What does masculinity have to do with religiosity and inmarriage?

The liberal Jewish community is grappling with the question of attracting and retaining men and boys, both as participants in religious life and as spouses for Jewish women (who are less likely to marry out and tend to marry out older, if they do at all).

This blog covered one response a couple of months ago: Moving Tradition's Campaign for Jewish Boys. One core aspect of their Brotherhood program is engaging Jewish boys in thinking about, amidst American ideals of masculinity, antisemitic stereotypes of the feminized Jewish man, and a patriarchal text and study-based religious tradition, what it means, to them, to be a Jewish man.

But what is really the relationship between internalized conceptions of masculinity and men's patterns of out-marriage and religious participation?

On Homespun Wisdom, Jamila asks: What do Jewish Women, Chinese Men, and Black Women have in Common? Referring to Sylvia Barack Fishman's 2008 work Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent, she writes:

An article I read about the feminization of the Jewish church makes the Jewish religious community sound eerily similar to the black church community: more women than men; women lamenting the loss of men to the community, imploring them to ‘come home and have babies’; men who are disdainful of ’their’ women and have become avoidant of religion in general.

This is fascinating to me. My (not all that expert) impression is that the history and politics of masculinity in the African American community are very different, even radically different from that of the Jewish community -  and yet the outcome, at least with regards to out-marriage and religious participation, is quite similar.

One possibility is that despite their apparent differences, there are some important fundamental similarities between African-American and Jewish masculinity. Another is that conceptions of masculinity are perhaps more tangential to the issue of men's religious and romantic orientations than one might have thought.

Jamila's hypothesis about the common denominator among Jewish women, Chinese men, and Black women is:

"Who dates out, the men or the women, has a lot to do with who the culture puts more pressure on–the boys or the girls–to carry that culture in the future."

While my impression is that traditionally, the Jewish community has done its best to put plenty of pressure on everybody not to marry out, thinking more closely about how that pressure is gendered might be helpful. Jamila makes a connection between that pressure and the fact that Judaism has been a matrilineal religion - but it seems to me that factor could go in both direction. In a way, Jewish women are more free to marry out because they don't need to reproduce with a Jewish man to have Jewish children.

On the other hand, women have done and continue to do (despite wonderful progress) most childrearing work. Liberal Judaism has let go of many of the traditional modes of more or less mandatory men's involvement in the religious life and religious education in which boys participate: heder, shul, yeshiva etc (modes which incidently also at least periodically relieve women of some of the burden of childcare for boys).  It makes sense that the gap in Jewish continuity work created by the loss of those traditional forms of childcare/education would have naturally shifted over into women's general basket of childrearing responsibilities. Especially since Jews too are immersed in a broader culture that has all too often placed near complete accountability for children's welfare, morality, and behavior on mothers.

I think that increasing the childrearing expectations placed on Jewish men (and increasing their ability to fulfill them by instituting and advocating for more family friendly workplace conditions: flextime, paternity leave, etc) could only help in encouraging men to value and transmit their own heritage to their children.

San Fran Circumcision Ban: Cutting Down on Cutting


Despite all the demonstrable health benefits of circumcision, San Francisco will vote in November to decide whether or not to ban circumcision in the city, without any sort of religious exemption for Jews and Muslims.

The JTA Archive's blog takes a fascinating look back today at JTA articles from the 20th century on the topic of circumcision. With a hat-tip to our friends at the JTA, and a reminder regarding the old adage about imitation and flattery, here is our own round-up of a few circumcision-related BJPA holdings, all of them from the past three decades:

Perhaps the real motivation for the San Francisco circumcision ban is precisely to unite the Jewish and Muslim communities in opposition... Or not.

New Moving Traditions Report on Keeping Jewish Boys Involved

(Cross posted to the Lilith Blog, which is also sharing a section of their Fall 2009 issue, Boys are the New Girls, for free).

The role of men and boys in American Jewish life is a topic of growing concern - current research on boys available on BJPA ranges from Wishing For More: Jewish Boyhood, Identity and Community to  "Bros" and "Ho's" in Jewish Life Today.

Monday night, Moving Traditions, the organization that gave us the "Rosh Hodesh - It's a Girl Thing" program, unveiled a new program geared at teenage Jewish boys - along with a substantive report on Jewish American boys' participation in American Judaism. 

We are living in exciting times. There is no historical precedent for the problem of the disenfranchisement of boys in the religion of "Shelo asani isha" (the blessing traditionally recited by Jewish men, thanking God for not making them women). Certainly there is no shortage of men at the tops of Jewish structures, as the ongoing work of organizations like Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community continues to document. But what does that avail us if we are bleeding boys from the bottom?

Moving Traditions found that at every year of post bnai mitzvah Jewish involvement, boys' participation lags behind that of girls. Through focus groups and pilot testing, they came up with a program that has proven, in their experience so far, successful at engaging Jewish boys and keeping them engaged. Somewhat like the Rosh Hodesh program, it reaches back to an area of Jewish life that was traditionally the province of its target audience: the boys participating in the pilot testing named themselves "The Brotherhood."

Single sex programming is meant to invite Jewish boys to integrate core pieces of their identity - masculinity and Judaism, precisely at the time in their lives that they are most actively involved with figuring out who they are, and can and want to be. The idea is not to perpetuate any ways in which Jewish communities have defined and nurtured male identities in opposition to and over female identities. The hope is that by involving boys in an active process of engagement with their Jewish gender identities, they will become a generation of men that can join Jewish women in the shared project of building thriving Jewish communities that can affirm individual identities and honor difference. 

The report includes sample activities as well as a marketing guide, and Moving Tradition's commitment to help organizations bring the program to Jewish teenage boys in their communities. One major challenge is the stark shortage of male Jewish educators and role models.

Participants in the unveiling program also asked questions about the distinctiveness of American, as opposed to Israeli, male Jewish identity, and the challenge of nurturing masculinity without perpetuating things like heteronormativity - one sample activity asks boys to arrange themselves on an agree/disagree spectrum to statements that "It's a "guy" thing to..." for example, "pay for a date."