American Jewish Men: Fear of Feminism

Fear of Feminism

I want to speak of an important choice which faces American Jewish men in responding to the feminist movement and to Jewish feminism in particular. Some things that I write may seem applicable to all men in our relationships with all women. Some may seem specifically relevant to Jewish men and Jewish women. I intend this brief article not as a definitive statement, but as a small part of an ongoing dialogue.

I am a 28-year-old Jewish man. I received my Jewish education in an assimilated, upper middle class Reform synagogue in Westchester County. Like my Jewish male friends, like all Jewish men, I was brought up, educated, and socialized to oppress women.

Of course, no one ever told me so directly. No, the messages of patriarchal society were so unchallenged and so implicit, that there was no need for anyone to spell them out. Male dominance was a reality that “everybody” accepted – or so it seemed. Within secular institutions, men were considered important, women unimportant. Within the Jewish community, Jewish men were considered important, Jewish women unimportant (or, at best, important in their place, like any good servant).

To cite only one of many examples from my own life, I was named one of eight feature editors on my high school newspaper. The other seven were Jewish women, and we officially began as equals with the same title and prestige. But, in a short time, I had assumed total control of the feature page. I wrote most of the editorials, and assigned others as I chose. I monopolized the layout process (which I enjoyed), and delegated responsibility for copy editing and proof reading (which bored me). I wrote a regular column and generally placed it in the best position on the page. Most dramatically, I managed to purge a number of women editors who did not shape up to my personal standards of competence (or was it obedience?).

All of my Jewish male friends had similar patterns of “growth” and “maturity.” One ran the temple youth group, one ran the Y.M.-Y.W.H.A. youth group, one ran the National Honor Society chapter, one ran the Senior Activities Board, two ran the sports page of the newspaper, and others ran the Key Club.

Each of us had his own little fiefdom. Each of us dominated a prestigious institution and had “his” women under his control. Each of us was learning important lessons about male supremacy, especially as it affected Jewish women and Jewish men. And the Jewish adults around us were giving unspoken blessing to these arrangements, since they duplicated nicely the male dominance of all Jewish and Christian organizations in our city. We “nice Jewish boys” were preserving a long cultural heritage of subjugating women, while at the same time we were being assimilated into WASP mores about how to “make it” as American men.

It’s been a long time since high school. In recent years, exposure to the writings and teachings of the women’s movement has forced me to re-examine my socialization as a man, as an oppressor of women. I’ve gained a different perspective on the power struggles between Jewish women and Jewish men — a perspective which may help explain why Jewish men have such resistance to feminism.

Jewish women have traditionally faced a unique and most demanding double oppression: as Jews within a hostile, anti-Jewish world, and as women within a co-optive and hostile patriarchal Jewish culture. I believe that all women have had to develop incredible strengths in order to survive their oppression.

In the case of Jewish women, a distinct tradition of strength, courage, and independence has emerged. We can see these qualities among many Jewish women whose life situations varied greatly — among Jewish women who struggled to preserve their families in the face of anti-Semitism; among Jewish women who fought to build careers as writers, artists, physicians, and the like; and among Jewish women who became outspoken political activists, such as Emma Goldman and Ethel Rosenberg.

I believe that most Jewish men are at least aware of this tradition among Jewish women. Awareness can lead to a number of responses. Jewish men could understand the current upsurge of Jewish feminism in the light of this herstory, and could struggle to understand and accept what Jewish women are telling us despite all of our fears. Unfortunately, there are other, more popular choices for Jewish men.

All Jews are familiar — much too familiar — with the woman-hating, Jew-hating stereotypes of the “Jewish mother” and the “Jewish American Princess.” When Jewish men perpetuate these vicious caricatures, it is in response to the strength, courage, and independence of Jewish women. The mature, forceful Jewish mother and the young, assertive Jewish woman are frightening figures for many Jewish men. Each represents a Jewish woman who will not quietly and sweetly submit to her “natural” “feminine” role. This leads Jewish men to brand Jewish mothers as “castrating” and young Jewish women as “bitchy.”

These epithets are crucial weapons in the arsenal of male supremacy. Whenever a man calls a woman castrating or bitchy, it is because somewhere, somehow, intentionally or not, she has threatened his power and dominance. He is telling her to shut up and stay in her place — or else. This is the message behind these vile lies about Jewish women which too many Jewish men are eager to spread. The independent, self-reliant, assertive Jewish woman (and, of course, the Jewish feminist) strikes terror in the hearts of every Jewish man, on some obvious or well-hidden level.

This backlash among Jewish men must be understood in terms of the long-standing traditions of Jewish patriarchy: the relegation of women to wife and mother roles, the refusal to let women count in a minyan (quorum of worshippers), the denial of educational opportunities for women, and so forth.

But Jewish men’s backlash must also be examined in the context of American definitions of “masculinity” and sexual politics. While Jewish men commonly fear the independence of Jewish women when it appears at home or in private, Jewish men are particularly embarrassed and resentful when Jewish women act forcefully in public situations. The key to these responses is the desire of Jewish men (and the pressure on Jewish men) to assimilate and to succeed in the eyes and the world of Christian men.

Jewish men in America — like men from other minority groups — have grown up feeling “deprived” of an opportunity to attain what is culturally defined as full manhood. Jewish men have envied the unquestioned patriarchal rights and male privileges held by white Christian men, and have felt disqualified from achieving this status because of Jewish identity. In short, Jewish men have wondered: why can’t I be treated just like any other man?

The most important definitions of masculinity in America still come from white Christian men — Jack Kennedy and Sean Connery in my adolescence, Joe Namath and Robert Redford today. In this climate, Jewish men feel uncertain of our “masculinity.” No matter what a Jewish man does — whether he graduates from Harvard, amasses a fortune, gains public office, dazzles as a movie star, excels in professional sports, or impresses (oppresses) numerous women — he can still never attain the WASP looks and cool of a Robert Redford.

Of course, Jewish men could reject the whole masculinity-proving game. We could recognize how inherently repressive, alienating, and woman-hating it is. We could attempt to work our way out of our various male power trips, and forget about demonstrating our “manhood” in white Christian terms or in any terms. But most Jewish men want full patriarchal rights, want publicly certifiable “masculinity,” and want to be equal in status and power with Christian men.

To achieve these goals, Jewish men attempt to be “real men” by showing that we have “our” women under control. We try desperately to prove to Christian men that we can keep women in line just as casually and gracefully as the Redfords and the Kennedys. For only then will Christian men respect us; only then will they consider us for equal membership in a patriarchal society.

Thus, the strength, courage, and independence of Jewish women become a particular threat to Jewish men. And Jewish feminism, as an organized political movement challenging our dominance, is even more frightening to us. If Jewish women appear “uppity” in the eyes of Christian men, then Jewish men will be viewed as weak and unable to rule our own culture. Furthermore, Jewish women’s independence might lead to direct competition with Jewish men for jobs, income, status, and power. This could easily undermine our upper hand as providers for Jewish women and children. Both on the levels of appearance and reality, Jewish women’s advances endanger Jewish men’s “making it” within a male-dominated Christian society.

I believe that Jewish feminism faces Jewish men with a very simple but critical choice. We can continue to blame all of our problems on Jewish women, whom we have power over, whom we oppress. We can continue to curry favor with and emulate the Christian men who are slightly higher than us on the ladder of power and privilege. Or we can finally acknowledge the reality of male supremacy within all of American life and American Jewish life. We can dispense with our jokes and threats and stereotypes and begin to treat sexism as a serious matter. We can commit ourselves to learning from the feminist movement and the Jewish feminist movement.

If we are to act responsibly in changing our sexist attitudes and behavior, we must begin by making a diligent attempt to listen to women. This means closing our mouths and opening our minds. It means struggling to understand women’s oppression, rather than showing off our argumentative skills. It means reading the important literature that comes to us from women writers, from feminists, from Jewish feminists. It means admitting that when a woman’s feminism angers or threatens us, it is exactly at this point that we must step back and confront our own fears.

Acting responsibly also must include a scrupulous examination of our male privileges as Jewish men. This means understanding the privileges that men have traditionally held in Jewish and non-Jewish cultures. It means understanding the specific ways in which each of us has benefited and continues to benefit from being male. And it means acting on this knowledge in order to end our power trips over women. If the concept of male privilege seems distant and unclear, this only indicates that we have a lot of reading and thinking ahead of us.

Of course, acting responsibly also means fighting against men and institutions that perpetuate male supremacy and privilege. On a political level, this means supporting feminist initiatives within the secular culture and within the Jewish community. On an individual level, it means continually speaking out against any man’s sexist jokes, looks, stereotypes, smears, and outright attacks. It means breaking male bonds, it means challenging other men, it means risking male wrath, and it often means losing male friends.

Finally, acting responsibly necessitates constant awareness that we are men and benefit from male privilege no matter what we do. This means that our voices will be heard at the same time that women are ignored, and that even our sincere actions can lead to new patterns of male dominance. The “liberated man” or “male feminist” can be just one more power play. Thus, we must never attempt to speak for women or forget who we are. We must understand and defend women’s right to space and time of their own, away from men — even supposedly concerned men — in order to freely determine their own priorities, strategies, and life choices. Sometimes, we act most responsibly by simply staying out of the way of women — and yet we cannot use this knowledge as an excuse for total inaction, for there are many situations in which we must fight our own and other men’s sexism.

I believe that these are our choices as Jewish men. And I believe that it is time for us to begin acting responsibly. We’ve oppressed Jewish women for more than 5,000 years. That’s long enough.

(I would like to thank Harlene Hipsch, Steve Nachtigall, Julie Dorfman, Amy Stone, and Shifra Bronznick for reading and making important criticisms of earlier drafts of this article. Any faults are my responsibility and not theirs. – B.L.)

Bob Lamm is a free-lance writer whose work has appeared in Response, WIN, Jewish Digest, and Morning Due. He teaches classes on “Men, Masculinity, and Sexism” and “The Politics of Sports”at Queens College, C.U.N. Y.