Boys to men


It was by far my hardest speaking gig ever.

Rabbi Stewart Vogel at Temple Aliyah invited me many months ago, to speak to the synagogue men’s group at 7 p.m. on June 12. Of course I said yes — it was one of those gracious invitations with so much advance notice that the day seemed as far off as Saturn and as wide open.

What we couldn’t have guessed was the Los Angeles Lakers would be playing Game 3 of the NBA Championship that night.

The rabbi hosted the event in his backyard. I walked through the gate at 7. The guys were eating barbeque, drinking beers and Cokes, watching a big-screen TV set up on the patio. Fifty pairs of eyes shifted to me like I was the mom, they were 10 and it was time to go to bed.

Rabbi Vogel leaped up and flicked the TV off. He introduced me, and the guys were more than welcoming. I decided to speak about the election. I figured what could possibly compete in excitement with the Lakers vs. Celtics? Obama vs. McCain. By the end, we got into it pretty good. Phil Jackson had his strategy; I had mine.

What I decided not to tell the men’s group was my dark, dirty little secret: I couldn’t care less about the game.

Yep: Lakers, shmaykers. Pro sports bore me.

How’s that for coming out of the closet? I would rather watch a rerun of the “Mad Men” episode when Peggy finds out she’s pregnant than the last pass in the closest Super Bowl ever.

I love tennis, but as many men have reminded me over the years, that doesn’t count. In tennis, nobody checks anybody, no one loses his teeth and girls can beat you.

In general, I’m just not supermacho. And I’ve been wondering lately if that accounts for my deep involvement in Jewish life.

It turns out, see, that I am endangered: I am a non-Orthodox Jewish man engaged in Jewish life.

According to a new Brandeis University study, men are becoming less and less active in every aspect of Jewish life, from the home to the synagogue to communal organizations.

“American Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism than girls and women in almost every venue at almost every age,” begins the report, titled, “Matrilineal Ascent, Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life.”

Anecdotally, we all know boys and men in Jewish schools, camps, shuls and organizations. But the study, headed by Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer, used hundreds of interviews Fishman conducted for the American Jewish Committee and for two of her previous books, as well as data from the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study. What they found is that non-Orthodox Judaism has undergone a long process of feminization.

As Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist seminaries turn out more female rabbis and cantors, fewer boys than girls join non-Orthodox youth groups, attend religious schools or summer camps, and fewer men serve on synagogue or federation committees.

“Over the ages, men felt very involved in Judaism,” Fishman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It was their responsibility. This is gone today, except in the Orthodox world. We need to look at how we are raising our Jewish sons.”

Fishman believes the “Boy Crisis” is serious because as Jewish boys and men turn off to Judaism, they tend to marry non-Jewish spouses, and their children are less likely to be raised Jewish.

That women have entered Jewish life en masse is not just good, it’s great. But one theory is that in breaking down the gender barriers of Orthodoxy, the liberal movements have neglected something men need: Time with men.

Outside the liberal Jewish movements, Jewish men have the minyan, where 10 can gather for a shot of prayer and a glass of schnapps. “For all except the old and the rigid, the minyan is gone — an opportunity lost,” Rabbi Steven Leder wrote several years ago in — natch — Playboy. “But in the process men lost the opportunity to create something they need and have always lacked, times and places to talk and to be with each other.”

The advent of men’s groups is a direct response to this phenomenon. Leder pioneered one at Wilshire Boulevard Temple almost a decade ago; I’ve spoken to groups from Encino to Palos Verdes. They don’t just talk politics and watch (yawn) ball games; they also bring in relationship experts, talk over feelings, fatherhood — the big stuff. The idea, as Leder wrote, is “to create something the minyan could have provided if men were better at talking to each other.”

I like the men’s group concept, but I’m not certain it alone will reverse the trend. I have a different theory for the Boy Crisis: The problem isn’t that Jewish life treats men like women, it’s that it treats them like children.

At 13, we’re told we are men. From then on, as boys really do grow into men in the secular world, they get treated more and more like children in synagogue. Rabbis guide them through the service; they’re told the rules and expected to go along, and every life cycle from marriage to their kids’ bar or bat mitzvah is as deep a transaction as an allowance.

I once asked a world-famous doctor why he walked away from Judaism. “Because I couldn’t stand being infantilized,” he said. “I was 40; I was at the top of my field, and they talked to me like I’m an idiot.”

The weakness of Orthodoxy is that it doesn’t (yet) fully include women. Its strength is it pushes men to step up to the plate and become active in meaningful, mature ways in their spiritual life: not just as members of a minyan but as teachers of their own children, as Torah readers, as prayer leaders, as the Jewish leader in their own home.

That’s a long-term strategy for male Jewish involvement.

Though beers and barbeque aren’t a bad start.

I’m ready to take the wheel


I turned 16 on June 26. After so many years of impatiently waiting, and six months of misjudging left turns and getting away with some pretty serious traffic violations while my mother sat horrified in the passenger seat, I am finally eligible for my driver’s license. Sayonara, learner’s permit. I can, in theory, do as I please, whenever I please. I am, in short, free.

I had been looking forward to getting my license for so long, because you need to be able to drive yourself in Los Angeles, right? Isn’t it necessary to show off your car to your friends, to finally give your parents a break from chauffeuring you everywhere, to get from Point A to Point B? Isn’t that what driving is all about? As I thought about this milestone, I realized that driving is symbolic of something much greater.

In Los Angeles and at my school, Harvard-Westlake, driving has become a deplorable status symbol, and I fell into the trap. I used to gaze in admiration at the juniors and seniors rolling onto campus in their shiny cars. They all noticed the mesmerized faces of the underclassmen, but they always maintained an air of nonchalant coolness. I could practically read their minds: “I am so awesome because I drove to school. I even picked up a latte on the way here.” Those people were my heroes. I used to think that when I turned 16, my moment in the spotlight of the school driveway would arrive, and I was going to milk it for everything it was worth. I, too, wanted to be awesome and put lattes in my cupholders.

When I finally got behind the wheel of a car myself, conceit and self-importance set in. If ever I saw someone with that familiar awe-struck gape staring at my car during one of my innumerable driving lessons, I would think, with a shameful amount of pride, “I am cooler than you because I am operating a motor vehicle right now.”

Now that I actually am 16 and will soon be taking my driving test, I realize how arrogant I was as I pondered the significance of getting my license. Driving isn’t about showing off or feeling cool. To me, driving represents the freedom I have been given to choose how I want to live my life.

Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben once said that with great power comes great responsibility. I say that great responsibility comes with great freedom. Driving, in a way, is my platform to make an impact on my own in the world. I now choose what to do with my time, but too much independence too soon can be overwhelming. The laminated card entrusted to me by the Department of Motor Vehicles gives me the opportunity to pick a side in the epic battle of right and wrong. Like the aforementioned web-slinger, I want to use my newfound powers for good.

Before I turned 16, I would often use my inability to drive as an excuse for laziness. If I was sitting at home watching television on a Saturday morning instead of feeding the homeless, I could justify it. “My parents don’t have the time to drive me there,” I told myself. “I don’t want to inconvenience them.” At 16, my inactivity is no longer defensible. I now have the option of either driving to the mall to have fun or driving to an animal shelter or a food bank to volunteer my time and have a rewarding experience. It seems obvious, but I’m not a saint, so I plan to find a balance between serving myself and serving the community. I expect the choices I will have to make about where I will drive to be a source of some serious angst — I’ve never had to make these kind of decisions for myself before, but I’m ready to take the wheel.

I used to wonder why you had to wait until you were 16 to get a driver’s license. I now realize that an incredible amount of responsibility is involved in being in the front seat because of what driving means. Driving shouldn’t be a method of flaunting yourself, but it shouldn’t just be about reaching your destination either. For me, driving means having a choice about what to do and where to go and, at 16, I’m ready to choose for myself.

Derek Schlom will be a junior at Harvard-Westlake this fall. He is interning at The Jewish Journal this summer.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the August issue is July 15; Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Live From Hillel — It’s Laraine!


Fans of the legendary first seasons of “Saturday Night Live” remember Laraine Newman sashayingwith Gilda Radner in the hilarious faux commercial for “Jewess Jeans.” They recall her BarbraStreisand impression and her angry beatnik character reciting bad poetry in nasal Brooklynese.But Newman, 50, will reveal one of her more serious roles when she’s honored at Hillel at Pierce &Valley Colleges’ Comedy Nite 2003 on Feb. 1: her involvement with the Jewish community.The granddaughter of an Arizona Jewish cattle rancher, Newman will describe how she grew up soassimilated that “all my Jewish friends went to Hess Kramer but I was shlepped off to CampTrinity.”

It wasn’t until she enrolled her oldest daughter in Temple Isaiah’s preschool around 1992 that shejoined a temple (Isaiah), learned Hebrew and brought ritual home. “I never had that kind of pride inmy heritage,” she said. “At Beverly Hills High, all the Jewish boys liked [non-Jewish] girls and therewas a pervasive Jewish anti-Semitism.”

Newman skewered that kind of self-hatred when her “SNL” character, Connie Conehead — thealien teen who longs to “pass” as human — considers a “cone-job.”

At Beverly, the actress said, she “had acne, braces and my nose was my adult size, although Iwasn’t.” But she was also the class clown, and, after studying mime with Marcel Marceau, she wasdiscovered at the improv troupe, the Groundlings, by “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels.

On “SNL” from 1975-1980, she made an impression with characters such as Sheri, the WASPValley girl who complains about making peace cobbler for her Jewish in-laws to-be who said,”Look, the shiksa made a Presbyterian pie.”

Yet, while her colleagues forged successful careers after “Saturday Night,” Newman’s post-“SNL”pickings were slim. It didn’t help that “the press was really mean and took every chance to depictme as a loser,” she said. Newman overcame that by taking modest film roles and forging asuccessful cartoon voiceover career. “My daughter’s birth … freed me to take ego out of theequation,” said Newman, who also played Richard Lewis’ rebbitzen on TV’s “7th Heaven.” So didrediscovering her Judaism: “It’s kept me concerned with greater things than self-centeredness,” shesaid.

For information about the tribute, call (818) 887-5901.