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So What If You’re a Nice Jewish Boy? That’s Not Enough!

After years of futile resistance, I’m finally becoming a Jewish professional: I’m a rabbinical student, I write for the Jewish press, and I do academic-type stuff with Yiddish. And by and large, I’m very happy with my experiences in Jewish organizations. But now that I’m getting farther along, I’m starting to understand how power functions in this world — and I don’t like it.

Because, even though Jewish men might be less stereotypically domineering than your run-of-the-mill All-American Boy (aka WASP), sexism is Still. Very Much. A Thing.

It’s a little hard to see at first. When it comes to Jewish men in positions of power, lots of them are so nice! They’re generous family men, they believe in treating their employees well, and they’re cultured (no drunken brawling at football games for them). Oh, and lest I forget — they’re brilliant! We’ve got some really smart guys in positions of leadership. OK, so maybe they can’t sew on a button or send a thank-you note, but what do you expect? It’s their inner yeshiva bocher — brilliant yet helpless. But you know, it’s such a privilege for a mother/wife/daughter to have the opportunity to take care of a man like that… Oh… Wait.

Yeah. Hang on a minute. How is it that the very thing we’re proudest of — that our men generally measure their worth in brains rather than in brawn — still ends up turning into a trap for women?

Maybe our men aren’t beating up their wives (though we know that that’s also unfortunately not the case across the board), but they’re still very often helpless in the realm of home, body, and relationships — yes, even the new generation. And part of what that means is that while men are on the public stage showing off their genius, women are still in the kitchen making sure dinner’s waiting for them when they get home. Served with a smile and a “How was your day, honey?”

Since I’m not married, that part is less of a personal issue for me. I experience it from the other side — as the colleague, employee, and student of men like this. I’ve started to think about it in terms of the (ambivalent) Yiddish ideal of the “luftmensch” — a brilliant man with his head in the clouds, who’s sweet as chocolate babka and wants to save the world, but can’t seem to put his shirt on right side out.

Sure, there’s something endearing about the image, and I’m glad I belong to a culture that has a tradition of valuing idealism and intelligence above all. But in real life, the stereotype’s not always so rosy. Never mind the women who are laboring behind the scenes, invisibly keeping the luftmenschen alive throughout their consecutive all-nighters at the yeshiva (a strangely prominent trope in Yiddish literature). Luftmensch masculinity has an impact that’s felt elsewhere too.

This kind of masculinity bothers me in my research, because the men who had the boldest, most idealistic and creative ideas about how to ensure a thriving Jewish communal future in the face of devastating European anti-Semitism were also such impractical non-conformists that they couldn’t get it together to build a functional movement. It bothers me when I interact with men in positions of power, because often, men who are used to being affirmed for their own brilliance think that they don’t need to plan out their meetings, know anything about management, stick to a schedule, answer their emails, or otherwise pay attention to their underlings’ particular concerns.

It bothers me also because I see how hard female professionals work to pick up the slack left by their male colleagues. Meanwhile, they’re paid less, work under less prestigious titles, and receive less recognition (all while working the double shift at home) — and because no good deed goes unpunished, the result of their conscientiousness is that they end up with less time to pursue the kind of creative, entrepreneurial work that affords their male colleagues so many accolades.

And finally, it bothers me as a colleague — because I could never, ever get away with the things that I see my male colleagues getting away with every day. The truth is, I myself am a luftmensch at heart — I’m awkward in groups, I say exactly what I mean even when I shouldn’t, housework is always last on my to-do list, and a 14-hour daily yeshiva schedule sounds like paradise to me. But because I’m not a guy, my balaganishkeit isn’t considered endearing — instead, it’s an embarrassment.

I get reminded all the time — by faculty, friends, and family — that “you’ll have to get it together if you want to get a job some day.” Never mind my outstanding academic record or my portfolio of press clippings. At the end of the day, I’m a girl, and therefore the only thing that matters is that my shirt’s come untucked and the waistband of my underwear is showing and I didn’t notice (oops).

Our community will probably always have luftmenschen — and that’s not a bad thing. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and everyone has a unique role to play in communal life. But “mensch” just means “person” — not “man.” So here’s my plea for a less gendered division of labor: Luftmener, make some room for the luftfroyen (and the luftmenschen of other genders too)! And by the way, it won’t hurt you to learn how to sew on a button while you’re at it.


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