Being a Man Jewishly

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03 May 2007

“Mom!” my son calls to me from his room. “C’mere! Look at my six pack!”

“Huh?” I think as I climb the stairs. I’m sure he isn’t boasting about beer. What else comes in six? Batteries? Egg rolls? Fresh eggs?

“See?” he crows when I enter his room. “Look at my abs! Muscles! A six pack!”

My emotions vie for recognition. Happiness first — my boy still wants my attention. Then admiration; he is getting a little buff there. And finally anger. Confound the wordsmith who coined alcohol lingo as a metaphor for a muscular body — the goal of seemingly every male and many females nowadays. Is this what the feminist revolution has wrought? Men preoccupied with their appearance and women who weight lift away their womanliness?

For years I have given my son subtle messages that his form is fine. When his friends were losing their teeth faster than he was, I reassured him that his body was developing according to its own rhythm. We talk about balancing sweets with nourishing food. “Anything in moderation” is the motto around here as long as it’s legal. But still he worries.

Elliot is 5’9”, has dreamy hazel eyes, a killer smile and a magnetizing sweetness. (Not too partial, am I?) It confounds me to see him pretzel himself with worries about his physique. But then adolescence is torture. The desire to fit in reigns. Any divergence from the ideal, however unrealistic, is cause for high anxiety.

A few years back Adrian Nicole LeBlanc wrote an article for the New York Times titled, “The Troubled Life of Boys” in which she profiled one disaffected teen after another. “Even as it helps in the day-to-day of high school,” she wrote, “bodily renovation perpetuates the hierarchy. Bulking up — or being near someone who does — just means the pyramid starts lower down.” LeBlanc quotes a teen’s comment about a classmate, “R gets respect because he throws his weight around.”

This preoccupation with muscles and brawn is jarring to me because the whole body building trip is so un-Jewish. Jewish men aren’t brawny they’re brainy. Who cares about building biceps? What about developing the mind?

In his new book, “Searching for my Brothers,” Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes about the brain/brawn dichotomy vis a vis Jewish men and the greater culture. In the wake of the destruction of the first and second Temples, after the mass suicides on Masada by Jewish zealots in 73 CE and the failed Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 CE in which a Jewish general hailed by Rabbi Akiva as the Messiah was defeated by the Romans, ancient Rabbis had to recast the Jewish man as something other than a warrior. Even the Maccabees, whose successful fight against the Greeks saved Judaism from oblivion, are downplayed because as Salkin tells us, “their descendants, the Hasmoneans mismanaged their rule over the Jewish people.”

So what did the Rabbis do? “The first definition of Jewish manhood,” Salkin writes, “was Torah rather than toughness. In the larger world, macho was the art of brawn…..It’s not that Jewish men are wusses. It’s that our code of masculinity is simply different. We demonstrate our masculinity through a love of ideas and words, an infatuation with argument and intellectual striving.” (I’ll have to remember the aspect of argument-as-manliness the next time Elliot works to convince me to let him do something debatable!) Salkin concludes his chapter thus: “Jews pray differently, study differently, eat differently, live differently. And if we are men, then we are men differently as well.”

All this is a lot to put on the plate of a boy whose main goal is to eat to bulk up. I understand how important it is to fit in. So I fall back on my old “anything in moderation” maxim. Lift weights, just don’t forget that studies come first. I feed my son fruit smoothies with wheat germ and try to get him to remember to say Motzi at breakfast. When I watch him do his bicep reps I drill him on his Latin vocab words. One day he will understand that being a man is not just about muscles, that he must be a man differently, too. Until then we wait for the changes — changes I recognize are here already, changes he cannot see for the free weights.

© Debra Darvick 2001. Reprinted with permission of the author. Make Mine Old Fashioned originally appeared on the Jewish Family and Life website, Debra Darvick’s most recent work is This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy. The book may be ordered from or by calling the publisher at 800.880.8642

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.