I am still on a high from the responses I’ve received from participants in my book tour events. Jewish communities around America are wide-eyed in their search for meaningful frameworks to help them understand and unravel their Jewish and gender experiences. Many of the conversations revolved around community dynamics and tensions, while others went beyond Jewish life and started to unpack men’s and women’s experiences of grappling with societal expectations generally. In some cases, I found myself doing what the HBI people called “Sociology 101”, talking about how identity is formed through navigations vis a vis forces of surrounding cultural constructions. It seems to me that the Jewish community overall can use some Sociology 101 to help us separate our spiritual and/or halakhic needs from our fears of societal disapproval.
Here are some of my more memorable exchanges that have stuck with me:
“I thought my mother was going to hell because of me”– A man at Netivot Shalom in Baltimore told the crowd that for many years he thought that he had caused his mother an eternity of damnation because at his bar mitzvah, he was so nervous reading Torah that he lost his place and ended up reciting from memory rather than read from the scroll. Apparently some teacher along the way had planted in his mind that this was the worst thing a Jewish boy could do, worse than, say, murder. He carried that feeling around for so long, and it was very painful. He also talked about how much watching and measuring goes on in the boys’ yeshivah, so that he became accustomed to rabbis touching his tefillin while he was praying to “fix” it, and the general gaze of rabbis whose job it was to fix every miniscule act of observance. Ultimately the experience was too difficult to bear, and he eventually left his ultra-Orthodox community and now belongs to a more open, liberal Orthodox community.
“He told me, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself’.”– A man from the Five Towns in Long Island who attended the Drisha/Darkhei Noam/Yavneh event in Manhattan said that he posed a question on the list-serve in his community about whether there was any interest in starting a partnership minyan. One man responded, ‘What is a partnership minyan?’ and he explained to him about the principle of maximizing women’s participation within the framework of halakha. The response was quick and simple: “You should be ashamed of yourself”.
“We all just want to be accepted for who we are.”At the Tehilla Minyan In Cambridge, Mass, a man took issue with my assertion that all we really want from society is to be labeled as “normal”. He said that it’s not exactly precise – that what we really want is not to change but rather to be accepted by society for who we are. I think we were kind of saying the same thing. He told me an inspiring story about a rebbe who encountered a man who sat under the dining room table and insisted he was a turkey. While most people were frustrated with turkey-man, the rebbe decided to climb under the table and be a turkey with him. Eventually the rebbe decided to sit at the table, to the perplexity of the turkey-man. “Just because we’re turkeys, it doesn’t mean we can’t sit at the table,” the rebbe replied. It’s about accepting people as they are with care and compassion. I really loved that story.
“I am open to women because of my grandfather”. The men’s panel at Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, New Jersey, consisted of four men who all offered inspiring expressions of openness, flexibility and self-awareness vis a vis gender issues. One man talked about feeling “completely whole” with who he is, that all his friends know that feminism and gender equity are a vital piece of his identity, and he does not feel the need to hide. Another man said that it was very easy for him to adjust to hearing women’s voices in the sanctuary because of this grandfather: he said that when he was growing up in South Africa, his grandfather would take him to different synagogues all the time, from every ethnicity and “nusach” he could find. That appreciation for diversity made it completely “natural” for him to be at home where women are treated as equal participants.
“I was always a tomboy, but when I grew up and moved to Houston, I had to turn myself into a ‘proper’ woman’.”The idea of having to conform to “boxes” is certainly not unique to men. Women also have boxes, and several people urged me to write a second book about “The Women’s Section” (seriously considering it….). One woman at Hadassah Women in Houston talked about growing up in South America as a “tomboy”, with strong sisters and a strong mother. But when she grew up and moved to Houston, it was expected that she would become a ‘proper’ woman, wearing dresses and make-up, etc, etc. I posed the question to the group, which is worse, for a boy to be a “sissy” or for a girl to be a “tomboy”. What do you think?
It's also about sacrifice. Another man from Houston, wrote in the following note: "'Be Serious': The Many Pressures to Perform -- Dead on. Within Orthodoxy, we are all measured by a “scale” of “Commitment” or “Seriousness”. Except “Commitment” appears to be only half of the equation.Sacrifice is the other, more unspoken, part. Reform and Conservative Judaism don’t require as much commitment, but they also don’t require as much “sacrifice” of their adherents. I don’t know of anyone in the observant community who hasn’t had some loss to maintain their observance. This runs the gamut, people are being asked to refrain from behaviors and activities which results in lost income, misunderstandings, divorce, and abstinence of various kinds (e.g., sexual, food, but also smoking [on Shabbes]). Part of the “commitment” is the “sacrifice” one must make to maintain the practices...."
“Some of the men I know have been talking about this for twenty years”. At the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, one of the women in the crowd took issue with my assertion that conversations about masculinity are novel in the Orthodox community. “Some of the men I know have been talking about this for twenty years,” she said. I hope that’s true. Where there’s life there’s hope.
I want to take this opportunity to thank all my hosts and hosting organizations, especially the Hadassah Brandeis Institute and Dr. Laura Schor. And I would like to thank all the people who came and engaged and kept an open mind and a listening heart. All in all, I feel uplifted and inspired and honored to be able to be part of these important conversations.