Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism

Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism

Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism

Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism

Synopsis

How did American Jewish men experience manhood, and how did they present their masculinity to others? In this distinctive book, Sarah Imhoff shows that the project of shaping American Jewish manhood was not just one of assimilation or exclusion. Jewish manhood was neither a mirror of normative American manhood nor its negative, effeminate opposite. Imhoff demonstrates how early 20th-century Jews constructed a gentler, less aggressive manhood, drawn partly from the American pioneer spirit and immigration experience, but also from Hollywood and the YMCA, which required intense cultivation of a muscled male physique. She contends that these models helped Jews articulate the value of an acculturated American Judaism. Tapping into a rich historical literature to reveal how Jews looked at masculinity differently than Protestants or other religious groups, Imhoff illuminates the particular experience of American Jewish men.

Excerpt

A couple of years ago, a Jewish men’s group invited me to speak at their biennial retreat. They had heard that I was researching American Jewish masculinity, and they wanted me to tell them a little about what I knew. They listened intently to two lectures, and over the next day and a half, they questioned me: Are Jewish men different from their American Christian counter parts when it comes to religious participation? Or to religious leadership? How and why do Jewish men participate in Judaism? Is today’s religious landscape different for men than it was in the past? Why are American Jewish men more gentle, family oriented, and less prone to violence than men of other religious groups? I wished I could have answered all of their questions in complete and satisfying ways, but their queries were far too complex for two days of conversations.

I hope these men came away having learned something about American Jewish masculinity from our exchange. I certainly did. I came to realize the durability of some ideas and ideals about Jewish masculinity, many of which appeared as assumptions in their questions. These men assumed that Jews were American and yet also distinctive from their neighbors. They assumed that Jewish men were, in general, more gentle than non-Jewish men. They assumed that violence was uncommon among Jews. I realized that the roots of these men’s ideas about Jewish masculinity came from a particular historical moment when different social and religious forces converged. the questions I had been asking in my research were not a faraway set of concerns, even though they focused on an era a century ago. and these questions and ideas about American Jewish masculinity were not merely academic or theoretical, but woven into these men’s lives. the social and religious forces of the early twentieth century had left a deep imprint— so deep I could see it in today’s ideals about American Jewish masculinity.

The interaction also brought home something more profound, something I had known about gender, but had rarely experienced so directly: Jewish masculinity is opaque even to those people we would imagine would know the most about it. and this was the case, no matter how self-reflective and thoughtful the community in question. the Jewish men I spoke to belonged to Jewish men’s clubs. They spent time reflecting specifically on Jewish men’s participation in Jewish life. They were actively involved in synagogues, federations, and men’s clubs and thought about how to make other men more involved. If anyone in today’s religious landscape would understand Jewish masculinity, it seems like it would . . .

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