Let’s talk about Jewish men, shall we? Let’s talk about them as though they were a singular entity, a borg, if you will. Let’s erase individual proclivities-emotions, sexualities, demonstrations of what it means to be a man. And while we’re at it, let’s do the same to women, and we’ll make everyone nervous about how much space women are taking up in Jewish communities, even if it’s not actually true.
People who believe in the myth of the Jewish Lady Takeover will now proceed to name a handful of Jewish women who have reached senior status in their organizations. They’ll say that liberal denominations are ordaining the ladies like nobody’s business, and that this means the men are being crowded out. Go ahead, insist that I’m wrong. It doesn’t make it true. It doesn’t mean that women who graduate from the rabbinical schools of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary are getting jobs, or if they get those jobs, that they’re going to be able to keep them, because of issues of pay and child care.
Sue Fishkoff’s recent JTA article, “As Men Fade From Jewish Communal Life, Men’s Clubs Push for Revival,” is about the resurgence of men’s groups in synagogues in an attempt to retrieve what Fishkoff calls “the great disappearing American Jewish male.” (I saw probably 12 Jewish men on the street today. Maybe I should have captured them in a burlap sack, so rare a specimen they apparently are.)
In addition to objecting to this tired claim that the men have disappeared from organized Jewish life, I question the motivation of these men’s clubs. (Steak dinners? Baseball games? Are there more narrow and stereotypically male activities?) The truth is that male-only spaces can do good work. The “Hearing Men’s Voices” project, for instance, is an example of such a thing, in which men can listen to one another and talk about what it means to be a Jewish man.
How far will such conversations go, though? Are men encouraging one another and giving each other the tools to talk about notions of masculinity? Are they challenging homophobia and sexism in the Jewish community, or perpetuating them?
There is great potential in these men’s spaces, to have important conversations, to use male privilege towards making meaningful change. I’m skeptical, however, that it can happen when the reason for cloistering is to reclaim space they feel is being taken from them by Jewish women. A renaissance in regard to what it means to be a Jewish man can only benefit the entire community, but it must not be done within the context of women being seen as a threat to Jewish manhood and male power.