For decades, through both his writings and speeches, visiting scholar Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin has addressed the subject of Jewish masculinity. Joining Salkin to explore the topic during a Jan. 12 panel at Rodef Shalom Congregation was Peter Rosenfeld, a past president of Rodef Shalom’s brotherhood; Rayden Lev Sorock, a trans queer dad; and 14-year-old Nathan Rybski, a Pittsburgh Allderdice High School student who recently celebrated a bar mitzvah at Rodef Shalom. Through prepared prompts and audience generated questions, the nearly 90-minute program enabled panelists to reflect on Jewish masculinities.
Growing up in a mixed Long Island, New York, setting was often difficult, explained Salkin, senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida. Because of his long hair and disinterest in sports, Salkin was often called a “hippie Jew fairy,” or another variation “of the F-word,” he said.
Whereas non-Jewish classmates often chided Salkin for his musical, literary and theatrical affinities, Jewish youth groups and summer camps provided a “respite” from everyday life in high school, he explained; it was in those Jewish spaces “we were allowed to hug each other, we were allowed to cry, we were forced to cry.”
Discovering Jews with similar understandings of masculinity can be difficult, explained Sorock: “None of us are male or masculine in a vacuum. We are constantly responding to others or they are responding to us.” Past boyfriends and family members provided examples of Jewish masculinity for Sorock, but “I’m still learning how to be a man, as I hope we’re all open to still learning how to do that.”
These days the subject of Jewish masculinity isn’t necessarily broached between friends at Allderdice, explained Rybski: Nonetheless, coexisting each summer in a cabin full of “rowdy” Jewish boys at Camp Harlem in the Poconos “gave me time to think about who I am as a Jewish person.”
In similar ways, observing the portrayal of Jewish characters onscreen provides a chance to grapple with identity, noted several panelists.
Whether in television or movies, Jewish men are often stereotypically depicted as being overly intellectual, financially successful or “nebbishy,” which ends up promulgating false narratives, said Salkin.
Much in the same way Jewish art often reduces the depiction of Jews to dancing rabbis or chassidim, the lens needs to widen when it comes to portraying Jewish men on screen, he continued.
The classic tropes of masculinity don’t hold up for everyone, explained Sorock.
“For me, there was a very intentional process by which I was kind of wondering what kind of masculinity I was going to embody when I made the decision to be visibly male in the world. And I think I went through a lot of ‘Oh, well, the information I’m getting is to be masculine is to be a jerk.’ “That’s a lot of the message that we get about how to be men and boys, and I think that I had to unlearn a lot of that,” said Sorock. “The healthiest masculinity that I feel is when I’m not thinking about it very much because then I’m not overanalyzing and concerned with every little interaction or every thought that I’m having. When my masculinity and femininity, or whatever you want to call it, is more in balance and I’m not thinking about them as this total dichotomy, then that’s where I feel the calmest and the most true, I guess.”
Listening to the panelists “opened up a whole discussion about what is gender identity, period. It also helped me reflect on my own journey toward opening the closet door,” said Rabbi Burt Schuman, of North Oakland.
Despite not reaching “any outstanding new thoughts” on the subject, the program was valuable, explained Rabbi Walter Jacob, Rodef Shalom’s rabbi emeritus and senior scholar. “We’re more willing to talk about issues from that perspective than certainly we would have been even a dozen years ago.”
The willingness to confront the question of Jewish masculinities represents an openness to engaging in difficult conversations, said Karen Brean, Rodef Shalom’s president.
“My advice is not to try to fulfill any stereotype you see,” said Rybski. “Just try to be whoever you are. You are a Jewish person. There shouldn’t be a stereotype for that.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.