About eight years my friend Dr. Mehmet Oz came to our home for Friday night Shabbat dinner with his family. There was Coke on the table. “Shmuley, what are you doing to your kids with that sugary soda? You’re poisoning them.” The Coke quickly exited the table never to return. Today on our table you’ll find water and sparkling water and the occasional juice. You won’t find Sprite or Dr. Pepper for fear that Dr. Oz might return.
Mehmet has given me many other lectures about health, a veritable tsunami. When our families traveled together to Israel last year to see the holy land, he made us substitute sugary snacks with almonds and nuts, which he liberally distributed to the entire bus.
We joked on the trip that we starved to death under the watchful eye of Mehmet. Whereas I previously thought I could never give up my sweet-tooth addiction, I’ve come a long way even as I occasionally snatch a chocolate when Mehmet isn’t looking.
When you think about it, it’s pretty much a miracle that a daytime TV show—so often the domain of two-headed space alien Siamese twins beating each other with clubs after discovering that their wives (who are also their sisters) have been cheating on them—could electrify America with inspiration for healthy living.
What is Mehmet’s secret? Sure, he’s very handsome. And he’s definitely fit. And a walking encyclopedia of medical information, as I’ve discovered with every question I’ve put to him.
But the real source of his success is how he walks the walk. Visit Mehmet’s home and you’d be amazed at the minimalism, a beautiful home empty rather than crammed with junk. Mehmet has raised his kids to be anything but materialists. And the family eats vegetarian at all times.
There is no greater credibility than a man modeling his own medicine.
Now come allegations from British medical journals, trumpeted in the Washington Post, that half of what Mehmet is teaching on TV is not medically sound.
Firstly, having lived in the UK for 11 years I know that the British enjoy snickering at us Americans as hopelessly shallow and vain. So if we produce a world-famous cardio surgeon who is deputy head of all surgery at Columbia Presbyterian and who even performs heart transplants, he has to be a fake. I mean, he’s on TV right! That’s two strikes. He’s an American, and he’s famous.
I heard the same kind of allegations for eleven years while serving as Rabbi at Oxford about how dumb American presidents are. They would be torn limb from limb during Prime Minister’s questions. Bush was a moron. Clinton was a dog in heat. Carter was a depressive (OK, I admit, that last one has some merit).
I remember that Michael Jackson told me that it was the British press that started the sobriquet “Whacko Jacko” that caused him so much pain. The rest of the world saw an eccentric musical and dance genius. Troubled, yes. But he produced the most electrifying music of his generation. Still, the British saw a man who was hopelessly deranged.
I am not a doctor and I have no way of evaluating Dr. Oz’s medical advice. But I am uniquely qualified, as a friend and neighbor, to evaluate him as a man.
I have worked with and befriended celebrities of all types. Mehmet Oz stands out among them for his sincerity, genius, and humanity.
On our trip to Israel we visited Israel’s leading hospitals and medical research facilities. The experts were all blown away by Mehmet’s kaleidoscopic knowledge of medicine. He was tinkering with their new surgical inventions, giving them ideas as to how to improve them. He was treated not as a celebrity but as a world-class physician whom the hospitals were honored to host and consult as to cutting-edge care.
On the first night of the trip and after 15 hours of travel, his three younger children – teenagers all – took their rooms on my family’s side of our hotel. Mehmet was over in a flash. “Pack up your stuff and move to near me and Mom.” He wanted to supervise his children and be directly involved with them throughout the trip. He never wanted his children to be someone else’s responsibility. This meant that the kids who had had their own rooms each would now have to double up. “No matter,” he told me, “they shouldn’t be spoiled. They’re here, in this incredible country, to learn.”
The people of Israel warmly embraced Mehmet. He was patient, loving, and available to all. And he and his family are genuinely religious, respecting faith and seeking at all times a spiritual life.
He exhibited that level of engagement with his kids throughout the trip, traveling nowhere without them. Making sure they heard every historical fact. Visiting the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish holy places with them. Mehmet is Muslim while his wife Lisa is a very knowledgeable Christian with theological training. Mehmet wanted his kids exposed to the riches of every culture the holy land had to offer.
On our last night in Israel we went out for Pasta in the Old City and Mehmet brought with him a Palestinian woman was a student at Bir Zeit. Mehmet facilitated an engaging and respectful conversation about the differences that separate Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land.
At the end of the Israel trip we traveled to Turkey where Mehmet had arranged for his parents and sisters to join his family for a week on a boat so the whole family could be together. We stayed for the beginning of the trip and Mehmet’s father, arguably Turkey’s most famous surgeon, remains a friend till today.
About four months ago I was dealing with a personal problem. It was not medical. Because I value Mehmet’s advice I asked to come to his house to discuss it. He was in the busiest season of filming his TV show. He made immediate time and for an hour gave me the insightful advice that helped me navigate the issue wisely.
When we launched the inaugural International Champions of Jewish Values Annual Awards Gala dinner in New York, I told Mehmet that I am so impressed at the health revolution he has brought about in the United States that I wanted to present to him the Champion of Life Award. Knowing that his accepting would be as good for the organization as it would be for him, he did so immediately. Joined by Elie Wiesel who received the Champion of the Human Spirit award, it was a spectacular evening.
Once I called him and asked him if I could watch him operate. I put on scrubs and stood four hours in front of an eighty-year-old woman fighting for her life as Mehmet expertly and meticulously replaced a heart valve. When it was over, the world’s most famous doctor went calmly and warmly to her anxious family, told them the surgery had been a success, there could still be complications, and he was available to them for whatever they needed.
Mehmet is one of my dearest friends. It pains me greatly to see his integrity impugned. I look forward to the coming days when we will learn more about the veracity of the British researchers claims.
But I also recognize that a daytime TV show—which must of course offer accurate advice—is still never going to provide a laboratory-grade study.
While I am utterly unqualified to provide judgment on the quality of the medical advice offered and the British Medical Journal report, as a TV host I can say that television is first and foremost about entertainment. If the show is a bore no one will watch, however redemptive. And Mehmet’s genius has been to get millions of people around the world watching and learning daily about how to lead lives that are healthier, stronger, and more purposeful.
Making a medical TV show engaging and relatable presents a herculean challenge and Mehmet deserves credit for his considerable achievement.
While I’m sure the British researches are well-intentioned in their critique, I wonder, how many people have they directly affected in getting people to live a healthier life and more purposeful existence.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the Founder of This World: The Values Network, the world’s leading organization defending Israel in the media. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 29 other books. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.