Back in the 1980s, the tongue-in-cheek book, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche: A Guidebook to All that is Truly Masculine, sold 1.6 million copies and was on the New York Times bestseller list for 55 weeks! Written after a decade of feminist critique of traditional male roles and behaviors, it satirized stereotypical masculinity in an age when men were confused about how they ought to behave.
Has anything changed? While men may eat more quiche these days, it is clear that the confusion continues, as portrayals of masculinity in the media veer wildly between the extremes of brutal machismo and wimpy emoting. What is a man, and how should he behave? What does our Jewish tradition teach us about this subject?
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Last month, I attended the debut of a documentary film at the JCC-Park Heights. The film is called “Boy to Mentsch,” and its showing was the culmination of a three-year community initiative of the same name. Led locally by Shmuel Fischler, LCSW-C, director of outreach and advocacy for CHANA, Boy to Mentsch is a for-men-by-men program that emphasizes the importance of performing acts of mentschlichkeit as a road to Jewish manhood and uses Torah values to help adolescent boys become true mentschen. In workshops with boys, fathers, and youth-serving adults, frum mental health professionals facilitated open dialogue revolving around the messages society sends about being a man and how they may be contrary to the Torah’s definition of a true mentsch.
Hundreds of boys have participated in these interactive exercises and workshops over the past two years. They were held in schools, including TA, Beth Tfiloh, Toras Chaim, and Neimus HaTorah; among camp staff and campers in TA Day Camp, Camp Chaverim, and Camp On the Go.
The skill sets addressed at the workshops were 1) effective communication/managing anger, 2) conflict resolution, 3) empathy, and 4) being a team player. One of the topics was communication and emotions. “We did role plays of situations and discussed how to communicate with words and body language, and seeing what the potential outcomes, costs, and benefits of such communication are,” continues Mr. Fischler. “And we discussed what it’s like to be a man – the classic in-the-box way of being a man, which includes being tough, strong, and never crying – and some of the things that are out-of-the-box. We discussed the costs of not being in the box: Am I going to be made fun of? Will I be looked at as a baby? But what are the costs of not doing those things? Could it blow up at some point? We do some teamwork exercises, too, and stress how it’s important to be part of a team – whether it is our family, class, or in marriage.”
Another venue for Boy to Mentsch was sports. Coaches are role models to boys who enjoy sports, and this was a way to combine a mini-workshop with a fun activity. At the Sunday Jewish Little League, coaches made use of the organization’s “coaching boys into mentschen” lessons, a series of short conversations for coaches to have with their teams about mentschlichkeit. “The message is not that you can’t be aggressive and competitive on the sports field; it’s just the opposite,” explains Mr. Fischler. “You can be competitive, but you can still be a mentsch. Coaches have used these tools to have short conversations about teamwork and respect with the boys prior to, during, and after the game.”
Besides the workshops for boys, a number of workshops for men were held in various shuls. The concept and the program were introduced, followed by a discussion. In addition, over 100 men and women attended the community-wide event on the topic of manhood, held in November and featuring parenting expert and author Rabbi Yakov Horowitz of Monsey. He also led two roundtable discussions, in May and June, for fathers about masculinity and raising mentschen in modern times.
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While some might equate empathy, communication, and emotional awareness with stereotypical female strengths, the emphasis on these qualities does not exclude the positive male traits, according to Rabbi Menachem Goldberger, Rav of Congregation Tiferes Yisroel: “I do not see any conflict between mentschlichkeit and masculine traits like strength, courage, and independence when the situation calls for those qualities. Many of these traits are present in a healthy way in both males and females, and the balance and emphasis is where the difference lies. The idea is that men may have lost touch with some qualities that should exist in men but have not been developed because of the overly macho society we live in.”
Since the grant was awarded three years ago, men, both rabbinical and professional, have been involved every step of the way, providing a male and Jewish perspective, says Mr. Fischler. “There has been great dialogue on the topic of the qualities all men have, both the instinctive ones and those less discussed. The energy in the room was positive, and the participants left with a strong and positive picture of what it means to be a man.”
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The film “Boy to Mentsch” featured Rabbi Goldberger and Mr. Fischler, as well as Rabbi Ovadiah Bander, LGPC; Rabbi Yakov Horowitz; Rabbi Avi Landa, LCPC; Yehuda Bergman, Ph.D., therapist; and Rabbi Lawrence Ziffer, CEO, Center for Jewish Education.
The Boy to Mentsch project was spearheaded by Jewish Women International, which works to end violence against women and girls and has deep expertise in creating resources, training, and public awareness messages targeted at specific populations. The local CHANA organization was chosen to implement the project in Baltimore. While CHANA is best known for providing crisis intervention services for individuals and families in Baltimore dealing with any sort of trauma or abuse, it also runs preventative programming to help people avoid crisis. The three-year program grant for Boy to Mentsch, which ended in July, was awarded to JWI by the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women. JWI sought this federal funding in order to bring its technical leadership on these issues to the underserved religious community.
In addition to the workshops mentioned above, posters displaying acts of mentschlekeit and the question “How Do You Mentsch?” were displayed throughout the community. The initiative even featured a Public Service Announcement (PSA) ad campaign in buses, on the radio, and in publications. Imagine the greater Baltimore community hearing this 30-second radio spot: “Your son’s character begins with you; show him what it means to be a man. In fact, show him what it means to be a mentsch...Learn more at howdoyoumentsch.com.”
At the Boy to Mentsch film debut, JWI senior manager of prevention and training programs, Dana Fleitman, said, “Men are born; anyone can be a man. But it takes some work to be a mentsch. What is that work? What does it look like? And, how do we teach our sons to be mentschen? That, really, is the focus here.”