Politics, Religion

No More Boys

As a male growing up in Reform Judaism, I’ve tended to approach all of the “the boys are leaving! the boys are leaving!” literature with some speculation – as I approached the latest issue of Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s 614. Titled Is Judaism a “Girl Thing?” , the e-zine attempts to tackle the issue from a variety of angles, beginning with lay-leadership opportunities for stay-at-home moms:

Women are taking our professional backgrounds in fundraising, public relations, finance, education, and legal (to name just a few) and channeling that knowledge as we become synagogue presidents, vice-presidents, and board members. In addition to this opportunity to stretch our professional muscles, we can make changes in our synagogues and religious schools that will directly benefit our children. Moreover, these volunteer positions give us the flexibility to be home for our children.

Full story.
Seems good to me. Not the case, though, if we follow the argument of Rona Shapiro, mentioned in two of the articles:

Women have maintained their involvement in a Judaism dominated for centuries by men, but the minute women get a toehold in leadership, men pick up and leave? Pollack, the boys’ development researcher heading up Moving Traditions’ major new initiative, refutes the inherent sexism of this argument, insisting that women’s leadership is not responsible for boys’ retreat from Jewish life.
“Boys haven’t found a way to” adapt to the sharing of power with girls and women in Judaism, he argued, “because men haven’t found a way to change.” If Jewish men, young or old, are turned off by women’s leadership, then our commitment to justice requires that we call this what it is—sexism—and work to change the attitude instead of accommodating it.

Full story.
I don’t find it to be true in my own experience, and I’d like to give my fellow males the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, as stated in a piece on gender-exclusive space, our desire for egalitarianism has moved us beyond eliminating gender stratification to eliminating gender differentiation:

The Reform Movement has gone out of its way to get rid of gender stratification- the uneven distribution of positions of leadership, involvement, and recognition. The problem is that along the way, it has also mistakenly sought to eliminate all signs of gender differences. To deny that gender affects how men and women express themselves as individuals and as Jews is to deny reality and happens to go against the basic goals of feminism.

Full story.
The other pieces in 614 deal with responses of Jewish leaders to this issue (including a colleague of mine), and a look at new boy-oriented educational programming.
In January 2006, Doug Barden, the author of the article on gender-exclusive space, wrote a study entitled: Wrestling with Jacob and Esau, Fighting the Flight of Men: A Modern Day Crisis for the Reform Movement. The study was distributed widely, but privately to every rabbi, cantor, and educator in the Reform Movement. Being such a person, I had a chance to read it over the summer. There is one idea that has stayed with me, and continues to shape my perception of this issue:

The Jewish Men’s Movement literature, starting with Brod, recognized that Jewish men were historically part of a ‘counter-culture’ that made us distinct from our male neighbors. For centuries, as American Jews we have prided ourselves in functioning often as a society within a society. As a result, our definitions of masculinity, our relationships with our mothers, our fathers, our community, an din a sense our total world view, gestalt view, are at times significantly different from the mainstream gentile culture.

He quotes Rabbi Jeff Salkin:

“Real” Jews have a different way of praying, learning, studying and seeing the world. Being a Jewish man is, or should be – diffrent from simply being a “generic” man. For generations, Jewish men have found their “macho” in mastery of Torah, in heartfelt worship, and in feats of loving kindness and charity. Jewish men have typically rejected the culture of “sowing wild oats” and “boys will be boys” …Jewish men need to talk about the masculine models in Jewish terms.

Now it seems to me, living in a place where avodah zarah of a certain baseball team is not just common, but expected, one of the effects of our assimilation into American society has been an adoption of the idealization of the “generic man.” I’ve been blessed, over the course of my life in the Reform movement, to learn from many male talmidei chochomim who have served as excellent role models, but it seems from the numbers that I’m in the minority. Perhaps this is tikkun for all the years men have been running things, which in my mind would also be OK.

4 thoughts on “No More Boys

  1. I want to make some empty-headed speculation here, in which I hope people will hear what I’m trying to say and not focus on how I’m saying it.
    I worked in a Jewish workplace predominated by women in which I had a *really* hard time getting along with a couple of the female staff. I suspect that a mostly-male environment develops it’s own cliques and guy fraternity in ways that exclude women. In this office, it was exactly opposite, and often our (often vehement) disagreements were chalked up to the fact that I was a male. (Added to the grumps that I was straight and white contributed to wholly another level.) Leaving that kind of work environment behind was a blessing. I now work for a different organization which is also 70% female, and yet blessedly free of gender blame.
    Point is, men may be fleeing workplaces with lots of women if the same unfriendly dynamics occur. It’s hard to avoid, it’s unconscious, and accidental. So I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

  2. I think this is perhaps the most important issue in the Jewish world today, one that is slowly dividing it by gender – women on the liberal side, and men on the orthodox side. Obviously, there are those of us who fall out on the other side of the line, men like me on the liberal side, and women on the orthodox side. But there’s a real comfort divide – and Kung Fu Jew’s response above pins it well.
    And there’s more to it. Rich Cohen’s Tough Jews, Harry Brod’s Mensch Among Men (1/2 of the essays were by women – because who knows a Jewish Man better?), Daniel Boyarin’s Unheroic Conduct, Jeff Salkin’s Searching for My Brothers, David Biale’s Eros and the Jews, and almost anything by Howard Eilberg-Schwartz – these are just some of the books that try to put some theory behind the reality that – well, we Jewish men have ALWAYS been uncomfortable with our maleness, with our self-identity, with our power, with our bodies, with our place in the God made world.
    Nowadays, with modern medical technology making our place in the family redundant (not to mention that grabber tool thing that the wife uses to reach the stuff on the top shelf), what is our place? Who needs these emotional invalids?
    What the tradition (or at least its Eastern European part) has done, if we are to believe Boyarin, anyway, is create a state where the men can feel like they have a clear task, one that does not overpower the women, that only the men can do, and that is study Torah, pray, and teach the boys. That’s all well and good, and perhaps better than, say, what we’ve created in Israel, which is arguably a mirror of the Roman/Christian soldier-farmer, with all his phallic violence against women and Jews.
    But the problem is that none of us live in the world that created the ideal of the eidelkeitlich Yeshiva Bochur – we all live in the world of this internet, mass media, messages of sex and violence that are much different than in the past. There is a male-dominated culture out to kill us, some of us, at any rate, and there is that strange fact that a life of Esau, or Iron John, or Ishmael (the gorilla, not the man), – well, it’s strangely fulfilling, especially when tied to a moral compass regarding sexual and power-weilding behaviors.
    So what’s a Yiddishe putz to do? One possibility is go where the boys are – especially the other Jewish boys, hang out at the local minyan, or the poetry slam, or the yeshiva. Lay down the law (gently) to the women-folk – that is, not law as in domination, but as in saying “hello, we’re here, and we’re not necessarily out to wreak havoc and run amok, just to be boys as much as you are out to be girls.”
    One of the tendencies of the popularization of intricate ideologies like Feminism, is that by the time it hits the Tabloids, it’s been essentialized to hell. So the street version is something like “all men are out to rape and ruin women” and “don’t let men run the show, they’ll mess it up”, etc. The boys are sadly less likely to see through those messages to the unessentialized nuanced intricacies that they stand for, and more likely to go off into the corner and give up, or else go out and rampage – trying to be the best “bad boys” they can be.

  3. For centuries, as American Jews we have prided ourselves in functioning often as a society within a society. As a result, our definitions of masculinity, our relationships with our mothers, our fathers, our community, an din a sense our total world view, gestalt view, are at times significantly different from the mainstream gentile culture.
    First, to pick nits, the vast majority of us have only been American Jews for 100 years or so (at most).
    As for “definitions of masculinity,” I think that we have grown up on the Zionist model, the point of which was precisely to make our definition of masculinity similar to that of everyone else.

  4. One point about women assuming “leadership roles:”
    This is not unique to the Jewish world. In years past the position of ‘secretary,’ when held by men, was rather prestigious, same for ‘book-keeper,’ then ‘teacher,’ etc. Once women became common in each profession it’s prestige and lucrativeness was diminished. I fear the same is now happening to college professors, research scientists, physicians, and lawyers.
    As far as women taking over Jewish institutions, Reform I don’t have too much familiarity, but in the Conservative world, there’s a problem of women getting leadership positions and then turning all of the programming and focus of the organization towards feminist ideology. It may be that men are not participating because these women leaders have nothing to say to them.
    By the way, my experience from Zionist youth groups and synagogues from as far back as 30-40 years ago, included many girls and women in leadership positions. (My mom z”l was a longtime member of our synagogue board, and also served as vice-president.)
    Personally, I get turned off by the whining of ambitious people who are unable to achieve their ambitions, for whatever reasons. Provide me with something worth paying attention to, and maybe I’ll pay attention.

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