The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World
By Elana Maryles Sztokman
University Press of New England, 288 pages, $85
A few years ago, a friend announced that he intended to start a “Kiddush club” at our synagogue. “Our shul needs more of a social scene,” he declared, “and some high-quality single malt whisky!” he added jokingly. I was vehemently opposed. Our synagogue is a “partnership minyan,” which seeks to maximize women’s participation in the prayer service within the bounds of Halacha and the Orthodox community. A Kiddush club smacked to me of a classic patriarchal construction, a complete contradiction of our attempt at re-aligning the gender dynamic of Orthodox synagogue life.
I was thinking of this exchange as I was reading Elana Sztokman’s new book, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World,” an ethnography of men in partnership minyanim. Sztokman asks a fascinating question: What do the men get from it?
As Sztokman describes at the beginning of the book, the partnership minyan phenomenon started in 2001 with two small minyanim in Jerusalem (Shira Chadasha) and New York (Darkhei Noam). Those two are now regularly attended by hundreds every Shabbat and have prompted 25 other such minyanim in places as far flung as Melbourne and Beersheva and as traditional as Skokie, Ill., and Englewood, N.J. At these minyanim, women and men share equally in Torah reading and speaking before the community, and women lead some parts of the service — but men and women are separated by a mechitzah, the barrier between the genders that is the hallmark of an Orthodox synagogue. While still considered anomalous in the eyes of most of the Orthodox community, partnership minyanim are no longer beyond the pale.
Much has been written about the experiences and needs of Jewish women that led to the creation of these synagogues, but little about the men who attend them. Why do they attend, and what can their experience teach us about being Orthodox or about being a man?
Sztokman’s question is critical far beyond the boundaries of the Orthodox community. As she puts it: “…most women today are able to easily say, ‘I was brought up to believe that to be a woman means one thing, but I have decided that to be a woman means something else entirely.’ Men, for the most part, do not have a language to describe how they were socialized into masculinity.”
Having grown up male in the liberal Orthodox community and been an active member in partnership minyanim on three continents, it was jarring to read about myself as an anthropological phenomenon, discovering how I was “socialized into masculinity.” But this is exactly Sztokman’s goal: to give language to men about the construct of their gendered — and religious — identity.
In the first, and best, part of the book, Sztokman uses the work of sociologist Paul Kivel, who describes masculine socialization as creating an “act like a man” box. Based on her interviews, Sztokman offers a “Be an Orthodox Man Box,” whose characteristics include being “committed, serious, tefillin-wearing, learned, cerebral” to the exclusion of “inconsistent, weird, single, unlearned, light-weight.” In Kivel’s theory, the box’s categories keep men in line with the desired gender identity. The men Sztokman interviews described how, in the Orthodox world, gender categories keep you on the religious straight and narrow — inconsistency in your halachic practice means you are not a “real man.”