Menu JTA Search

Dallas appearance by Dr. Laura causes furor — and sparks questions

Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES, March 19 (JTA) — Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the nation’s reigning radio talk-show therapist and author of the book, “10 Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives,” conceded last week she was having a “spiritual crisis” following a speaking engagement last week at the Dallas Jewish federation. “Look, I was just doing a story,” Maryln Schwartz of the Dallas Morning News said of the column that brought Dr. Laura to tears. The article in question contrasted two superstars, Dr. Laura and Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug, and how their fans react to meeting their idols during personal appearances: “Kerri was sweet and cute,” Schwartz said. “But then there was Dr. Laura.” Schwartz is a self-described Southern Jewish belle from Memphis, who at age 8 dressed up as Scarlett O’Hara to play Esther in the Ahavas Chesed Purim pageant. Her thrice-weekly column, which she has written for 14 years, covers a kind of wacky side of Texas, most recently the debut in Houston of the opera, “Jackie O,” featuring African-Americans in the roles of Jackie and Aristotle Onassis. In Dr. Laura, she clearly had a cat by the tail. Schwartz interviewed some of the 1300 Dallas women who paid $40 plus a $150 federation pledge and declared the Women’s Division dinner a bomb. Schwartz wrote that Schlessinger had been a prima donna about her hotel room, about the car that transported her (she has allergies), the imperious way she demanded kosher food. She balked at a “big giver” cocktail party and hadn’t been cozy with the women at her head table. “She was nasty, arrogant and insulting. Her remarks were disgusting. She was putting down everyone in that audience,” Schwartz quoted one woman as saying. But what did she say that caused offense during her March 5 speech? Schlessinger, who converted to Judaism last year, spoke at length about her personal journey, urging her audience to greater religious observance. But in a crowd whose majority were Reform Jews, her innuendoes were deemed slights. She said that she and her son had been to a Reform Passover seder where the guests wore shorts. She came out against intermarriage (her husband, Lou Bishop, is in the process of converting). She said she is always home for the Sabbath, but once when she was not, she pulled over to the side of the road and said the prayers with her son by cell phone. Then she criticized a community-boosting video on the benefits derived from giving to federation which was shown before the meal, saying it did not mention the word God. “She made it sound like she had a Black Belt in Judaism.” said Ann Zimmerman, a Jewish community activist and a journalist who wrote up Schlessinger’s visit for her “Buzz” column in the Dallas Observer. On March 11, the day Schwartz’s column appeared, Schlessinger replayed the incident for a national audience. Her voice breaking, she called the accusations “idle gossip.” She said she was giving her fee to a home for unwed mothers. After Schlessinger’s husband phoned Schwartz in protest, Schwartz wrote two more columns and appeared on CNN. “She takes her Judaism very, very seriously,” said her rabbi, Stuart Vogel, of the Conservative Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, California, who spoke to Schlessinger after the incident. “She comes to this with a very pure heart.” Schlessinger’s assistant tells reporters she’ll have nothing more to say on the matter. “It’s water under the bridge to her,” the assistant said. But on Monday, Dr. Laura once again opened her show to note that her answering machine was filled with supportive phone calls, most of them generated by Warren Duffy of the Christian Broadcasting Company. She accused the media of a “shark fest.” Since her conversion, Schlessinger has increasingly sprinkled Jewish values into her on-air advice. Jewish newspapers have recently praised her as a leading spokesperson of Jewish ethics. Two months ago, she addressed a standing room-only crowd at Steven S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles. Her subject: “Why it’s great to be Jewish.” “She spoke about her journey from no religion to participating in the temple, keeping kosher and how she wants to keep the Sabbath,” said someone who saw her in Los Angeles. “She was terrific.” During the question-and-answer session, a mother complained to Dr. Laura that her daughter was rejecting Judaism to follow Agape, a New Age faith. Dr. Laura turned the tables, pillorying the mother with her own religious hypocrisy. In Dallas, however, Dr. Laura was expressly told not to take questions since the size of the crowd made the microphone logistics a nightmare. When she launched into questions, that got her into even further difficulties. “She cut short people who only wanted to praise her,” said Zimmerman. “She would make a noise like a buzzer when they were in mid-sentence.” In its own trivial way, “L’affaire du Dr. Laura” focuses attention on a new wrinkle in Jewish community organizing, the penchant for calling national celebrities to speak about Jewish concerns. Sometimes, as with Dr. Ruth Westheimer or Alan Dershowitz, the magic works. Sometimes it doesn’t. “They know who she is, I don’t know why they were surprised by what they got,” said Susan Wilkofsky, a community activist who had thought to bring Dr. Laura to Dallas for its Jewish Book Fair. But that’s the twist: they could handle her gruff, no-nonsense approach about everything but Judaism. “I thought she’d be more empathetic when she addressed her own people,” one woman said. Vogel, her rabbi, says that Dr. Laura’s sensitivities indicate how much being Jewish means to her. “She once was in a battle with Dean Edell over circumcision,” he said, referring to another talk-show host. “She never took that incident personally, it was just business. But she really means this.” For more than a week, the affair was the talk of Dallas’ 38,000 Jews. It dominated Super Sunday, where Dallas residents raised $580,000 in their annual fund-raiser. The Dallas federation, meanwhile, is trying to put a friendly spin on the debacle, saying that Dr. Laura, in attracting a record number of women who pledged $350,000, more than did her job. As one Dallas confidante said: “She raised the money, that’s what it’s all about isn’t it?” In fact, the federation responded to questions about the incident saying, “If for any reason Dr. Schlessinger was offended by the actions of any individual, we are deeply sorry.”