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Where are the Jewish Men? An Interview with Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein

Just in time for the holidays, Zeek editor Jo Ellen Green Kaiser talks to B’nai Jeshurun leader Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein about the declining role of men in congregational Judaism.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1954, Marcelo Bronstein was educated in Israel, Argentina and the United States. He holds an MA in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College, where he also received his Rabbinical Ordination. He also holds a MA in Clincal Psychology from Belgrano University, Buenos Aires. In addition to his duties at B’nai Jeshurun, Rabbi Bronstein serves on the advisory boards of Human Rights Watch/Americas, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Soaring Words, and South Wing to Zion.

ZEEK: A recent study by Sylvia Barrack Fishman and Daniel Parmer (Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent, Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2008) seems to show that men are leaving Jewish congregational life. Do you see that trend at B’nai Jeshurun?

Marcelo Bronstein: Women participate much more than men in our congregational life. Don’t misunderstand me: we have a full congregation, full of life. But the core of what we are about is thanks to women. If not for our women, we wouldn’t have hazzanim, daily minyan, shiva minyanim, or chevra kedisha.

I am a product of the feminist revolution, so the fact that women lead most of the activities of our congregation never bothered me. I have always thought that the people who want to get involved, will get involved. I never paid attention to whether those people were men or women.

But suddenly, I began to hear people talk, and began to listen to others and even pay attention to what it was in front of my eyes.  Also recently, I participated in a conversation at NYU on gender and education. Speakers said that finding a male educator, a male teacher in New York, would be very soon like finding a diamond in the street. They are that rare.

ZEEK: So, where are the men? Why aren’t they participating?

MB: Well, that’s what I wanted to find out. So I started talking to men.

When you ask men who have left the congregation, men who have married outside Judaism, they say that Jewish women are too strong. They say they want to find Golde, the old-fashioned Jewish woman, but they can’t find any Jewish women like her, so they turn to Asian women, women from other cultures.

Several men told me that, which confused me. I replied that the Golde in Fiddler on the Roof was very strong. They say, yes, strong but loving. Well, that is another conversation, a conversation about what men want or think they want in a woman. I felt that the answers they were giving me represented their emotional feelings, but maybe were not the whole answer to why they left.

When women were not happy with Judaism, they stayed. They stayed behind the mehitzha until they tore it down. But men are leaving. I am very concerned about Judaism. I don’t think this is good for men, for women, for anyone.

ZEEK: What can you do about that, as a congregational rabbi?

MB: Well, I started a men’s group, not because the men asked, but because I noticed these things. When I started, six men signed up, but at the first meeting, sixty came. They didn’t want to sign up, but they wanted to come. Since then, we have held the group once a month.

I should say that creating a men’s group at my synagogue, a very politically progressive synagogue in New York, was very politically incorrect. I thought someone would cut my head off. I was afraid of my feminist members.

So, before starting the group I went to talk to a feminist friend. I told her I wanted to start a men’s group, and asked her opinion. She said, I love what you are doing. Why, I asked. She said, In the beginning, feminists chopped the testicles off men. That was a necessary act of war. Afterwards, when we achieved some equality, we sat and cried. Where are the men? They oppressed us, so we castrated them. So I like that you are trying to celebrate the differences without imposing power.

ZEEK: Woah.

MB: Yes. In the beginning, I called some guys about coming to the group’s first meeting, and they laughed. They said, Ok, we will come, but this can’t be a rosh chodesh group. We are not going to talk about feelings, we are not going to cry. I put that in the advertisement. It became a kind of joke.

ZEEK: What did they want?

MB: They wanted to daven. They wanted to hear just male voices. So we met at mincha, Shabbat afternoon. We daven together, and then have whiske–a very good single malt scotch whiskey–and crackers and cheese. And then we have a conversation. At first, we did Torah study, but I realized that these men really wanted to talk. Recently, we talked about Esther Perel’s book, Mating in Captivity.

She came to talk to the group. Men were mesmerized. Some men were crying, because they felt they were being understood and not judged. They wanted more of that.

I think Jewish men have not found themselves. This is something women did during the feminist movement. Women learned how to find themselves. In the Jewish world, women met in rosh chodesh groups, created rituals. They gained equality but also found a way to be Jewish women.

ZEEK: Yes, including writing liturgy for women’s lifecycle events like menstruation and menopause. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews are doing that now as well, with queer retreats like Nehirim and new LGBT siddurim. But men, well, men used to be the ones to say kiddush while women lit the candles. Now, women say kiddush. What is left for men to do? What is their role?

MB: Jewish men are lost. It’s not clear to men what it means to be a man. If they listen to women, what it means to be a man is to be bad, aggressive, fascist. All their good qualities–tenderness, compassion, empathy–are called their feminine side. So what is my masculine side, what is good there?

I feel comfortable, personally, as a man, so I was surprised when a male congregant said I was a feminine rabbi. Why do you say that? I asked him. Well, he said, you cry, you talk about feelings, you hug. I can’t relate to that. I was stunned. So I was thinking, what is a male role model?

ZEEK: That question reminds me of the poet Robert Bly, who wrote a memoir titled Iron John about his need to recover his inner warrior. Feminists criticized him for believing that the only way to be masculine was to be aggressive, a warrior. Can’t men find a way to be manly without masculinity being associated with aggression and dominance?

MB: That is what I don’t know. I do think, though, that we have an imbalance in Jewish life. I believe that men don’t see a place for themselves in Jewish life. Men are not needed anymore basically for anything–not for the minyan, not for the reading of the Torah, not for witnessing. In life in general, men are not needed not as providers, or even as the ones that will impregnate women. Sperm banks do that too. If the paradigm of the provider, the hunter, the dominant one is past, we men have to generate another paradigm that is liberated from patriarchal weight.

ZEEK: Western culture tells us that men are violent, aggressive and women are peaceful, submissive. Why does that binary have to define us?

MB: Well, what do you think, as a feminist, that men could learn from the feminist movement?

ZEEK: I’m thinking about the physical body. The early feminists, the first wave, often hated their bodies because they saw the female body as soft and vulnerable and what they wanted was to gain power. But once women began gaining more power in culture, we were able to embrace our bodies. I wonder if that is what men need to do? If they need to–well, to be graphic–to reimagine the penis not as a weapon, as a symbol of power and dominance, but in some other way? To find a way to be proud of hardness and strength without it being tied to dominance?

MB: Maybe. What we need is a role model for that. 

ZEEK: Yes, perhaps someone like King David, who was warrior and lover, king and poet.

MB: I love the David imagery. Yes he was a poet, a lover and a king, though for some, he was not a very good king–he was too controlled by his passions. David was human.

The issue that we cannot escape from is the issue of power.

Are men disappearing from Jewish life or from the world of education, social work, etc, because women came in? Because we men don’t know how to be without being in control? If that is the case we desperately need to change the paradigm, because nobody is going back to the caves of inequality; that was a human’s rights war and it was won.

In the equation of equal but different there is an answer, but I don’t know which one is yet.

ZEEK: Thank you, rabbi.



The opening image for this essay is Tom Drury as Tevye in a 2003 production

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