Food, sports, politics, and other ‘manly’ pursuits

Food, sports, politics, and other ‘manly’ pursuits

A Young Judaea group visits Israel on a Birthright trip in the summer of 2009.
A Young Judaea group visits Israel on a Birthright trip in the summer of 2009.

Where are the men?” The disturbing absence of men in non-Orthodox Jewish life has sparked a debate regarding not only Jewish programming for young men, but our cultural assumptions about how we raise them.

Popular child psychology works agree that we have “boy trouble” — although they don’t quite agree on what the trouble is. William Pollack’s Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Manhood and Peg Tyre’s The Trouble with Boys suggest that young men are emotionally shut down and confused by mixed messages and expectations. As a result they develop hyperactivity, depression, and violent tendencies. The new wisdom is that we need to focus on boy-specific needs and even go so far as to set up separate curricula and settings for boys.

Alternatively, Hara Estroff Marano’s A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, suggests that young men are being suffocated by “helicopter parenting.” Boys need to be thrust out of their digital and maternal cocoons, we’re told, or they’ll never gain a true sense of independence or “manliness.”

In the Jewish world, meanwhile, scholars have been focusing on the conflicting expectations of young Jewish men. In his 1997 work Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, Daniel Boyarin sparked a new intellectual movement that sought to preserve and reinvent the gentle, studious, and “indoors” nature of the Jewish man, as opposed to the farm laborer, warrior, and “tough Jew” of Zionist mythology.

The good news is that the majority of young Jewish men today are at neither extreme of the spectrum. They are generally at ease with their maleness and their Jewishness, their sense of humor is warped without being neurotic, and they don’t divide the world neatly into “Jewish” and “non-Jewish.” These men do not have binary, archetypal, Woody Allen vs. Harvey Keitel views of Jewish manhood. Young Jewish actors like Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, and Shia Lebeouf — smart but not too nebbishy, good-looking but not hunks, emotionally open but willing to fight — represent a new balance and a new range of identities.

Young Jewish men I meet seem, like these actors, to fall somewhere between the Zionist vision of the new man and the yeshiva world’s vision of the house-bound scholar. Negative Jewish stereotypes persist, but this balance of qualities is proving so attractive that non-Jewish women have flocked to JDate. But with all that is positive and healthy about the development of young Jewish men, they seem to be dropping out of Jewish life in droves.

How can we reverse this trend? What kind of Jewish engagement will attract the majority of young men? Does the non-Orthodox world need to create programming that is exclusively for them?

‘Outdoor Judaism’

I have been working with the largest track-able group of young Jewish adults in the United States — Birthright Israel alumni. Our comprehensive database and RSVPs to our events around the nation allow us to move beyond the hypothetical to pinpoint the specific kinds of events these young men have participated in during, say, the last six months.

For example: Birthright Israel NEXT runs a large-scale home hospitality program around Shabbat. Its core element is a huge dinner for, on average, 14 guests. The gender split of hosts was nearly an exact match of Taglit-Birthright Israel’s overall numbers, roughly 52 percent women and 48 percent men. That means that in 2009, we had over 1,600 young male volunteers who hosted dinners for over 22,000 guests.

I’ve learned three things about young Jewish men: They like food, they like to cook, and they like to host guests in their home.

What don’t they like? Here’s an example: We run Hebrew-language ulpanim in 10 U.S. cities. Women outnumber men in these classes three to one.

So, what besides food does interest the men?

There are the obvious — sports and politics. If you want to see a successful Jewish program for men, meet my colleague Bennie Cohen from Atlanta and join him for a college football tailgating Shabbos. (I’m not sure but I think it involves barbecued kugel.) In every city where we run sports-related events, men are the majority of the attendees. Same thing goes for our Diplomatic Fellowship program with the Israel consulate — a majority of the applicants this past year were men.

But there are less obvious areas of men’s involvement. Two of my colleagues in Philadelphia started a jam session at a music studio where they play both rock/blues and Jewish music. The crowd has been mainly men, with the occasional female musician joining in.

Men are also attracted to what my friend Amos Kamil once termed “Outdoor Judaism.” Seventeen percent of the local peer-led events we sponsored this past year were outdoors-related. We’ve sponsored hikes with Jewish environmental educators in the mountains of northern and southern California, Havdala ceremonies on the beaches of south Florida and New Jersey, and sukka-hopping in Chicago. Judaism that happens outdoors can be relevant for men who will never set foot in a synagogue.

Will promoting these types of activities be the answer for how to re-engage men with Jewish life? If only the task were so easy. Young Jewish men outside of the Orthodox world are not seeking a community of Jewish men, or a Jewish community, period. What they are seeking is Jewish connection that is relevant to their lives. Our job as Jewish educators is to provide options that are both outdoors and indoors — to capture the beautiful paradox of the yeshiva boy who dreams of being a Zionist pioneer and the Zionist pioneer who dreams of studying in yeshiva.

As we consider how to address the absence of men in Jewish settings, we should take note of the places where men are participating in strong numbers. We should celebrate the complexity of male identities that are able to build from the last century’s modes of Jewish manhood and forge new forms of masculinity.

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