I’d like to return to my current read, Elana Maryles Sztokman’s The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World. I’m still about halfway through, and while Sztokman is dealing with a limited perspective of mostly Israelis, some of the larger concepts about Orthodox Jewish men that she tackles in the first half of the book (Chapters 1-5) are, for the most part, true. Some of those reasons are why I feel the way I do about things, why I’m annoyed at Orthodox Judaism today, and why I continue to identify as Orthodox in spite of all those feelings.
On page 36, Sztokman cites Paul Kivel’s “Act Like A Man” box, and through the remainder of Chapter 2 (and bleeding over into the next few chapters), creates what she calls the “BOMB” or “Be an Orthodox Man” Box. Kivel’s box consists of three concentric rectangles. The innermost contains the things that men try to hide, such as anger, love, and sadness; the middle box contains actions that men do to protect themselves such as yell, fight, and be stubborn; and outside the box are the abuses which men (usually boys) are subject to when they fail to meet these criteria such as name-calling, hitting, and sexual abuse.
So, yeah. Rough stuff.
I can definitely see where Sztokman finds her parallels. Instead of quoting her, however, I can use hers and Kivel’s information to synthesize some thoughts of my own.
Let me start off with a story.
It was senior year of high school, and the junior and senior classes were all going to a pro-Israel rally on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington, DC. It was mandatory, and with the world being the way it was in 2005, everyone was pretty much on the edge about coming back alive. So we loaded ourselves into buses with posters and set off for DC. We got to the rally and it was a lot bigger than most of us expected. High school students had come in by the busload from as far away as Boston, New York, and Atlanta, not to mention all the families that attended. It was also longer, hotter, and sunnier than most of us expected, and a lot of people, including myself, came home that day with horrible sunburns. As anyone who’s been to a rally knows, when the rally ends, people disperse en masse, and this dispersion was of Pamplona-proportions, only with Jews running down the street and not bulls. We were put into groups to make it back to the bus, and hopefully find some cold beverages along the way since those of us who brought water had finished it long ago. I was in one of the smaller groups, about six guys and one of our teachers, who was also a rabbi. Of course, where there are Jews, there are Chabadniks, always trying to engage Jews in conversation at inopportune times and places. As we walk/jog down the street trying to find a 7-11 or something, a Chabadnik pulls aside our teacher – who is a rabbi – and asks if he put on tefillin that morning. My teacher didn’t respond and just kept moving, probably because he was as hot and tired as us students and was wearing a suit, looking very much like a rabbi, which he was.
A few blocks later, when the crowd thinned out and the stragglers caught up, my teacher turned to me and said, “Can you believe that guy? Asking me if I wore tefillin this morning. Just look at me; who does he think I am? Who does he think he is? Bastard.”
Okay, so I added the “bastard” in there for effect (although I’m not entirely convinced he didn’t say it under his breath as we were walking or in his mind) but he was insulted. He didn’t know the guy, but it sat on his mind for several blocks and he felt so challenged that he had to blurt something out to his students. His sour reaction to the event is a good lead-in to the concept of competition in Orthodox Jewish manhood – a topic which Sztokman heavily focuses on in her book.
It’s the truth. Orthodox Jewish men are competitive, from childhood to adult. It’s about how high your education is, how young you were when you got married, how many children you have, how much halacha you observe, how much you pray, how much you study, what you do for a living, what you look like, what you eat, and what you wear. People say that these things don’t matter, but to Orthodox Jewish men, they do. Looking at myself through this “be an Orthodox man” box, my score is pretty low. I am 26 years old with no wife and children (practically “old bachelor” age in the Orthodox world), I don’t wear a kippa every day, I don’t observe all the laws of Shabbos every week, I don’t wear the Orthodox Jewish uniform (white Oxford, black jacket, black pants) 24/7, I never went to yeshiva or did much in the way of Jewish learning/limmudei kodesh past-high school, I don’t go to minyan three times a day, and I got my education in non-Jewish colleges (pretty much anywhere besides YU, Brandeis, Touro, or an Ivy) and I studied theatre. At least I have an advanced degree and am working on my second, I still observe kashrut, and I have a mezuzah on my door; those things should count for something, I guess. Still, if I were to register myself with a shidduch, I’d probably strike out before getting up to bat.