Jewfem Blog

New review of my book, "The Men's Section", by Shawn Ruby

I just finished reading Elana Maryles Sztokman's book The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, which is a qualitative, interview based study of the men who participate in partnership minyanim.  For those unfamiliar, partnership minyanim were pioneered by a community in Jerusalem called Shira Hadasha.  The model is based on an article by Rabbi Mendel Shapiro in 2001 that suggested the halachic permissibility of women reading from, and getting aliyot to, the Torah in the context of a traditional Orthodox synagogue.  In the model of Shira Hadasha there are now 20+ such communities around the world, where women lead the parts of the service (Pesukei D'Zimra, Kabalat Shabbat, etc.) and participate equally in the Torah service.  These communities have mechitzot (the traditional partition between men and women in an Orthodox synagogue) but the service is led from a podium that either straddles the mechitza, or is in a central neutral area between the men's and women's sections. I am a founding member and gabbai of such a minyan in Raanana, so I was curious to read Dr. Maryles Sztokman's insights into what motivates men to join them and how that plays out in the context of finding a balance between remaining Orthodox while pushing the boundaries in an egalitarian direction.  (The minyanim are not truly egalitarian, as I insisted when ours was named, they are just more egalitarian then the standard Orthodox model.)  The first time I attended Shira Hadasha, I expected it to seem weird.  Although I loved the idea, I was sure that hearing women read Torah and lead services would take some getting used to at the instinctual level.  However, my reaction was just the opposite.  It felt like coming home, like everything was finally in the right place.  Like the harmony had been missing a part, and it was finally complete.  I started looking for opportunities to go back, and later brought my wife (a serial founder of women's tefilot), who also found it inspiring.  We held our daughters' bat mitzvah celebrations in the context of a partnership minyan (that we organized with our friends and family at a hotel). The book begins by defining the "man box" of Orthodox masculinity.  Orthodox men are socialized to live up to an ideal of regular, punctual prayer with a minyan three times a day, with the ideal man being able to lead the service and Torah reading precisely and perfectly.   Emotion and devotion in prayer are essentially ignored in this construct, and men are judged by our peers in our ability to meet this standard. Although I never thought if it in the oppressive terms that the author describes, the Orthodox "man-box" is truly as she describes.  She correctly points out that realization of this standard is dependent on others, usually women, in a supporting role - taking care of children especially.    I was very aware of this in my own life.  Although in college I was pretty good about making minyan regularly, once we had...

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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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