Jewfem Blog

Some questions I've been getting

Now that I’m on the last leg of my three-week book tour, the dozens of comments and questions that I’ve heard in different communities are starting to play over in my mind, some issues repeating themselves and others new and stimulating each time. Here are some of the issues that have dominated discussions, along with my responses: Is there a difference between younger and older men? A common assumption is that younger men are more “flexible” in their thinking than older men, and that the gender problem in Orthodox Judaism can be attributed to generational differences in attitudes. Actually, my research did not validate that finding. Anecdotally, some of the most open-minded men I interviewed were retirees and those with some of the most ossified ideas about women were in their thirties. Although I assumed this to be merely a counter-intuitive finding, it was actually explained to me by a discussant in Boston – my uncle, Hy Kempler, a 78-year old psychologist who, in his retirement, is researching identity shifts in later life. His research, which he published with the Harvard Adult Learning Institute, found that many people in later life experience significant shifts in identity and ideology, and find themselves opening up to ideas and lifestyles that they would not have in earlier years. Whether this is because burdens of childrearing and providing can be overwhelming, or whether we start out life with rigid expectations of perfections only to discover as we live life that such ideals are elusive and perhaps unhelpful – it is not entirely clear. But what is clear is that the idea of generational differences that view “young” people as more open and flexible than “older” people is an assumption that is not necessarily valid. Maybe this is more about Israelis than Americans Several people told me that some of the descriptions of the “Be an Orthodox Man Box” reflect more Israeli norms than American norms. This may be true to a certain extent. For instance, expectations of a prayer service that does not exceed 90 minutes is clearly an Israeli thing. Also, descriptions of army service as part of the construction of a masculine identity are also clearly Israel. That said, I think that despite these slight differences, I think that there is far more overlap than difference overall. For instance, even though the word “hafifnik”, referring to a kind of “slacker” who comes late to services and does not care about precise performance, is a Hebrew slang word, the attitude of annoyance with the hafifnik-type has crossed through pretty much every synagogue I encountered. The communal narrative around those who come late, who don’t layn well, who don’t bother with mincha, or who just aren’t attentive enough to detail, took place in shuls in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Melbourne, Jerusalem, and Modi’in. Moreover, I think that as people are traveling more and communicating more, cultural differences are starting to blur. I interviewed men who started a shul in Chicago but moved to...

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Some reflections on my book launch

I had my first book event on Friday, and it left me uplifted, inspired and humbled. I just can't believe how many people are so deeply engaged in the ideas that I wrote about. It's more than I could have ever hoped for. Some 80 people came to my home in Modi'in, Israel, for a champagne-bagel brunch and a short reading to launch my book, "The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World" (HBI 2011). Congratulations were flying, as were excited reactions from people who have already started reading. My dear friend Dr. Ariella Zeller who did all the organizing, gave a lovely toast and made me feel like a queen. It is  an indescribable feeling of empowerment to have friends who truly believe in you. I prepared a short talk that related my research to recent events in Israel around the exclusion of women in public spaces. I talked about sociological theory of identity, which posits that all of us are searching for social acceptance in some form or another, everyone wants to be labeled as "normal" and "healthy", and the young boys and men who are fighting violently to keep women excluded from society are no different. But they are clearly having a hard time - a harder time than most, I would argue - resisting their troubling socialization. We all have choices, and we all need to practice talking back to our culture. But in Orthodoxy, that can be particularly daunting. And that's what my book explores. It's about identity and agency among Orthodox Jewish men, and the complex and multifaceted processes of finding the "I" within a culture that values male dominating conformity. I prepared three passages to read, each one reflecting different components of my research. I wanted to give expression to the men's voices, but also wanted to describe the larger theory. I also wanted to explain why I was interested in this particular demographic. I prepared the three sections around those issues, noting to myself that I would have to read the audience first. Were they bored, irritated and restless? Then I would only read one. I put them in order in my mind first, and said I would go with the flow and count the yawns if I have to. To my astonishment, they urged me to keep going, and would have stayed for longer had I prepared more. Truthfully, while I was reading you could hear a pin drop. At the end of the second passage, I actually heard a gasp from the audience. Wow, I thought. This is all an author can ask for. People stayed longer than they had intended. And at the end of the reading, after a few questions and overflowing champagne, lots of people came over and told me that they can't wait to read the book! In fact all but three copies were sold! I'm just so excited about that. I really want to engage in conversation. I want the Jewish community to be...

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