Jewfem Blog

Orthodox women, Orthodox men: Never the twain shall meet?

Brandeis University Press authors win 2013 National Jewish Book Awards By Dana Trismen February 7, 2013 Section: Arts, Etc.   Brandeis University Press has recently boasted a series of successes, with two authors nominated as winners of the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards. Anita Shapira’s “Israel: A History” won in the history category, while Elana Maryles Sztokman earned a win in women’s studies for “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World.” Brandeis University Press is a member press of the University Press of New England (UPNE), which publishes in various fields, the majority of which are related to Jewish culture, thought and Israeli studies. Yet, the published books cover diverse subjects and viewpoints on topics such as politics, history, gender and philosophy. While their focus may be on the Jewish experience, their “goal is to illuminate subjects of all stripes with intelligence, curiosity and care,” according to the University Press website. “My book was published by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, an organization at Brandeis University led by Professor Shulamith Reinharz and Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, that focuses on scholarship in issues of gender and Judaism,” Sztokman said. Originally granted a research scholarship, she then submitted a proposal to be published, a request that was granted. “The people at HBI are phenomenal,” she said. “[They are] wonderful scholars and really incredibly supportive of emerging voices. I feel really lucky and privileged to have received their support.” Sztokman’s book, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World,” examines gender identities of Orthodox men. “I wanted to know, when Orthodox Jews say things like, “Be a Man,” or “Today you are a man” (said at every bar mitzvah on the planet), what do they mean?” she said. “What does it mean to be an Orthodox man?” Her research drove her to interview many Jewish men, especially ones who belonged to synagogues called ‘partnership synagogues.’ These are places that have found a compromise between feminist ideals and Jewish law, allowing gender equality. “The men in these synagogues are deeply engaged in this gender struggle,” she said. The idea for her book came to her during a conversation she had with an Orthodox Jewish man. She remembers him saying, “I could never go to a synagogue like that, because if women are doing everything, what’s left for men to do?” Sztokman decided this was actually an important point. “He was articulating something very poignant about society,” she said. “When women step into roles that were once exclusively owned by men, the men suffer from a crisis of identity. They no longer know how to define themselves as a man.” This drove Sztokman to write a book that addressed what men were going through, instead of exclusively focusing on women in this movement. “We have to pay attention to how men deal with this if we are going to successfully create equitable, compassionate communities,” she said. Sztokman is very aware that Orthodox Judaism creates strict gender divisions. Men are allowed public actions...

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"Men being nice": Jewschool reviews "The Men's Section"

“Men come to the partnership synagogue for a whole host of reasons, the overwhelming majority of which have nothing to do with feminism.” -The Men’s Section The Men’s Section is about the men’s side of partnership minyanim in Israel–their reasons for joining and their difficulties after joining. The author was clearly distressed by her own findings, which even I admit were surprising. Partnership minyanim are generally seen as being the “next step” to equality and gender balance. Admittedly, her research is Israel-centric, but one thing was clear: men weren’t joining out of a sense of feminism. In fact, what we know as the ideal of feminism was actually one of the difficulties men had with the minyanim! Many of the men interviewed reported that they didn’t feel a sense of community in their old shuls, or they felt an emotional disconnect, or that they felt constant pressure to be perfect (the “man-on-man gaze”), or that they were dissatisfied with the hierarchies. Note that none of this has anything to do with women. In fact, many of the problems reported by men were with the women–that they had their own incorrect “women’s trope,” or that they didn’t come on time. The fact that women were never taught the trope as meticulously as men were wasn’t discussed, and as Sztokman observed, women were expected to prepare meals for shabbos, and take care of the children, and still show up on time and stay throughout the service. She found that these men will let women into “their space” via the partnership minyanim only if they are willing to abide by the same rules by which the men were socialized. The irony is that these are the very rules and patterns that the men hoped to escape by joining these minyanim. Sztokman shows they are replete with the same social hierarchies that one might find in any mainstream Orthodox shul. Feminist deconstruction of gender and manhood was not a concern, and it seemed as if the women were there as sort of an afterthought. In fact, when one of the members had a non-egalitarian member of his family come in for his son’s bar mitzvah, many of the members argued that they should rescind women’s leadership positions. As one woman said, “we all fix things up in our home before the mother-in-law visits. How is this any different?” It was obvious that, as strange as it seems, egalitarianism wasn’t a very pressing item.   Read more here:

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Notes from the book tour: When Orthodox Men Get Personal

The strangest part of Monday night’s panel discussion of my new book, “The Men’s Section,” about partnership synagogues, wasn’t that the four-person panel was made up of all men. All-male panels are so common — to wit, I passed by a poster at Harvard this week announcing an economic conference with no female speakers at all — that Joanna Samuels of Advancing Women Professionals has been asking Jewish men to take a pledge not to sit on all-male panels. (Several of the men on my book panel said that they had taken the pledge and actually felt odd sitting on this all-male dais at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.) The really unusual part for me was that, although all the speakers are accomplished men with very impressive resumes and professional and communal achievements, their speeches had nothing to do with their expertise. Rather, they each talked about their feelings about partnership synagogues and the discussion centered on their own journeys in Jewish communal and religious life. In fact, Marc Baker, of Minyan Kol Rinah in Brookline, Mass. opened by saying, “I’m not used to talking about myself in this kind of forum.” The men were used to talking about ideas; they were not used to talking about themselves. This is what I want to happen from the publication of my book. I want men to start exploring their journeys and experiences, and to start examining Jewish life — not from the perspective of halachic and cold, cerebral, detached analysis of rules and facts. I want to give men the language and framework to ask themselves what they feel, what they see, what they really want. Read more:

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The book tour as a life journey: Stops along the way

There have been some moments on my book tour when I felt like I’m on a journey revisiting my own life. Part observer, part social commentator, and part Jewish traveler, I seem to be making stops that connect in significant ways to voyages past. The first striking moment was the discovery that Prof. Jon Levisohn of Brandeis University would moderate at my official book launch. Jon and I were very close friends when we were 14, and the truth is that even though we have only seen each other a few times over the past 20 years, he has a very special place in my heart. During that awkward period of adolescence when it’s easy to think that nobody sees you or understands you, Jon was a patient and kind listener, and a thoughtful, intelligent conversationalist. Actually, it seems to me that he still is all those things. His friendship was healing then, and his presence at my first ever book launch was incredibly comforting. It made me feel whole. As if to say, I have been on this journey for thirty years, taking me to this place, and I stll am this same person. And by the way, the fact that we both ended up with doctorates in education makes me wonder what we were talking about during those late night conversations all those years ago. My tour has also taken me back to the Barnard/Columbia Hillel, some 21 years after I graduated from Barnard. I spent a lot of time at the Hillel back then, when it was in what now seems like a small office in Earl Hall. I was particularly active in Columbia Students for Israel, with my friend Josh Leibowitz, z”l, and I remember many hours spent preparing all kinds of flyers and events. We used to sometimes take over the desk of then program coordinator Helise Leiberman who was nice enough to pretend not to mind. (Helise now works with Jewish students in Poland, and we recently reconnected, and are now Facebook friends of course.) We were really happy then, I think – although seeing what HIllel has become, a multi-story building of its own, the Kraft Center for Jewish Life, with an Indian-themed kosher cafeteria, alarge synagogue that does not alternate as a mosque, and lots of spacious rooms and offices for every possible occasion including four different types of prayer services, just blows my mind. The building today is used by a thousand students on campus. That’s just amazing. Still, I should say that the moment that really blew me away was when I mentioned during my session that partnership synagogues have “only” been around for ten years, realizing that for some of the students in the room, that was more than half their lives! Their reality forced me to adjust my thinking and reconsider my narrative of social change. At one of these events, I had a very special audience member: Susan "Sooz" Goodman, my first cousin once removed, whom I had...

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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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The Men's Section on the Jewish Channel

"My story on The Men’s Section and Drisha panel is now up on The Jewish Channel and, in abbreviated form, online. You can see the abridged web version on YouTube using this link: The complete broadcast version can only be seen on The Jewish Channel, which is available on cable – channel 528 on Time Warner, channel 291 on Cablevision iO Optimum, channel 268 on RCN, channel 900 on Verizon FiOS and Frontier, channel 1 on Cox, channel 330 on Brighthouse, and on Comcast in the On-Demand menu under “Premium Channels”The program is listed in the TJC Original Series category as “Weekly News 04-27” Feel free to spread around the web video, record it off The Jewish Channel for your own use, or you can purchase a DVD of the episode from TJC for $50. All the best and Shabbat shalom,Rebecca" ---Rebecca Honig FriedmanManager, Original Programming & New MediaThe Jewish Channel / Compass ProductionsT. 212-643-9500 x106E. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it." target="_blank">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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"Brother Suffragettes": Amanda Borschel-Dan reviews "The Men's Section" at The Times of Israel

It’s a story about tension, identity and dialogue. About living on the borders of a culture, yet still navigating within them. About negotiating, pushing back, and yes, acceptance. Its tale is particular, yet so universal that scholars and laymen all over the world are picking up Elana Sztokman’s new work, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World.” Read more

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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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SPECIAL EXCERPT of "The Men's Section"

The following is a special excerpt from Elana's new book, The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, released Nov 2011: Prologue One cold Saturday morning, I walked into a synagogue in Jerusalem and did something I had never done before: I led the prayer service. It was January 2002, and my friend Haviva Ner David had called me to let me know that a new prayer group was forming and needed a woman cantor, a hazzanit. This was not a Conservative community, where this is normal, but rather an Orthodox group that was trying to give women as many roles in the service as was possible within Jewish law. Haviva said women would be allowed to read from the Torah, to be called up to the Torah and to lead certain sections of the service. This was quite a coup in a world where such roles for women were until then virtually unheard of. Haviva said that the whole project was about to become academic because no woman was willing to do it. “If you  don’t do it, we may have to ask a man to lead services instead. And that would just defeat the whole purpose.” Despite my then 33 years of dwelling in Orthodox communities, despite the fact that my father is a seasoned cantor and Torah reader, and that his father was a famous cantor, and despite the fact that I had spent hundreds of hours sitting in synagogues listening to others leading the service, the thought of doing it myself was daunting – and, frankly, exhilarating. "Okay, I'll do it," I said. Ignoring my complete lack of experience, and displaying either courage, blind faith, or startling irreverence, I agreed to do it. I called my friend Aaron Frank, an Orthodox feminist rabbi and Carlebach devotee, and asked for help. He taught me some tunes, made a tape recording, and guided me. I practiced for hours, suddenly making explicit what had only been passively understood, paying attention to stops and starts, memorizing melodies that I had heard since I was a child, and taking ownership, for the first time in my life, of a text that had been central to my religious identity for decades. I was ready to become a hazzanit. This particular Shabbat was about to make history, not only for me, but also for the entire Orthodox world. It was the very first Shabbat service of Shira Hadasha, (literally ‘new song’) an Orthodox-egalitarian synagogue that has since become a legendary, world-renowned focus of conversation at countless dinner tables and blogs, and a must-see tourist spot for Jews of all denominations visiting Jerusalem. That first week, Haviva, along with Tova Hartman, a Harvard-educated feminist professor who was the spirit and energy behind the initiative, were nervous that nobody would come.  This was not a lecture hall where people from non-descript backgrounds were taking notes and writing academic papers on feminist theory or researching sources on women in Jewish law. This was an attempt...

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