $24.95 Two hundred pages into his 300-page new book The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach describes a poignant evening when he is called upon to comfort a bereaved mother. He succeeds where others have failed, using his trademark mix of empathy and creative thinking. He is indeed a gifted counselor. On that tough evening, Boteach took his wife, Debbie, with him. He wasn't asking her to augment his work from her abundant experience and intuition. What he wanted was, in his own words, to impress her and to remind her that he's a good man. As a reader, I was glad that Boteach took me along on that trip, too. I needed a reminder of the good-heartedness and talent of the rabbi who is best known for his best-seller Kosher Sex and as the marriage-healer on the American national cable television show Shalom in the Home. Indeed, the Boteach who can talk a 44-year-old man back from the edge of a cliff makes only an occasional guest appearance in his newest book. Instead, Boteach exerts himself to document the brokenness of today's American man and then offers suggestions to put him back together again. The troubling part of this book is that he numbers himself among the broken. Boteach isn't referring only to the shattering event of his past: his parent's divorce. He lives, so he says, with a feeling of defeat when, for instance his TV show gets ratings far lower than Dr. Phil's and Oprah's. On hearing that a friend's Internet start-up was valued at $600 million, he says "He had attained much more than I had, and didn't that mean that he was a better man? By every objective criterion my culture had given me to assess my worth as a human being, he had surpassed me and was therefore more valuable. I was a piece of garbage. A nothing. A zero." That's pretty strong self-condemnation from a man who has published 18 books (mostly offering advice to others), who is a TV celebrity, who has a dazzling wife and eight healthy, loving children, and who is "good friends" with his publisher. This is a man deeply immersed in Judaism, who observes Shabbat, who continues to study the daily page of Talmud, and who received his rabbinical training through Lubavitch - a movement that isn't known for its crass materialism. He rides a bike with his six-year-old and gets hugs from his daughters when they come home from school. He has a cause, a career, a family, a wife, religion - what he's recommending for the money-mad, dispirited, orgasm-addicted, TV-watching, emotionally shut-off American man, a group he belongs to. Only women hate themselves more than men in his analysis. The advice he offers to heal brokenness includes getting a life mission, focusing on values, enjoying a loving relationship with a woman, worshiping God. But after all these years of doing just that, if Boteach is still broken, why should we take his advice? The genesis of The Broken American Male was a 2005 opinion piece that Boteach wrote in The Jerusalem Post: "In his distress he turns to various forms of escape, designed to make him feel better about himself and numb his pain. Becoming a sports fanatic allows him to live vicariously through his favorite team and feel heroic. Through workaholism he convinces himself that one more hour at the office will bring him the success for which he is desperate. The attentions of another woman make him feel like a winner. Alcohol numbs his heart even as it poisons his soul. And pornographic addiction, which is becoming an epidemic among American men, allows him to experience a similar numbness, the non-feeling of emotionlessness, which is the real reason that so many men masturbate, for the bliss that follows sexual climax. He wishes not to feel because when he does feel, all he feels is pain." Boteach reportedly received hundreds of letters from men who said he was singing their words. He wrote the book as an answer to those correspondents. Perhaps he rushed to answer their desperate complaints because the text seems at times to be not well organized and the language needed pruning. Take a sentence about the rise of investment bankers with their enormous bonuses: "Gone are the days when the fab two top Jewish professions were guaranteed to give Mama oodles of nachas (health) winning cooing competitions over her fellow yentas with stories of 'my son the doctor, my grandson the lawyer' as they sipped warm borscht and played bridge." I assume that the mistranslation of nachas will be corrected in the proofed copy, but will the author who so often venerates women dispense with this callous and stereotyped description of Jewish women? I don't mind a rabbi pontificating about sex, but I'm prudish about his choice of words when describing the ideal wholesome American male, as someone who is "not a suck-up in the office. Brownnosing is outside of his nature." Boteach is at his best when he's repeating anecdotes from his real life. He's weakest when he makes judgments that have only marginal validated support such as: Alexander the Great conquered the world because he needed to prove himself a worthy successor to his father; Einstein (who was far from a model of family values, as opposed to Napoleon) had the ideal kind of ambition; wrinkles were once a woman's badge of honor. He has determined that women are more unhappy than at any time in recorded history and that Donald Trump is the most broken man in America. The process of writing the book exposed a brokenness even greater than Boteach had realized. He leaves us with a pledge that he's started on the process of healing himself. I wish him good luck. And to take a page from Reb Zusia: The good Lord won't ask you, Shmuley, why you aren't Oprah; just be the best Reb Shmuley you can be.