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Extreme Parenting, Jewish Style

Extreme Parenting, Jewish Style

From 'eco-kashrut' to the withholding of breakfast, two Jewish families' parenting styles make for juicy reality TV fodder.

Hannah Dreyfus is a former staff writer at the New York Jewish Week.

Molly Goldberg they ain’t.

The Yiddishe mamas on Bravo’s new reality show, “Extreme Guide to Parenting,” are hardly anything like Molly, the archetypal Jewish mother on “The Goldbergs,” a black and white series of television’s early days. They ain’t even Beverly Goldberg, the bighearted, boundary-less matriarch on the contemporary series of the same name.

Shira Adler, for example, one of the mothers on Bravo’s new show, believes she was a monk, a nun and a rabbi in her previous lifetimes.

“I’m sure that has something to do with my religious confusion today!” said Adler, laughing, who works as a past-life regressionist and considers herself a “reconservaform” Jew (some blend of Reconstructionist, Conservative and Reform).

“Extreme Guide to Parenting,” which runs on Thursdays at 9:30 p.m., explores the strange lives of American parents with radical approaches to child-rearing. Two out of the nine families featured on the show are proudly Jewish.

And of the many, colorful Jewish-mother stereotypes that exist, the matriarchs of these two families leave those clichés in the dust.

Adler, the mother of Emma, 13 and Yonah, 11, defines her parenting method as “eco-kosher, shamanistic.” She refers to herself as the “all-natural diva-mama” and uses specialty aromatherapy sprays, crystals and homeopathy to deal with her son’s ADHD (she does not believe in using medical treatment). She considers Yonah, who struggles with angry outbursts, to be an “Indigo,” someone with extra-sensory capabilities.

“It’s like a sixth sense,” explained Adler, 45, whose family lives in Westchester. “Yonah can sense things and see people that other people cannot. He’s beyond the spectrum.”

Marisa Silver-Eisenberg, who considers herself “120% Jewish,” is a chiropractor, personal trainer and fitness junkie from Jericho, N.Y who calls her style “push-parenting.” She wakes her five-year-old son up every morning, quizzing him on U.S presidents and withholding breakfast until he practices writing his name on a white board.

Both mothers say their strong Jewish identity has influenced their parenting techniques.

Silver-Eisenberg’s mother is a first-generation American; her grandparents fled Europe before the Second World War and both were the only survivors from their families. Arriving in American with nothing, Silver-Eisenberg’s grandparents adopted the rigorous work ethic that she now implements with her son, Austen.

“In my family, education and hard work were never a question,” said Silver-Eisenberg in a phone interview. “I’m teaching my son that he has to give 100 percent, just like his grandparents did.”

Attending synagogue remains a part of the Silver-Eisenberg family routine. Austen attended preschool at North Shore Synagogue on Long Island and, aside from services, Marisa and Austen participated in several Mommy and Me workshops.

“The synagogue is where I met my strongest network of friends,” said Silver-Eisenberg. “They are my cheerleaders, and they’ve supported my decision to go on the show.”

While Silver-Eisenberg came from a strong culturally Jewish background, Adler grew up attending Orthodox institutions in Philadelphia. Her father is the former dean of Yeshiva University, Norman Adler. Adler attended Orthodox schools through eighth grade.

“I come from highly intellectual and a highly religious background,” said Adler. “Though I’m definitely not Orthodox anymore, my parenting method is rooted in Jewish tradition.”

Today, Adler works during the high holidays as the assistant cantor for Congregation Kol Ami of White Plains, a large Reform congregation. She also performs interfaith ceremonies as a non-denominational minister and studies kabbalah, the Jewish study of mysticism.

“My eco-conscious lifestyle comes from the Jewish principle of tikkun olam (repairing the world),” she explained.

Both mothers have come under serious criticism since the show aired on August 7th. Articles have accused them of being irresponsible, mentally unstable, cruel and unfit to be parents.

However, the criticism hasn’t fazed either of them.

“Anytime you present yourself in a public forum, you are going to be judged,” said Silver-Eisenberg, who said that Austen was excited to be on TV. “It can’t be helped. But I’m confident in my parenting method and in my family. My son has been flourishing, in school, in sports, in relationships, so if people want to hate, they’re going to hate. It won’t stop me.”

She added that her appearance on the show has motivated many of her patients and clients. “I expect my son to give his all, so I give my all,” she said.

“It is not my job to respond to the world’s negativity,” said Adler. “People have nothing better to do than hate on me for how I’m living my life, instead of living their own lives.”

She said both Emma and Yonah “really enjoy” being seen in the public eye. “This was healthy and helpful for them — they were able to be themselves,” she said.

Despite both women’s conviction that their children are enjoying the attention, child psychology expert Wendy Mogel, Ph.D, feels differently. Mogel, author of the best-selling parenting book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” pointed out the serious problem of airing sensitive family moments, without the child’s consent.

“This is a very advanced form of stage-parenting,” she said in a phone interview. “The child never agreed, and now there is a permanent public record, whether they want it or not.”

She referenced the two young boys from the viral YouTube video, “Charlie bit my finger.” The video, which became an international phenomenon, has since received over 750 million views.

“Like it or not, these two boys have grown up in the shadow of that video,” said Mogel. “There’s something very uncomfortable and unfair about that.”

Mogel noted that reality TV shows feed off of extreme and emotionally unhealthy behavior.

“The more unusual, eccentric or aggressive the behavior, the more likely it will make the cut in the editing room,” she said. When it comes to healthy parenting, the drive to grab viewers ends in disaster.

“The show violates several Jewish teachings,” she continued, listing lashon hara (gossip) and tziut (modesty). “Exposing the flaws and weaknesses of a family’s private relationships is just the opposite of modesty,” she said.

Asked if the show did have any saving grace, Mogel said other parents might be able to learn something from the show. “Many of the people watching might never read parenting books, or go to lectures,” she said. “The show can be instructive for parents who won’t reach this information through another portal.”

Learning what not to do as a parent can also be exceptionally valuable, she concluded.

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