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Searching for My Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World

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Growing up as a Jewish boy in suburban America, Jeffrey Salkin puzzled over his identity, piecing together the taunts of local bullies, the proddings of his parents, and the example of a tough, tanned Israeli exchange student in his search for an accurate self-image. Now, as a prominent rabbi, Salkin examines some of the myths and misconceptions that surround Jewish manhood -- and with fascinating references to biblical and Talmudic sources, public figures, and even a Jewish pro wrestler, he offers a ...
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Overview

Growing up as a Jewish boy in suburban America, Jeffrey Salkin puzzled over his identity, piecing together the taunts of local bullies, the proddings of his parents, and the example of a tough, tanned Israeli exchange student in his search for an accurate self-image. Now, as a prominent rabbi, Salkin examines some of the myths and misconceptions that surround Jewish manhood -- and with fascinating references to biblical and Talmudic sources, public figures, and even a Jewish pro wrestler, he offers a thought-provoking and deeply spiritual approach to the question of Jewish manhood in America today. From his analyses of ancient rituals to his commentary on modern manners, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is a wise guide and a compassionate voice for any man who is "searching for his brothers" -- and in the process, discovering himself.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Jewish men are in trouble," declares Reform Rabbi Salkin (Putting God on the Guest List), arguing that, despite the religion's patriarchal nature, Jewish men should delve into their identity the way Jewish feminists have done over the past generation. His exploration is thought provoking but incomplete, relying mainly on biblical interpretation with a few dollops of memoir. The biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, he observes, enshrines the latter as the classic passive Jewish man, yet the relationship of Moses and his father-in-law, Jethro, is "the essence of bonding between men." He provides a too-brief exploration of how Zionism represents a rebellion against Jewish emasculation. Better are his musings on what Judaism says about lust: learn to channel the good energy that comes with the bad. Concerning ambition, he advocates finding a balance and using the Sabbath as a place of purity. He suggests a useful reconceptualization of the bar mitzvah ritual incorporating physical, spiritual and community rites of passage. And he argues that, although God is beyond gender, "the image of God as father can actually teach men about fatherhood." The book would benefit from a consideration of Jewish masculinity in Orthodox communities or contemporary secular Israel. In addition, despite occasional mentions of Jewish figures such as Sandy Koufax or the wrestler Goldberg, Salkin does little to assess the portrayal of Jewish men in literature, film and other forms of pop culture. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This important book deals with what it means to be Jewish and male in contemporary Western society. Salkin chronicles the history of Jewish masculinity from the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. through the post-Temple period, when Judaism became a religious system in which each man could be a "priest" in his own home and study the Torah--and beyond. "This," says Salkin, "is the Jewish moral journey: from the warriors who fought with spears to the sages who fought with Torah, from swords to words." Most of the world would disdain this new image as "unmanly"; 20 centuries later, he argues, Zionism emerged as both a nationalism and a rebellion against images of the weak and effeminate Jew. Passages from the Tanakh and Mishnah are used to explore issues of Jewish masculinity, and although Salkin takes certain liberties (like reading psychological motives into the minds of biblical characters), he does no violence to the historical context. He also offers helpful commentary and advice to Jewish men about relationships, ambition, and sexuality. The chapter on circumcision is especially important; Salkin refutes many of the arguments that malign the practice. Unreservedly recommended for all libraries.--Loren Rosson III, Nashua P.L., NH Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A fine contribution to both the emerging fields of men's studies and the more popular, accessible branch of Jewish studies.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780399145735
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 10/25/1999
  • Pages: 1
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.82 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


The night when I spoke with my cousin Brian, it was like hearing the old voice once again. I had not heard that voice in twenty years, and yet it was remarkably unchanged. Through the awkwardness we spoke with each other, and I offered him condolences on the death of his father, my uncle Herb. To speak to his mother again that night after twenty years was to realize how those years have become frozen in time. Her voice is no longer the voice of the relatively young woman in her sixties. She is now in her early eighties, and there is a frailty and a weakness about her that make me realize the depth of the passage of time. We are all twenty years older now.

    When my uncle Herb died last month, a piece of me needed consolation as well. It was not so much for his loss, but rather for what is and what is not, for what was and what might have been. It has been twenty years since the incident that tore our family apart. Brian was the cousin that I was always supposed to be like, the cousin to whom I was always supposed to measure up. My steady Bs on countless report cards could barely match his As, and my parents made no secret about it. I also envied him for his proximity to our grandmother, may her memory now also be a blessing. My aunt and uncle and cousins lived downstairs from her in Queens, in the house that she and Grandpa, may his memory be a blessing, bought in the 1930s.

    My cousin Brian has done very well. He is the executive producer of a major late-night television show. Many nights I struggle to keep my eyes open long enough to catch a glimpse of his name as itrolls by on the closing credits. Just to see his name again, and to imagine how he is doing and what he looks like. To think what it might have been like.

    I keep thinking of that moment in the Torah when Jacob sends Joseph out to bring back reports of his brothers--his brothers, who have been allowing their anger against him to fester for so long. Joseph was the favorite son of his hither, Jacob--he was the one with the coat of many colors, the one with dreams of grandeur. Jacob could not have stopped himself, even if he had tried. His soul ached for his son. Jacob had himself grown up in a home where parents chose between children.

    Joseph is wandering aimlessly in the fields near Shechem.


A man come upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, "What are you looking for?" And he said, "I am searching for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are posturing?" The man said, "They have gone from here, for I heard them say: `Let us go to Dothan'" (Genesis 37:15-17).


    Some believe that Jacob knew just what he was doing. If he had simply wanted reports about his sons, he could have sent a servant. Jacob sent Joseph not to bring back reports about his brothers, but to make shalom with his brothers, to seek healing, to repair their damaged relationship.


Genesis Presents a familiar Dysfunctional Pattern


It is the eternal pattern of the book of Genesis: damaged, shattered relationships between siblings and within families. You cannot tell the Jewish story without the story of brothers and sisters struggling with each other. Genesis is the story of the eternally dysfunctional family that is the Jewish people.

    Abraham has two sons--Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael is cast out, and becomes the ancestor of the Arab peoples, and Isaac wins the covenant. Isaac has two sons--Esau and Jacob. They wrestle in the womb, and emerge from the womb together, with Jacob holding the heel of his brother. Jacob deceives Esau, not once but twice. Jacob is chosen and Esau is cast out. Esau cries when he learns of his fate, and the rabbis say that the cry of Esau continues to resound in our world. You can hear it anytime you listen for it closely. I have seen captains of industry, men who can stare down any competitor, crumble into tears because of the ruptures in their families. I have seen tough Wall Street lawyers in double-breasted suits shut out of shivas for their parents because of some forgotten snub, and I have seen them shake and grow pale. I have heard in their sobs the very sobs of Esau. I now understand why the rabbis say that the Messiah will not come until the tears of Esau have run dry.

    The next generation brings forth Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is cast out, but he is the one who is chosen. When Joseph finds his brothers, their hatred erupts. They strip off his coat of many colors. They throw him into the pit. They sell him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph becomes powerful in Egypt, and in the midst of famine his brothers come down to Egypt, and there they stay, and become slaves. It was all because of the coat. The Midrash, the rabbinic retelling and interpretation of biblical texts, states: "Because of two yards of colored fabric, we became slaves in Egypt."

    One is chosen, one is cast out. This is the grand drama of Genesis: the battle between brothers. With sisters it is not much different. Rachel and Leah are rivals for the love of Jacob, with Leah using her fertility as an unwitting club in the battle. In every generation, from generation to generation.

    The Jewish scholar Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi suggests that the Oedipus complex--the battle between father and son--is not at the heart of civilization. No, Yerushalmi says, it is the Cain complex--the battle between siblings. Yerushalmi notes that the tension between Judaism and Christianity is sibling rivalry--each one battling for the exclusive love of God. In her book The Curse of Cain, Regina Schwartz bemoans what she calls the Torah's scarcity principle--this painful idea that there can only be one land, one covenant, one blessing. It is, she suggests, the dark side of monotheism.


What Do I Seek?


Back to the nameless stranger who stops Joseph in the wilderness. "What are you looking for?" he asks. I am searching for what our family used to be.

    My cousin and I were born within months of each other. He was the son of my father's sister and her husband. Our childhood was filled with Thanksgiving dinners and Passover seders. It was filled with Sunday afternoons, walking around the block and playing with the other kids. Even then the Jamaica neighborhood was starting to go bad, but Brian knew where it was safe. Seeing him and his family was a double treat, for it allowed us to see Grandma as well. Cousins. Aunts. Uncles. Grandma. Who asks the Four Questions? Who gets the turkey drumstick? It was the way of Jewish family life. It was Barry Levinson's Avalon. It was the Jewish version of a Norman Rockwell painting on a yontif (holiday) card.

    Then came the moment we all dreaded. Grandma was ninety. She had a stroke. She had to go into a nursing home. There was hardly enough money for it, and so the family prepared to sell her house. My aunt and uncle refused to move out. They believed that they deserved to live there forever.

    I remember how my father had to take his sister and brother-in-law to court. I remember how upsetting it was to have the case presented before a strange judge, a non-Jewish judge, who could have more easily and economically read a Philip Roth novel in order to get the nuances. There was the decision. Brian's parents--my aunt and uncle--had to move out. The house had to be sold. It was what the family had to do in order to sustain our grandmother.

    Then came Thanksgiving weekend, 1978. I was home from rabbinical school that weekend. My father went to do some carpentry work at my grandmother's house. It was strange for him to have tarried so long on the errand. My mother and I wondered about him, and we worried about him. He came home late that evening. When he walked into the house, he had a bruise on his cheek. There had been a fight at the house. My uncle had come after my father with a baseball bat. I will never forget my mother's passionate embrace of my father: "Oh, my God, to think that you could have been killed!" That is one of my most enduring memories of my mother--her girlish passion at that moment.


Our family Torah


I remembered that moment this past summer. I was thinking of that moment when my brother and sister-in-law and I visited North Adams, Massachusetts. North Adams is a slowly dying manufacturing town on the Vermont border where our family first lived in America. Every Jew in North Adams is our landsman (a person from the same community). Every Jew in America should have his or her own private shtetl, and North Adams is ours. We drove up there from Stockbridge on a Sabbath morning in July. We found the house where my father and his sisters were born--142 Ashland Street. My father was born on the porch of that house--I suspect because the medical insurance would allow the midwife to come only as far as the porch.

    Then we went to the synagogue that my grandfather and great-uncles had helped found. Services were over, and a small group of stalwarts were cleaning up from the kiddush. They took us on a tour of the synagogue and I looked at the memorial plaques in the sanctuary. I knew every name from family folklore--this one a cousin, that one a sort of cousin, and that one a distant maybe relative who married Doris Day and who brought her up to North Adams to meet everyone--and they still talk about it.

    One of the older congregants asks again, "Who was your grandfather?"

    "Max Salkin," I say.

    "Any relation to Louis Salkin?"

    "Yes, Louis Salkin was his brother. But we don't talk about him."

    Back in 1924, he and Grandpa Max got into a vicious fight over who would run the family dry-goods store. Grandpa lost, and therefore was exiled to Queens. Louis won--and that victory severed his family from ours forever. A few years ago, as I was making a U-turn in Manchester, Vermont, I saw a house with a lawyer's shingle on it with the name Salkin. Perhaps one of Louis's children or grandchildren, I speculated. But the Louis Salkin line has disappeared. They are out of our family memory. The Book of Genesis painstakingly--even lovingly--records the names of the children of Ishmael and the children of Esau. The Jewish mystics said that someday the names of the children of Esau will be revealed to be the most important text in the Torah. But Louis Salkin and his line--they are no longer in our family Torah.

    And there you have the pattern of our family. Max severed from Louis over a store. My father severed from his older sister over a house. My brother and I are getting closer all the time, working hard to defeat that old genetic disposition.

    The Zohar, the cardinal text of Jewish mysticism, teaches: "Woe to those who think that the Torah is mere stories." The Torah is not mere stories. It is our life. It is the very garment of God. The Torah is like an onion. When you peel back the layers, it makes you cry.


A family Repair Kit


And so you will ask me, What have you learned from all this? I have learned that the time it took me to dial my cousin's number in California when his father died was the longest five seconds in my life. I have learned that it can take only five seconds to clean up years of emotional detritus. Each time I have done teshuvah, repentance, I have learned the great spiritual truth of life. In our time, when everyone is looking for the great inner high, Judaism's great spiritual high is the moment when we let it go. Some say it is an endorphin high. That is a good biochemical understanding of what is going on. But it may be God working within us. It may also be God speaking to us.

    The Torah (Leviticus 19: 18) commands us not to bear grudges. The anger we choose not to lose becomes the grudge that we carry, and that we guard zealously, and that we place into the aron ha-kodesh, the Holy Ark, of our lives, and that we take out from time to time and unroll and from which we can all chant perfectly. The grudge is the poison of our lives. The Jews did not poison the wells of medieval Europe, but we do keep the poison in the wells of our souls, and we let it slosh around, saturating every fiber of our beings. There is an angel of forgetfulness named Purah. A tale is told of a certain rabbi. During his lifetime he remembered everything he had heard or seen. But if someone sinned against him, Purah, the angel of amnesia, would come and place her hands on his head, and he would forget everything bad that had happened to him. Find that angel and make friends with her. Remember all that you must remember and forget all that you must forget. Let go of the named and nameless grudges that you carry with you. Let it go. Let the smallness go. Let the ugliness go. Let it go. Remember the sign at the baggage carousel at LaGuardia Airport: "Check baggage carefully. All bags look alike." Look for a place to check your baggage, and realize that there is some baggage better off left on the circular conveyor belt at the end of the journey.

    A story is told of two rabbis who were traveling together. They came upon a young woman who needed help getting across a stream. So one of the rabbis picked her up and carried her across. Days passed. The other rabbi became curt with him. He wouldn't speak to him. He was rude to him. Finally, the first rabbi--the rabbi who carried the woman--asked his companion, "What's going on? You have been rather short with me lately. Have I done something to offend you?" "Well," the other rabbi said, "it's about that young woman. Rabbis like us, frumme yidn [pious Jews]--we shouldn't get that close to women." To which the first rabbi replied: "I put that woman down three days ago. Are you still carrying her?"

    Are you still carrying her? Are you still carrying texts within your invisible ark? The Torah is the story of division, the cellular mitosis of the Jewish people. And yet in each generation in Torah, there is reconciliation. Ishmael and Isaac reunite--though it is only at the grave of their father Abraham. Jacob and Esau reunite--and Jacob says that to see his brother is like looking into the very face of God. Joseph and his brothers reunite--with tears and sobs so loud that the noise carries into the very house of Pharaoh. "What are you looking for?" the stranger had asked Joseph. "I am searching for my brothers," he replied. He found them, and he figured out who they really were, years later in Egypt. "I am Joseph!" he cries out to them between choking tears. "Is my father still alive?"

    "What are you looking for?" the stranger asked Joseph. "I am searching for my brothers. Do you know where they might be pasturing?" And the mysterious stranger sent him to Dothan. Joseph did not know that he was going there to reconcile with his brothers. It did not work out that way. Not yet, anyway.

    As ambivalent as the memory will be, I will remember my uncle Herb on Yom Kippur at the yizkor memorial service. He is part of my Torah. I will pray that my grandfather Max Salkin and his brother Louis Salkin are sitting down to tea together in the world to come--and they are saying to each other: "Max, Louis, how could we have let this happen? What will our children say? What will our grandchildren say?"

    "Max, Max," Louis will say. "Max, don't worry. Don't you know? Your grandson is now a rabbi somewhere on Long Island. And even now, even now he is teaching the story of what happened to us, and what happened to the siblings in Torah, and he is saying that the sacred scroll can be rewritten."

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Notes on Religious Texts x
Introduction 1
Chapter I Searching for My Brothers: A Personal Journey 11
Chapter II "It Is Not Good for Man to Be Alone": What the Bible Teaches about Masculinity 23
Chapter III "A Hero or Sage": the Rabbis Re-Create the Jewish Man 53
Chapter IV Israel, Our Manhood 69
Chapter V Iron Jew?: Anti-Semitism and the Jewish Man 89
Chapter VI The Struggle Within: Lust and Sexuality 101
Chapter VII Danger: Men at Work 127
Chapter VIII The Unkindest Cut?: the Bris Reconsidered 161
Chapter IX Today I Am a Man: Bar Mitzvah Reconsidered 179
Chapter X "Our Father, Our King": a Male God is not as Bad as You Think 211
Notes 229
Bibliography 233
Index 237
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