Feminine mystique

Brandeis Sociologist warns of alienating men from public Judaism.

sylvia fishman 224.88 (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
sylvia fishman 224.88
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
'I am very open about the fact that my intellectual framework is one of wishing Jewish culture to survive," says Sylvia Barack Fishman, professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University's Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department, and the author of The Way into the Varieties of Jewishness and six other books. "When I evaluate what's happening, that's where I'm coming from." And what Barack Fishman has been evaluating lately is gender. More specifically, the male-female ratio and how its imbalance is affecting liberal Jewish life in the United States. Indeed, stressing that her observations and conclusions are based on and aimed at American patterns of Jewish behavior, Barack Fishman expresses concern over what her research and other studies indicating that Jewish boys and men need a little attention and a lot of tending to. "What you're seeing in Judaism is a phenomenon we call 'feminization,'" she explains. "Feminization occurs when women move into an environment and men flee from that environment - and then the environment decreases in financial rewards and in social status." As a result, she maintains, the atmosphere of places like the synagogue takes on a female flavor, which further alienates male congregants, for whom "touchy-feely" isn't all that attractive. In fact, it can even be a turnoff. To remedy what she sees is cause for concern, Barack Fishman - who co-directs the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and is a faculty affiliate of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute - recommends getting the men back in the saddle of Jewish study, culture and heritage by getting them - literally - into a saddle. Or on a raft. "Venues where it's 'just the boys.'" In an hour-long interview with The Jerusalem Post, Barack Fishman - here last month to attend the "Contemporary Reform Judaism" conference at the Van Leer Institute - discusses the research she is currently conducting on the impact of gender on Jewish family choices. How can you make a gender distinction where Jewish life is concerned? As a sociologist, I look at the way things are, not the way they should be. And what one sees from looking at the way things are is that boys and girls, and men and women, behave very differently from one another. These differences may be partially inborn and partially produced by society, but my task is not to discover how the differences are generated. My task is to observe and measure, systematically and scientifically, how they affect people's behavior. What caused you to observe and measure the difference between men and women in relation to Jews? Every statistical study of American Jews that's been done has shown dramatic differences between men and women. In a 2005 study of the Boston Jewish community, for example, when we looked at intermarried Jewish men and women, we saw that among Jewish women married to non-Jewish men, nine out of 10 said they wanted to raise Jewish children, and that they had talked about doing so when they were still dating their future spouses. Among Jewish men married to non-Jewish women, only about half said they wanted to raise Jewish children. That is one example of something in a systematic study that made me wonder, well, what does this sound like in real people's lives? I conduct research through interviews. So here what I did was to interview more than 300 men and women - Jewish and non-Jewish - in families in which two Jews were married to each other; families in which there was one Jew and one non-Jew; and families in which there was one Jew and one non-Jew who had converted to Judaism. Then I went to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey and reran all of the data, only looking at married couples who had children under the age of 17 living at home. The reason I looked at that group was because a lot of times religion doesn't start to matter to people until they have children, and then suddenly they discover it's much more important to them than they had thought it was. Then I went back to my interviews to look at Jewish and non-Jewish parents, to see how they talked about three things: their feelings about organized religion in general; their feelings about Judaism specifically; and their feelings about the project of raising Jewish children. What I found was that the differences I had seen in the Boston study were just as pronounced in the National Jewish Population Study and in the interviews. Among families in which both parents are Jewish, do the women also have more of a desire and a say in raising Jewish children? Where there are two Jews living together, the woman often has more of a say about it, but it's not as pronounced, because the husband usually shares her goals. In intermarried families, there often are two different goals. The Jewish women I interviewed, for example, saw themselves as the makers of Jewish memories for their children. They actually talked that way; they used that language. They said they had to think of things they could do with their children to make them feel good about Judaism. So, the holidays were very important. Even among the Reform. They talked about lighting Shabbat candles and having warm and encompassing Shabbat meals. The men didn't talk like that. The Jewish women said, "As soon as I realized [my future husband and I] were serious [about getting married], I began talking about how I needed to raise Jewish children." The non-Jewish husbands interviewed told the same story. They said, "You know, we were dating, and she started talking about having Jewish children, and I thought, well, if I want to marry her and it's important to her, I'll go along with it." Indeed, many of the men interviewed - both Jewish and non-Jewish - didn't think that organized religion was so important altogether, while their wives - whether Jewish or non-Jewish - said they wanted their children to have some religion. Ironically, what very often happens is that the Christian wife says, "I want our children to have religion," and the Jewish husband says, "Do we really need it?" And the Christian wife says, "Yes, the children need it, so maybe I should baptize them." At this point, the Jewish husband gets agitated, and says, "No, I don't want Christian children. You're not going to baptize my child." So, the Jewish women are proactive and the Jewish men are reactive. The weak link in intermarried families, then, is really the Jewish men. You know, Jewish outreach programs tend to focus on the Christian wife, when the real problem is the Jewish husband, because generally, if the Jewish husband were to have a positive attitude toward religion, the non-Jewish wife would be willing to raise Jewish children. So, instead of the Jewish husbands helping, sometimes they actually undermine the effort. Are the Christian wives so anxious for their kids to have some religion that they'd be willing to forfeit a Christmas tree in favor of a menora? In those families, because the husband doesn't really doesn't care that much, or isn't strong enough to say no, typically what you have is both Hanukka and Christmas, Passover and Easter - you have everything. Yet, when interviewed, they say they're raising Jewish children. Why does this distinction between Jewish men and women matter? Well, I do have colleagues who, when I tell them that women have taken over liberal Judaism, while the men have basically disappeared, they say, "Who cares? What do we need them for?" The answer is that the Jewish people needs both men and women. It was not a good situation when women were denied access to their cultural heritage and to public Judaism. Nor is it a good situation when men aren't interested in their cultural heritage or Judaism. What is the source of their lack of interest - their upbringing? I don't have that kind of longitudinal study, but I can show you an amazing quote by a 20-year-old describing what the synagogue looks like to him. [Here she produces a copy of the paper she presented at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on December 20 - titled: "The New Gender Imbalance Among America's Jews: Research and Policy Implications" - and reads the following passage:] "Mostly women have taken over the power of the congregation. We have a female president, and a lot of the board is run by women... And it seems when you go to services, there's less men every single time, and more women. Sometimes it's a little too lovey-dovey, hugging everybody... Men don't care." One could argue that though traditionally they didn't have a public role in the synagogue, women nevertheless have always been the foundation of Jewish life, even in the Bible. And American women have become empowered altogether. So, why should it be either surprising or problematic that Jewish-American women now dominate public Jewish life? It's true that Jewish culture has often been gynocentric - that women have been at the center of domestic Judaism. But public Judaism, since the beginning, has been patriarchal. And what you're seeing in the United States today is that women have taken over all aspects of it. Isn't that a microcosm of what's happening in the US as a whole? Aren't women heading IBM while changing diapers and making sure food is on the table at home? Why should Jewish life be any different? The difference is that men still want to work at IBM. What you're seeing in Judaism is a phenomenon we call "feminization." Feminization occurs when women move into an environment and men flee from that environment - and then the environment decreases in financial rewards and in social status. Like the school-teaching profession, you mean? Exactly. So, what has happened in the United States is that liberal Judaism has become feminized. There are more female applicants to rabbinical school and cantorial school in the Reform movement than there are men. A majority of adult education participants are female. There are more little girls going to Hebrew school than little boys - even in the pre-bar- or bat-mitzva years. What you're looking at - as is evident in the quote I read you - is that men are becoming alienated from Judaism. But American-Jewish men are raised to be doctors, lawyers and businessmen. Even if the liberal rabbinates had not become feminized, wouldn't ambitious men be staying away from it? Being a rabbi is neither very lucrative nor a status symbol, after all. Not true. In the Reform movement, and in many Conservative synagogues, rabbis make a very nice living. It's not an issue of money. It's one of alienation. What's the solution? One thing we need to do - and I think some Reform temples are starting to do this - is understand that men really do like to have certain venues where it's "just the boys." And we need to provide them with those venues. We need to create opportunities for boys and men to spend time with each other in a way which is Jewishly meaningful. What kind of opportunities? Study groups? Study groups or retreats that include rafting and study, for example. Is that realistic? Very. A lot of groups are starting to do this. And the men are taking an interest in it? Yes, because [activities like rafting are] scary and dangerous. This is the reason Taglit (birthright) fares better than most other youth groups in this respect, because [trips to Israel] are perceived as being dangerous. The parents of the girls are more worried about letting their daughters go. And because the boys perceive it as being dangerous, they sign up in almost equal numbers. Boys don't like programs that are too "I'm OK; you're OK; we're all OK; everything's wonderful." So, first we need to acknowledge the fact that this is a fact. And then we need to start involving men and boys in the creation of programs designed for them. To play devil's advocate, I could argue that the self-evident fact that men and women are different was first denied by the feminists, and now they've made a mess of Judaism as well. No, I'm not going to blame women for this. Women moved into an encounter with Judaism when men were already losing interest. In fact, in many ways, it is women - particularly in the Reform movement - who have rekindled an interest in Judaism. When Judaism began to open up to women's receiving Jewish educations in a way that it hadn't been previously, they got excited about it. They got excited about learning Hebrew, reading from the Torah and using Jewish ritual paraphernalia. And then women began coming to Israel and buying kippot and tallitot and bringing them back to their Reform temples. When their husbands and sons saw how excited they were, they began to get interested, too. A lot of the increased ritualism within the Reform movement was brought by women, but now it affects men also. Theologically, women brokered traditionalism into the Reform movement. So I would say that Jewish feminism, if anything, has created a lot of excitement around adult Jewish education. But now that that has happened, a way has to be found to get men and boys reinvolved. Are you optimistic about accomplishing this? Yes. Because I see that the wings of American Judaism are paying attention, and once Jews admit to the challenges and study them, they create strategies to deal with them.