NEW YORK, March 7 (JTA) — For Laura Schlessinger — better known as “Dr. Laura” — the fact that Jews were among the most vocal opponents of her new nationally syndicated television show was “more devastating to me than if someone had burned a cross upside down on my front lawn.”
Schlessinger, the lightning rod of a talk-show host whose sharp tongue and moralistic advice have earned her millions of fans and enemies, is a close second to Joseph Lieberman as America’s most famous observant Jew.
Yet Schlessinger’s controversial radio and television shows have been embraced far more enthusiastically by Christians than by fellow Jews. Many Jews bristle at her one-liner approach to morality and her outspoken opposition to things like feminism, abortion and homosexuality.
This week, however, at an Orthodox Jewish gala where she received the “National Heritage” award, Schlessinger — whose TV show recently was moved to overnight time slots after a massive grassroots campaign by gay-rights advocates — felt vindicated.
The program for the National Council of Young Israel dinner described Schlessinger as “a powerful source of inspiration and pride for all Jews.” The mainly right-leaning Orthodox Jews filling the large room applauded her, and many approached her afterward to ask for autographs and declare their admiration.
One even extended Schlessinger, whose Star of David necklace has become one of her trademarks, a Shabbos invitation.
“I’m not much of a guest,” Schlessinger responded politely. “After services, I usually sleep all day.”
Born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Schlessinger, 54, grew up in an Italian section of Brooklyn, raised with “no religion, no God, zippo in that department.”
She earned degrees in biology and physiology — and is a licensed marriage, family and child counselor who was in private practice for 12 years — — but became best known for her sharp-tongued show. Then, several years ago, prompted by a question from her son, Schlessinger began poring over books on Judaism.
“When I got to ‘nation of priests,’ I went yelling into the room my husband was in and said, ‘I know what I’m supposed to do now — I’m a priest,’ ” she recalled in an interview with JTA at the Young Israel dinner.
When a Conservative rabbi informed her she would have to convert, Schlessinger was indignant, saying, “Excuse me, I was Jewish enough to go to a concentration camp, but I’m not Jewish enough to be accepted into the club?”
Nonetheless, she completed a Conservative conversion process, unaware that there were different streams of Judaism and that not all Jews who went to synagogue obeyed Jewish law.
That all changed with her first public speech at a Jewish organization, the women’s division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. In that 1997 incident, she claims she was unjustly criticized for advocating observance of Jewish law and kashrut.
People at the event — including a columnist for the Dallas Morning News — complained that Schlessinger had been abrasive, interrupted questioners and flippantly criticized Reform Judaism and working women.
The incident initially made Schlessinger want to give up on all things Jewish.
After discussing the incident with an Orthodox rabbi friend in Canada, however, she decided to undergo an Orthodox conversion. Her husband and son converted as well.
“A large part of me wanted to make a statement after that experience, to stand even taller about Jewish values,” she said.
“Besides, if you don’t have an Orthodox conversion you can’t get buried in Israel,” she said. “I want to be close to ground zero.”
On air, Schlessinger is a larger-than-life powerhouse, responding to the dilemmas and deficiencies of her callers with strident admonitions.
In person, she is surprisingly small, a petite blonde in a glittery silver high-necked top and long black skirt. She urges a reporter to eat more — “I’m a Jewish mother,” she says — and jokes that while the pears on her plate are undercooked, they are “probably good for the intestines.”
Now a member of a Lubavitch shul — Chabad of Agoura in suburban Los Angeles — Schlessinger admits that she does not meet all Orthodox standards.
She observes Shabbat and kashrut, she says, but “the wig thing I’m not up to.”
When asked hard questions, she is just as assertive — some might say aggressive — as on her show.
Asked about the fact that many critics find her rude and mean to callers, Schlessinger objects. They may say that, she says, but they really mean something else.
“What they’re really saying is that I’m forcefully putting forth morals, values and ethics, not making them debatable points, but making them absolutes,” Schlessinger says. “They don’t like that. So instead of dealing with that truth, I get called names.”
Many liberal Jews, however, worry that Schlessinger’s strident pronouncements give Middle America an oversimplified and inaccurate impression of Judaism.
In addition, critics contend that Schlessinger’s show contributes to anti- gay sentiment.
A letter sent to her last year, whose signatories included 24 American Jewish leaders — many of them prominent Reform and Conservative rabbis — took Schlessinger to task for saying on-air that homosexuality is “deviant,” that gays can and should be cured and that homosexuality is a “biological error.”
According to the letter, Schlessinger also has claimed that gays are more likely than heterosexuals to molest children, despite what the letter-writers say is scientific evidence to the contrary.
Advocates for gay rights began a campaign last spring pressuring advertisers not to appear on Schlessinger’s radio or television programs. The TV show eventually was moved to middle-of-the-night hours with small viewership because so many advertisers pulled out.
Despite the campaign against her, Schlessinger insists her views on homosexuality have divine sanction.
“The Torah says this is behavior that’s unacceptable, and marriage is between a man and woman,” she says.
For Schlessinger, Judaism is about absolutes, the clear rights and wrongs of the Ten Commandments, not the hairsplitting debates of the talmudic sages.
But is it really possible to make moral judgments based on the few sentences she allows her callers?
“You don’t need a long conversation to make moral judgments,” she says.
“You know the Ten Commandments?” she asks. “They’re very short: Thou shalt not bear false witness. It doesn’t go into a whole bunch of other things or say, ‘Let me explain the background.’ It just says you don’t do that.”
Schlessinger’s rabbi, Moshe Bryski, insists that — soundbites aside — his most famous congregant is serious about the moral questions she receives, researching Jewish ethics and frequently calling him to consult on issues that arise on her show.
“There is a sense of responsibility, because at times she’ll call me about specific questions and I realize the answer is going to be broadcast to 20 million people, and I better get it right,” Bryski says.
Schlessinger is more like a loving nag than the unfeeling judge some portray, Bryski says.
“It’s like the mother who goes to her children like this, ‘Shame on you, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ ” he says, wagging his finger. “When a parent says that to a child, it’s not out of hate.”