Book Review: Jewish Men at the Crossroads

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Jewish Men at the Crossroads takes a dip into the section of the gender pool some now call “masculism,” or “masculinism.”

A publication of the Conservative Movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the volume is a collection of essays by Jewish men offering intimate sharing from issues of their current lives. The intent is to stimulate men into returning to synagogue life through participation in male support groups.

The book has its problems, such as the absence of talk about the range of masculinities within gender, as in GBTQIA and a stunning absence of essays relating to maleness and social justice.

That said, many essays do reflect a poignant honesty about these Jewish mens’ encounters with life’s inevitable challenges.

More after the jump.
Those among who have been caregivers will surely empathize with the following story, for example:

The last five years of Freyda’s life… the last five years of our marriage were difficult, to say the least.

I loved caring for Freyda. It was a burden of love.

However, our life dramatically changed. Our travel was limited. We could no longer do many of the activities we had grown to love together. Our intimacy was limited to hugging, holding hands, snuggling in bed… but I loved it, I truly loved it….

The situation at times was intolerable. I was often fatigued, but I could not sleep. I was frequently depressed. I was often angry and would get upset… yelling at Freyda… an innocent being, my love/my soul mate… this was most disturbing to me… — Arnold Miller

In another essay, a man with autism brings us into his Jewish life, in a way that clearly illustrates the need for heightened understanding of diversity in our population, and strategies for changing the social climate of congregations:

I had been praying for God to cure my autism and wondering why God didn’t answer my prayer. I realized at that point that I had been praying for the wrong reason.

I started to pray for the strength to accept autism and live with joy, laughter and connection. My prayers were answered more richly than I ever imagined. Sometimes I still hate autism, but now I love life more than I hate autism…

After ten years, we finally left our synagogue and joined a new one where people smile at me even if I am sometimes too loud or excited and no one stares at me like I am a piece of trash….

My favorite Jewish holiday is Passover because it is the story of our people’s journey from degradation to liberation… — Jacob Artson

The reality of intermarriage is frankly acknowledged. Strong feelings and approaches uncharacteristic of the Conservative movement’s platforms and positions are included:

I am distraught that many synagogues still will not let the non-Jewish parent participate on the bimah for a baby naming or a bris. — Joshua Kohn

Mazel tov… is he Jewish?…

I do understand that for some people, if their child dates a non-Jew, it is a “big deal.” But , for me, is that paramount to my daughter’s happiness? Or even my happiness? Doesn’t a father give up some of his happiness for his children?…

Yes, my children — I consider Josh my son — [they] were married by a rabbi and a minister.

No, my granddaughter is not having a naming, though her parents just recently had a ceremony in my home to give her a Hebrew name. And, yes, they are going to be doing a similar type of ceremony in his church.

Yes, my granddaughter is going to be raised in both religions… Would I love him more if he was Jewish? No. He is the son I never had. I love him for who and what he is. Plain and simple. — Dave Julis

Unfortunately, the book also contains unchallenged stereotypes and assumptions:

[G]irls’ learning styles… focus on attentiveness, persistence, orderliness, and sedentary work, while boys thrive when they can be physically active and have time to be rowdy…

Boys… respond to hands-on activity, competition, challenge, and incentives. — David Weiser

If we are to maintain the religious affiliation of American Jewish men, then we have to preach and teach Jewish men to see introspection, empathy, kindness, noble character, humility and gratitude as male ideals. — Ed Feld

The most telling barrier [to engaging me in synagogue life] is that most men are simply uncomfortable praying. — Jack Chomsky

Jewish Men at the Crossroads is about the happenings in the lives and minds of Conservative men. Among the topics addressed are retirement, becoming a caregiver for a declining, beloved spouse, becoming an in-law to someone who is not Jewish, observing yartzeit for one’s child, recognizing that raising children requires role-modeling and a serious investment of time from both parents, age-related loss of libido, health issues, and having a child in the Israeli army, and a good deal more.

Some sapping does rise during essays reflecting on the stereotypes that “manhood is about strength, courage, willpower” and that “traditional… male values [are] honesty, courage, decisiveness, responsibility and resilience,” when, for Jews, “success is measured by being a mensch and helping make this world a better place.”

But where is rebellion against the oppression of the workforce, and the military use of men, and now women, as cannon fodder? Where are strategies for rising up and recalibrating society? These are not to be found as much as several essays that indicate a desire for a better balance of work and family.

Fire in the belly is patently lacking. These are essentially really nice men, coping with life’s dealt hand more than taking up the mantle of justice being called for by our ancient and contemporary prophetic voices.

Also missing in the book is any tipping of the hat to the Jewish men’s movement retreats that have been happening for decades, led by Yosaif August, Shawn Zevit, and colleagues at what is now called the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, in Connecticut. There are many seminal publications these “Hearing Men’s Voices” groups might seek out for discussion:

Also, the developers at Moving Traditions created a substantial developmental program for Jewish boys called The Brotherhood. Their research and development sheds a great deal of light on what it can mean to be a Jewish male in the 21st Century.  

Reflection upon the forces that have influenced many of the contributing authors of the book, is perhaps their own next step. We hear little to nothing about domestic violence, or other violence, such as life as WWII vets; or the role of subsequent wars on their masculinity; or the unisex/”free love” of the 1960s; or male or boyhood survival in the wake of the soul-searing emasculation of the Holocaust.

And what of the roles and masculinities of men who bring us glory and/or shame in societies — Madoff? Doctorow? Wiesel? Mamet? Dayan? Spitzer? Gehry? Adelman? Shamgar ben Anat? (See Judges 3:31) And infinitely many more.

Bar Mitzvah essentially goes missing — perhaps a statement of its own about this increasingly problemmatic ritual. The stories within our very tradition, as at least one author points out, point men toward revisiting what they have drawn from their “fathers’ wells” — at home, and in the stories about men and masculinity within Jewish tradition and contemporary culture. Perhaps some of this will emerge in a second volume, as the program advances.

The last sentence of the introduction by Bob Braitman, past president of FJMC asks: “What is a Jewish man?” It is a bit disingenuously stated that the problem seems to be that “men have somehow become less visible in both the leadership in many professions and in the volunteer world.”

Presumably this refers to the arrival of women rabbis, cantors and the preponderance of women who now attend services and serve on boards and committees in the liberal Jewish movements. Though some hold leadership and research positions, the men writing these essays do not appear eager to reclaim an increased position in any of these roles.

In many ways Jewish Men at the Crossroads is about a new wave of Jewish men seeking healing, who are not at the innovative fringe but rather becoming newly receptive to its waves and practices. The work of supportive healing and growing at the level of spirit and awareness is crucial to Jewish and humane development.

Rabbi Simcha Weintraub appears as a contributing author in this volume. The founder of The National Center for Jewish Healing, Weintraub is a great man to have on board for this initiative. For while women are increasingly attaining equal votes and roles, and are being “allowed” to succeed, Jewish men still have the cultural burden of being expected to succeed.

Indeed, Rabbi Weintraub points out metaphorically that “Jewish men may have stopped breathing” from the stress, and the burden of traditional expectations about their potential to accomplish, innovate, earn and be honored. So, let us end by borrowing from the blessing Rabbi Weintraub offers for men:

Enjoy breathing with reflection; community with solitude; work with rest.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon — May this be God’s will; Amen.

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