Now that Oprah Winfrey has all but been inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States – thereby becoming the first woman to hold the office (and only the second African-American) – the question on everyone’s mind is: will Oprah also count as the first Jewish president?
Well, let’s see.
It’s not true that Oprah named her production company, Harpo Productions, after famed Jewish comedian Arthur “Harpo” Marx. “Harpo” just happens to be Oprah spelled backwards. But still, you can’t help but think about the Marx Brothers when you read or hear the name “Harpo Productions.”
But there is something very sort-of-Jewish about Winfrey’s first name.
Oprah’s given name is Orpah, who was the Biblical Ruth’s sidekick and sister-in-law (some commentators say sister). In the Book of Ruth, Naomi has two non-Jewish daughters-in-law: Ruth and Orpah. Both wanted to go to Judea with their Jewish mother-in-law. (Yes, I know, this really stretches credulity to the breaking point.) Naomi, however, insists that they both instead go back from whence they came and worship their own damn Gods. Orpah beat tracks back to Moab. But Ruth, famously, insists on staying with Naomi, saying to her, “Wherever we go, whatever we do, we’re gonna go through it, together.”
Oh. No. Wait a minute. That was Stephen Sondheim.
Actually, Ruth famously insisted, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God is my God.” Same idea.
Anyway, modern legend has it that everyone wound up mispronouncing Orpah Gail Winfrey’s name as “Oprah,” and the name stuck. Nevertheless, even as a preschooler, young Winfrey is said to have had the unusual gift of being able to recite Bible verses from memory, such that she was given the nickname “The Preacher.”
As a teenager, Oprah wound up attending the prestigious Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin, after succeeding in the local chapter of the Upward Bound program. Although a public school, Nicolet served mostly an affluent suburban population, and in addition to French and Spanish, its curriculum includes German and Hebrew. While Oprah is by far the most famous of the school’s alums, other well-known Nicolet attendees include a bevy of Jewish celebrities including basketball pro Dan Grunfeld; Oscar-winning film composer Justin Hurwitz; Clinton Foundation executive Bari Lurie; and Howie Epstein, longtime bassist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Oprah herself was raised as a Baptist, but in later years she has shown interest in a wide spectrum of religious and spiritual movements, to the point that she has even been touted by some as a spiritual leader herself.
In 2002, Christianity Today published an article called “The Church of O,” in which they concluded that Winfrey had emerged as an influential spiritual leader, terming her “a postmodern priestess — an icon of church-free spirituality.” In her 2005 book, “The Gospel According to Oprah,” author Marcia Z. Nelson called Winfrey a “compelling spiritual teacher in a spiritually eclectic and ever-practical America.” That’s something no one ever accused her would-be presidential opponent of being.
On the other hand, Oprah has been criticized for her endorsements of new-agey, self-help gurus such as Eckhart Tolle, Gary Zukav, and Rhonda Byrne, author of “The Secret,” whose advocacy of the “laws of attraction” has been called “pseudoscience” and much worse.
Close watchers, however, see Winfrey as being kindly disposed toward Jews and Israel. She hired Tamar Geller, a former Israeli intelligence officer and celebrity dog trainer, to work with her canines. Oprah and Elie Wiesel formed a mutual admiration society of two, the latter having honored her in 2007 at a dinner for his foundation, and with Oprah returning the favor when she chose Wiesel’s “Night” for her bestseller-making book club. She also filmed an extended segment of her TV show with Wiesel at Auschwitz.
After Winfrey wore diamonds from Israeli jeweler Lev Leviev on the cover of O, her monthly magazine, she was paid a visit by the not-so-friendly folks from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Winfrey stood her ground and refused to meet with them.
And after spending time in Borough Park and Crown Heights profiling the neighborhoods’ religious communities, Winfrey told an interviewer, “There’s more Hasidic Jew in me than I knew.” She was particularly impressed with the way Hasidic parents raised their children gadget- and media-free, without access to TV, cellphones, and video games. “It is amazing to me that right across from Manhattan, there is a whole world of children who aren’t doing that and are happy, fulfilled and loved,” she said.
More recently, Oprah attended a performance of Paula Vogel’s Tony Award-winning play, the Yiddish-themed “Indecent,” where she posed backstage for photos with the cast (and with fellow TV star Rosie O’Donnell).
And perhaps most amazing of all, in the wake of Oprah’s impassioned speech at the Golden Globe awards on Sunday night that sparked all the talk about her potential 2020 presidential candidacy — presumably to face off against Donald Trump — first daughter and alleged Orthodox Jew Ivanka Trump fired off a “you-go, girl”-type message to Winfrey on her father’s favorite social media platform, Twitter.
First Jewish president? Not quite. But a mensch nonetheless, which is more than you can say about the current occupant of the White House.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward, where he frequently mines popular culture for mysterious and surprising Jewish themes and affinities.