In the olden days, Sensitive New Age Guys (even Jewish ones) were trying to understand women. Some of them were doing it sincerely, others ironically. Now, Jewish men are asking different questions — and they’re not about women, but about themselves.
Jewish guys are going public, quite directly, with their deepest thoughts about manhood. Michael Chabon has just published Manhood for Amateurs, autobiographical essays; Sam Apple probes his fatherhood experience in American Parent; and the anthology Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power, edited by Shira Tarrant, features Jewish men in the mix. All these people are trying to parse out meanings and models for masculinity. Or, more accurately, masculinities. Definitions and practices of being male and Jewish, definitions once universally known and understood even if they were then rejected, are now under scrutiny.
Jewish boys are on center stage now. They’re the source of our latest demographic panic (after intermarriage, and the low Jewish birth rate). Who ever thought we’d be worrying about keeping boys and men interested in Jewish life?
It’s a process taking place on many levels, and in many settings. Jewish summer camps, congregations and other institutions are losing boys and men, and waking up to the fact that men likely want what Jewish women have created: a chance to learn and grow into a spirituality that meets them in the modern world, plus projects and liturgies and rituals they themselves have an opportunity to shape and thus to own.
Some suggest revisiting separate spaces and experiences for male and female. The very idea raises the hackles of those who’ve struggled to make sure women have equal access to everything Judaism offers, and that women’s own experiences are valued. Congregations that had phased out “sisterhood” and “brotherhood” groups and were looking simply for near-equal participation by women and men are thinking again. Feminism opened opportunities for women to experience every role in non-Orthodox Jewish life: rabbi, cantor, mohel, congregation president, psalmist, educator. Egalitarian ended up meaning women and girls get to do a lot (though still not enough, if you look at professional and volunteer leadership in the Jewish community). Now, we’re told that organizations want to prompt the same excitement in men and boys, who have no recollection of the halcyon days when the synagogue was a men’s club, and when the Sunday morning “Tallis and Tefillin Breakfast Club” announcements did not need to say “men only”— since the club was by its title obviously only for those with male privilege.
Now, some of the resources that have gone into encouraging girls and young women to feel connected to Jewish life are tilting toward boys and young men. I’ve said before that 21st Century etiquette is that women are (figuratively) opening doors for men. It’s happening.
In this issue Lilith looks at ways feminism has left its mark on men probing both their own experience and Jewish archetypes, from the Bible to queer theory. The process looks familiar, since this radical questioning and re-visioning echoes some of the qualities of women’s consciousness raising. Like those CR groups, Jewish men are exploring gender identity in a frank and nuanced way, trying out different lenses, looking back at their own experiences, re-examining our culture’s expectations for male Jews, and beginning to turn these expectations on their ear (or other body parts).
Among our authors, Jay Michaelson and Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky see a softer masculine model in the biblical David, as both lover and father; Rabbi Steve Greenberg ponders whether he can embrace a men-only religious experience after the egalitarian practices of feminism; and Paul Zakrzewski mulls over his Jewish identity after he discovered, in high school, that “I wasn’t much of a man.”
Sally Gottesman, whom I interviewed in this section, may have the last — and most hopeful — word. “I think that feminism is about helping women and men become full human beings, and we are inching slowly towards this.”