The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back

Associate Editor

A Modern Orthodox shul in New York City: Men in the main sanctuary are sitting around doing nothing. It’s Simchat Torah but there is dead air, no singing, no dancing, no prayer. It’s well after 2 p.m. and the men wait 20, 30, 45 minutes for services to resume. Oh, there is a service under way — a women’s prayer group. The rabbi says that the men in the main sanctuary must wait until the women’s service concludes its prayers and a half-dozen speeches. Scores of men drift away.
A Conservative synagogue in Suffolk County: A middle-aged man, active in his congregation for decades, is active no more. His synagogue was interviewing a woman cantor “and that was the final straw. I’m a Conservative Jew, respecting
halacha as it was understood by Conservative Judaism all my life until a few years ago. Halachically, women are not allowed to be [leading the davening] when men are present. Our Saturday morning service has been losing people,” said the former synagogue leader. “They’ve all been men.”
A Reform temple in Port Washington, L.I.: Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin says that several years ago, in his Community Synagogue congregation of 630 families, “I started noticing there were more women than men involved in Torah study, at services, at Yizkor, in the leadership ranks of the synagogue.”
If the last 30 years were marked by a rabbinic recognition that Judaism had to heal the alienation and wrongs done to Jewish women, the rabbinate in the next century may have to confront the fact that now it’s the men disappearing from the pews. Yes, men still control the centers of religious power, but there is a swelling population of the Jewish Common Man who feels powerless and ignored by the male elite.
Now, though, from Jerusalem to Arizona to New York City, slowly, awkwardly, a Jewish men’s movement is taking shape. Somewhat self-conscious, without any coordinating office, come reports of informal men’s groups contemplating their religious, communal and personal identities; a flurry of books; new institutional programming; rabbinic recognition of a serious problem; and a determination from both the pews and the pulpits that the creativity and energy spent on women’s spirituality now has to be spent on re-engaging men.
Since the 1970s, alienated Jewish feminists have been able to articulate discontent and get results. By contrast, alienated Jewish men have been more likely to brood and withdraw. Rabbi Salkin, author the new book, “Searching for My Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World,” says the idea of a men’s movement is “borrowing the tools of feminist analysis of literature and thought — how can we learn to look at our lives as Jewish men?”
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, vice president of the Wexner Heritage Foundation and author of the new book, “From Your Father’s House: Reflections for Modern Jewish Men,” says, “I’ve seen men retreating from the synagogue … particularly as the feminist movement has grown.”
However, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, says to blame feminism is to miss the bigger picture. After all, from the earliest years of this century, men were choosing to go into the workplace on Shabbat mornings, or otherwise stay away: “I can cite reports from as far back as the 1920s, in which rabbis were pointing this out. Back in the 1950s, there were reports suggesting that as synagogues modernized, Jews were adapting to the Christian model; women were more present than men in church, and were more present in synagogues,” other than Orthodox shuls.
What has emerged at century’s end is a significant Jewish male population suffering from religious malaise and loss of religious identity, not unlike what Susan Faludi has pointed out about the “betrayal of men” in the wider society.
“America has devalued so much of what our grandfathers brought to this country,” says Rabbi Salkin. “Torah for its own sake was devalued and we became a community that only valued study if it brought monetary and career advancement.”
If women were reduced to sex objects in the pre-feminist world, Jewish men sometimes feel reduced to success objects in the eyes of Jewish women, children, community.
Rabbi Olitzky, seeking to take a page from the grassroots success of Rosh Chodesh groups, in which women get together in conjunction with the New Moon, says some rabbis are working on developing a monthly men’s gathering linked to Kiddush Levana, the nocturnal Blessing of the Moon.
Olitzky is a Reform rabbi, but on the opposite end of the Jewish spectrum, Chabad has launched its own program linked to Rosh Chodesh, rooted in the informal Old World hail-fellow-well-met fabrengens that combine liquor and learning: On the Shabbat of Rosh Chodesh Bentching, when the New Month is blessed at morning services, Chabad-Lubavitch of Riverdale features an after-shul fabrengen for men (though women are not asked to leave). Over bowls of hot chulent, with schnapps to loosen the spirit and chasidic stories and singing to loosen the soul, there has developed a great camaraderie of brothers.
Some Jewish men want to do nothing more than start an honest conversation among themselves. In the dim but sacred space of Ramat Orah, an Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s West Side, Ari Goldman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, tells a small circle of friends about an interdenominational men’s group — with rabbis, but not led by rabbis — that he participated in while on a recent sabbatical in Israel.
For years, when his wife Shira had gone off to her Rosh Chodesh group, he had the sense that “something special, even magical, was happening.” As Goldman wrote, “I knew it was a place where women would talk freely … in a way I could not fathom. … On one or two occasions, the group met in the den of our home. After the kids were asleep, I’d press my face up against the glass door, like a kid outside a candy store. Inside, there’d be candles burning and a lilting song.”
Then, in a Jerusalem cafe, Goldman and several men friends got together and, without the candles or songs, the talk turned to “kids, wives, money, God, prayer, career, Israel, the music of Shlomo Carlebach.” Another member of that Jerusalem circle, Ray Lederman, recalled conversations about “the experience of our bar mitzvah and what that meant to us; how we chose to wear a kipa, or chose not to wear it. Conversation evolved to more personal issues.” Lederman, a lifelong liberal Jew, says, “There was an intimacy that was present in our davening together. I experienced the men’s group similarly to the way I experienced a mechitza; I wasn’t distracted by the male-female stuff.”
The group was a place, said Goldman, “where I could open up to other men without a feeling of competitiveness or judgment. No one was measured by how much they made or how important their title or how big a car they drove.”
When Lederman, a psychiatrist, returned from his year in Israel to Tucson, Ariz., he, like Goldman, established a men’s group of his own.
The men’s groups that have developed from that Jerusalem core happen to be comprised of men who not only are cognizant of the positive contributions of Jewish feminism, but who have been supportive of wives and daughters exploring creative ritual. But other men’s groups are developing a more aggressive strut. In “Tattoo Jew,” the avant garde on-line magazine “with attitude,” one writer damned modern Jewish intellectuals and “Nobel Prize-winning wimps,” evoking instead the images of warrior Jews, coming out of the desert like Huns and Vikings to take out the Canaanites. In California, several temples replaced supposedly tepid men’s clubs with associations that have punchier names like “100 Jewish Men.” In Philadelphia, Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom says that Jewish men were experiencing a “bewilderment” stemming from a “feminized” synagogue. Last year, he urged a national, outdoor men’s gathering, but no one has yet formed a national Jewish men’s group or event.
Meanwhile, the essential problems fester. The few men that do come to liberal synagogues sit passively at prayer; they don’t shuckle back and forth like Jewish men once did, notices Rabbi Salkin. Passion has seeped away. Too many men’s clubs aren’t set up “for this generation of men.”
Some protest that too many men’s clubs are too bagels-and-lox, too involved with shul politics and external issues.
Women, by contrast, says Rabbi Salkin, are “getting into much deeper places. There’s hardly anything on that level for men. The spirituality [in liberal Judaism] appeals mostly to women.”
For example, the official Conservative siddur was edited last year to remove most masculine imagery, so that God the Father is neutered into “Guardian.” God the King becomes “Sovereign.” A gender-neutral siddur is one thing, but the very same siddur translates “Lecha Dodi” in feminine splendor: “Welcome Shabbat the Bride, Queen of our days.”
“There’s a subtle anti-male message that’s being sent, even by men, the ones who edit these prayerbooks,” says Rabbi Salkin.
A recent edition of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s quarterly magazine observed that it appears “the liberals are winning as creativity takes the Conservative movement by storm.” The examples were women’s Rosh Chodesh groups; Simchat Bat rituals for newborn daughters; rituals for a daughter about to make aliyah; and the revamping of the classic Prayer for Rain into “Verses for Our Mothers.” All creative, all for women.
Then the author quotes a rabbi at the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs who complains, “Most men aren’t connected — they don’t think of themselves as spiritual.”
Yet some men, observers say, simply don’t take to the new “touchy-feely” culture. One Jewish businessman, a passionate Reform Jew, says that he’s had it with the “de rigueur kissing and hugging on the bima. I thought it was my congregation but it’s epidemic.”
“Contemporary spirituality strikes many men as being mushy,” says Rabbi Salkin. “Men need and respond to challenge. Instead, Judaism today is about comfort. It’s about ‘me’ finding ‘my’ comfort level. It’s about ‘me’ being nurtured.
“There are times,” he says, “when I want to say to the men in my synagogue who are abdicating their traditional Jewish roles — I want to shake them and grab them: Be a man! Stand up for something Jewish.”

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