Shabbat Shalom! Last week, I spoke quite a bit about internalized antisemitism and some of my realizations from the conference on the Intersections of Antisemitism and Racism that I attended. But it was such a full and amazing weekend, I have more to say about it! This week, I want to address something that everyone in this room has probably joked about in a positive way, but I came to realize during the workshop two weeks ago seems to have stemmed from internalized antisemitism for Jewish men: the “Nice Jewish Boy.” I received an email from the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse earlier this month informing that October is Domestic Abuse Awareness month and urging all DC area clergy to talk about this issue this month. The first Shabbat after I received this email was the week I was away, and last week I was just bursting to address the realization I had made about my own personal intersection of antisemitism and racism, but this week I am ready to rise to JCADA’s call to speak on this issue, and it too relates to something I thought about during the conference.
Of course, this is not to say that Jewish men aren’t nice or that I think it’s wrong to want/expect/assume/pretend that the men of our community are better than others, exempt from the toxic hypermasculinity and violence that many other men fall prey to. But, in pretending that this is so, we may be silencing people in our same community that have been abused by those “Nice Jewish Boys.” Because too often we assume that such things can’t happen in our communities because our men are just “Nice Jewish Boys,” and that thinking is so harmful to survivors, especially those still unsure how to report abuse, escape the situation, or talk about it in order to heal. Once in a college Hebrew class, a professor was reinforcing this idea that there is no domestic abuse in Israel and that the IDF never has to worry about war crimes the way other militaries might because Jewish men are so inherently peaceful and just all above hurting women. I pointed out what an absurd claim that was, that no community can claim such a thing, and she replied, passively, “Well, there are criminals anywhere.” At the time, I felt like that was such a dismissive way to address my point. My point was not that there are criminals everywhere. There are men being socialized to never express their emotions in healthy ways and learning from a young age that tougher and stronger is better everywhere. That is a large part of what causes violent hypermasculine behaviors and domestic abuse.
During the workshop two weeks ago, one of the facilitators talked about how Jews have historically been judged by their gender performance. Jewish women have been painted by antisemitism as too domineering, pushy, nagging, masculine, bossy. Jewish men have been painted by antisemitism as soft, feminine, passive, emasculated by their overbearing mothers. I’m not sure why that information given by the facilitator triggered the memory of my college Hebrew class, but it did. I thought about Karen Brodkin’s brief gender assessments in her book, How Jews Became White Folks, in which she talks about her mother’s obsession with the two of them being thin and blond and beautiful by white Anglo-Saxon-centric standards. She draws attention to the fact that Barbie was created by Jews, yet looks nothing like Jewish stereotypes, and points out the ways in which gender dynamics played in Jewish households in the old country were different from the ways in which gender dynamics were expected to play out in proper American nuclear families. I came to the conclusion, with nothing but my own observations to corroborate this, that the concept of the “Nice Jewish Boy” is an attempt to reclaim the negative stereotyping Jews have faced about our previously cultural and traditional forms of gender performance. I’d been thinking about this since the workshop, and then just this week I heard a story of a Jewish woman who ran the family farm in Eastern Europe, who was indisputably the head of her household, until the family moved to the United States. Here, obsessed with assimilating, her husband became the domineering head of the household and she was forced into the role of the demure housewife. Hearing that tale hit the nail on the head for me and solidified that we need to be talking about these issues in our communities.
The traditional gender performances and dynamics of Jewish cultures may well be one that legitimately allows for a “Nice Jewish Boy” narrative. But we’re not in the shtetl anymore, and our boys are exposed to the same glorification of violence and objectification of women that all other men are. When we ignore that and continue to only perpetuate the “Nice Jewish Boy” narrative, we are simultaneously embracing an inherently antisemitic idea that our culture has errant gender roles, and silencing those who are hurt by the men we insist are so nice.
Tonight we honor Simchat Torah, which occurred earlier this week, and we begin our Torah readings over again. Parashat Bereshit, specifically chapter two (the Adam and Eve story) is one that has been used for thousands of years as a reason to subjugate women. I once believed this was the fault of the Christian Patriarchs, but two years ago I read a commentary on Genesis by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg that forever changed my view of this parasha:
“Eve stands, then, at the hub of the narrative of seduction; she is both object and subject of this treacherous activity. She has gone down in cultural memory as both feeble and slyly powerful; incapable of resisting seduction, she is nevertheless irresistibly seductive. The weak link between the serpent and Adam, she has borne the brunt of responsibility for events read, quite simply, as a Fall.”
This quote leads me to believe that this patriarchy and sexist double standards have existed from time immemorial, and that our Jewish ancestors are just as guilty of passing on this harmful legacy. Tonight, we honor and celebrate our Torah, our traditions, our Jewish history and culture, but we have to be honest with ourselves about what some of that history has entailed, and we are tasked now to reaffirm the celebration of our matriarchs as well as our patriarchs. After all, Zornberg also says in her commentary on Genesis that the expulsion from Eden wasn’t so much a fall, a downward motion, but a going out, an outward motion of reaching and expanding. Human beings didn’t become real people, thinking and feeling and in serious communication with each other and God until after they consumed the fruit of knowledge of good and evil and were forced from the Garden. We could thank Eve as much as blame her for the world as it is today, for making us complex and interesting creatures. And yet, after Eve, the mother of us all and the one who brought us human autonomy, so few women’s stories are told in the Torah. Only men are officially counted among those who left Egypt. While women have played a prominent role in building Judaism throughout the ages, only the rituals and legal rulings of men were formally recorded and codified. Our society is now seeing more and more feminist approaches to Judaism, and it’s important to know how much of that is really revival, a reclamation to our traditional roles as women of prominence in our communities, after years of subjugation by assimilation. I’ll conclude with this poem by Tzemah Yoreh in his book A Love Song for Shabbat:
In the Torah, men are born
Women, ex-machina, appear
Jacob had a daughter
Who disappeared, silently
If one day all women leave
What will happen to Torah?
As we embrace our Torah, celebrate the Beginning, and start to really get into the swing of the New Year, let it be one of honesty and equality. Let sexism and abuse not be tolerated in our communities. May we be willing to see the difficult signs that our own “Nice Jewish Boys” are not always so nice, and maybe, let’s just do away with that phrase altogether. And may we find peace and love in our Nice Jewish Homes. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.