Earlier this week, I received an e-mail from a fellow Brandeis dad, asking a bunch of us if we wanted to come over and watch the Super Bowl at his house. And in this way, just for a moment, we were like the other men. It's ironic: our religion makes a very big deal about "becoming a man." You study for months (or memorize a tape), you do several "mitzvot" (good deeds) (or, if it's 1978 and you're a member of Temple Beth Sholom, you don't). Starting in March, the Jawa will be at Temple Emanu-El once a week, learning how to chant.
It's all a very big deal, becoming a Jewish man. And yet, as I have learned over and over again, being a Jewish man isn't always like being a "normal" man. We are bereft of regular guys, we Jews.
To me, last week's ongoing drama with the "Midwestern hate group," i.e. the Westboro Baptist Church, drove the point home. Without anyone saying anything out loud, people's ideas of what was an "appropriate" response to the threat of insane, loud, Jew-hating protesters in front of our school seemed to be divided along gender lines.
The women wanted to ignore the protesters. The men -- not all of them, but a number of them -- wanted to show up and kick some Jew-hater tail. I can't speak for everyone, but to me the planned protest was a challenge, and old school bully sidling up to the geeky Jewish kid and saying, "Here I am. What are you going to do about it?"
I spent that week doing my best impression of a Duncan yo-yo. My mind changed from one email to the next. As the week drew to a close, though, I started to feel like the whole thing spoke to something primal inside the modern Jewish man. It was a chance to stand up and take our lumps, to meet an unpleasant challenge head on, without running to our mommies or hiding behind an impressive, impenetrable wall of clever words.
We're a long way from the days of Myer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, or even of my grandfather, who lifted weights on the beach at Coney Island in the early 1930s and cried when he listened to opera. Today's Jewish man is highly domesticated -- especially today's San Francisco Jewish man. The threat of Pastor Fred Phelps and his demented crew had all of us asking -- on a conscious or unconscious level -- if we were going to sit around and let these bozos run roughshod over us.
A few years ago, I was volunteering at Grandparents Day, one of my favorite events at our school. I scored the enviable doorman slot, which meant I got to greet all of the grandparents as they arrived.
For an hour, I stood there holding the door, watching these tough-looking old characters walk in. These were men who worked with their hands, who made difficult decisions, who could hold their liquor and their own in a fight. Had there been a mirror, I would have looked into it and seen myself: useless with power tools, well-read but soft. The product of a century of a particular type of assimilation where you do what you can, accept what they give you, go to school and don't make waves. "We're better than that," our interior voice tells us. "We shouldn't stoop to their level."
My only value in a bar fight is to call the cops. I'm the guy shouting clever put-downs from down the block.
On that particular Grandparents Day, I asked the woman I was working with what happened to all the tough Jewish guys. "We were like them," I said, "The Italians, the Irish. We mixed it up. We had strong hands. We were men."
I thought maybe it was the particular focus that the early 20th-century Jews brought with them from Europe: we would get ahead by educating ourselves. In this manner, we would become refined and smart. We would continue to try to get them to let us into their private clubs, but we will do it not by intimidation but by being too valuable to be kept out.
"Multiple generations of Jewish mothers," the woman responded.
Is that what we're dealing with here? Nice Jewish Boy syndrome? Is this why we are horrified when the opposing team's coach yells at his players to motivate them? Meanwhile, our team, when not in the game, can be found sitting on their mothers' laps. "Help! help! My son the lawyer is drowning!"
I'm as guilty as anyone, probably more guilty than anyone. Almost forty-five years old and still only about six or seven annoying paragraphs away from getting my butt kicked at any time.
What's funny is that we -- the Jewish men, the intellectuals, the guys who lead with their brains, we think about this an awful lot. At least I do. You wake up one day and you're 44 and it still seems like the other guys have got hidden somewhere a manhood training manual that you were never assigned? I'm sorry, I was absent that day. I have a very sensitive constitution. And allergies.
It makes it so that your actions seem mechanical. "Is this normal? Am I doing something weird?" You try not to use "Sex and the City" as a pop culture reference.
Okay, so now we're only talking about me, but in my lifelong quest to figure out what it means "to be a man," being Jewish definitely plays a major role. Just ask Woody Allen. I think he'd know.
I wonder if, last week, anyone asked themselves what the guys over at St. Brendan's would have done if faced with a visit by Pastor Fred Phelps. Would there have been an email chain a week long? Some of the emails were incredible -- very self-aware, well-stated, thoughtful. Every time I got one I switched sides.
In the end, Phelps and his band of merry lunatics didn't even bother to show up. Someone (maybe a Jew!) slashed their tires while they were down in Palo Alto, yelling things at high school students because four of their classmates had committed suicide in the past year.
Real class act, that Phelps.
Perhaps there's even something innately Jewish about having them not show up -- going through all of this hand-wringing, in the end, for nothing. We got to spend a whole week jumping through mental hoops, examining ourselves and, in the end, pointing out how great it is to be part of a community that manages to produce so many thoughtful responses to a single stimuli.
To me, it still goes down as an interesting lab study on the subject Jewish Man. So what's it going to be? Are you going to sit there and rationalize or are you going to step up and do something? Come on, Einstein, I'm talking to you.
Which brings us to Super Bowl Sunday. God bless David Ticktin (not coincidentally, more of a guy than most), for being the guy who invites guys over to his house to watch football. I was all ready to watch it in the basement, alone on my little island of sports enthusiasm. I'll go and try not to be aware of how my movements approximate but don't quite match those of a regular guy.
It's funny; in seven months and nineteen days, my Jawa will be called to the Torah. When that day is over, according to Jewish tradition, he will be a man. He'll then have his entire life to mull over what that means. If he's like his father, he may spend his entire adult life runimating over "manhood," turning that over and over in his mind, without ever coming close to finding out why it seems so effortless for eveyrone else to be a guy.