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Review of: Searching for My Brothers--Jewish Men in a Gentile World by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin.
"Just as fish probably lack a word for water," writes Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin in his promising introduction to his new book, "I had always been struck that no one had ever stopped to think what Judaism really had to say about men's lives as men." What would happen he asks, "if men started taking Judaism as seriously as women were now starting to? What would a feminism for Jewish men look like?" In other words what would it mean for Jewish men to study Jewish texts, to explore and participate in Jewish ritual to learn what Judaism says to them as men. What emerges from Rabbi Salkin's musings is an enlightening portrait of the contemporary Jewish man through the struggles and challenges that face him.
Rabbi Salkin begins by examining the patriarchs--Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Jethro. Neither stick figures nor saints, Rabbi Salkin presents these ancestral male role models as complex individuals whose lives are crisscrossed with grief and torment, acts of immense courage and bravery. While American society convinces men that "big boys don't cry," Rabbi Salkin teaches that the Torah shows real men who cry, wail, and weep. Abraham wept upon Sarah's death, Jacob was grief-stricken after hearing that wild animals had allegedly eaten Joseph. Joseph openly wept when he was reunited with his brothers. Salkin urges Jewish men to learn from their tradition instead of following society's emotionally crippling norm.
Rabbi Salkin also shows that the differences between the paradigmatic Jewish male and the [non-Jewish] boy next door go much deeper than a willingness to shed tears. This difference has its genesis in the destruction of the Second Temple. The Jewish people were utterly vanquished. Unable to offer sacrifices, they could no longer connect to God. Rabbi Salkin writes that in that situation the sages knew that connecting to God depended upon redefining what it meant to be a Jewish man. "The hereditary priesthood of the kohanim (priests)," he writes, "was now irrelevant. Each man could now be his own 'priest' in his own home . . . Once Jews brought sacrifices of grain, incense, and animals to God's dwelling in Jerusalem. Now the offerings were even more precious: prayer, Torah study, and mitzvot, sacred obligations and deeds of kindness. Although these virtues weren't regarded as 'macho' by the world at large, they became the yardstick of 'Jewish machismo.'"
Until that is, Jews ceased looking at themselves through a Jewish lens and instead began to view themselves through society's prism--one that belittled restraint, education, and renunciation. Consider that change in the shadow of centuries of persecution that culminated with the Holocaust and it is no wonder that a young college student who once approached Rabbi Salkin to discuss his Jewish identity equated Jewish men with "wusses."
In his chapter titled "Israel Our Manhood," Rabbi Salkin skillfully traces how the founding of the State of Israel and then the victorious Six Day War returned manliness to Jewish men. "Zionism is not only the nationalistic enterprise of the Jewish people," he writes, "Zionism is also a rebellion against the image of the emasculated Jew. It represents a break in the history of Jewish meekness and docility."
However, it is going to take more than the notion of Zionism to get Jewish men to reconnect with their Jewish self-esteem. Rabbi Salkin urges Temple Brotherhoods to expand their programming beyond bagel breakfasts and blood drives. Adequate suggestions as far as they go, but what else can be done to reach Jewish men, to bring them to a point where they "get it," where they are willing to reconnect and claim Judaism for themselves?
The only invigorating prescriptions for action that I saw in Rabbi Salkin's book were in the chapter on Bar Mitzvah. In it he lays out seven possible passages for the bar mitzvah to go through on his way to becoming a Jewish man. They include donating one's religious school text books to younger children as well as anticipating a set of questions the Bar Mitzvah student would want answered by the elders of his community . Salkin also encourages incorporating physical activities (camping trips and rock climbing) the artistic endeavors (the boy must create something with his own hands) as part of the Bar Mitzvah preparation.
What is missing, however, from Rabbi Salkin's book is a blueprint for inspiring Jewish men to reconnect with their spiritual side. However, he does identify many paths that Jewish men can take towards Judaism. His suggestions for concrete action include, engaging in Jewish study, using a portion of one's earnings to better the world, and mentoring youngsters in the Jewish community. "Jews pray different, study differently, eat different, live differently," writes Rabbi Salkin. "And if we are men, then we are men different as well."
Searching for My Brothers shows Jewish men ways to evoke tradition to redefine themselves as well as how to stake out a Jewish space within this very non-Jewish world. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin's book is not so much a battle cry as it is a cry from the heart to reclaim the strength, the Jewish strength, that once belonged to Jewish men.