Sarah Imhoff joins us to talk about her book Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism and how we can look at the history of gender to understand the development of American Jewish religion.
Sarah Imhoff is a professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Indiana.
This episode is guest hosted by Lindsay King, a PhD candidate at the UCLA Department of History with a focus on modern Jewish history. Her research focuses on Jewish masculinity in 19th century Vienna.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Lindsay King: In universities, gender studies departments and gender history have historically focused on women. You, of course, talk about men and masculinity. Why do we need to discuss masculinity? And why do you think we need to discuss American Jewish masculinity specifically?
Sarah Imhoff: I think this is a great question. The first thing I want to say about this is, there’s a really good reason that gender studies departments and gender history tends to focus on women. That is, the professional study of history has been lopsidedly focused on the study of men. So, I certainly do want to go on record in the support of the greater study of women, and for gender studies departments and gender history in particular to keep paying attention to women. So I don’t see my work as a critique of “oh, too much women,” or something like that.
Instead, I wanted to talk specifically about masculinity because it often goes unmarked. in the field of research where I am, American Jewish history, I see that an awful lot. When I say “unmarked,” I mean it (masculinity) goes kind of unnoticed, or taken for granted, or taken as the rule, where women are the exception to the rule.
One way to think about this is, we all already know that women’s social roles and feminine ideals change over time and they might be different in different cultures. But by not studying men and paying attention to men asmen, or paying attention to how men’s gender roles and ideals are constructed, we can leave ourselves with the impression that masculinity is transhistorical or essential. I wanted to do a case study to think about American Jewish masculinity and to show the ways that it wasn’t transhistorical and essential, that it was in fact contingent, that it came out of many of the social movements, the economic movements that we can see at this time. And that it’s a product of both how Jews talked about themselves, but also how non-Jews talked about Jews.
Even though I do see masculinity as really important, and kind of unmasking the way that we could take masculinity for granted, I certainly don’t want to say, oh, now the take-home message is that all gender studies departments need to do more studying of men. I really see my work on masculinity as complimentary to the kind of work that’s been done on femininity.
LK: That’s really interesting. Could I ask how you got interested in masculinity in the first place?
SI: My dissertation was actually about both men and women, in the same period, but I was thinking about issues of complimentarity—the idea or the theory that women and men are different, but they’re complimentary. One of the responses I got from a few people in the field of American Jewish history was, “But I thought this was about gender, and so much of it is about men.” And I thought, wow, if that’s even a possible attitude—It wasn’t by any means the dominant one. But it was a response I heard more than once. And I thought, wow, if that’s even a possible attitude, it seems to me that there really is an important space to be made for thinking about masculinity as gender, which sounds kind of obvious, but turned out to be a hole in the existing literature about American Judaism.
LK: I also want to ask you a bit about your method and use of the word gender. Scholars, and I’m thinking in particular of the work of Joan Scott, have suggested that there is a difference between studying gender and setting men’s history or women’s history. I’m curious to hear how you use the concept of gender instead of, for example, men’s history in your work.
SI: For me, women’s history or men’s history are telling us the stories of women and men. They might look at men or as women as the subjects of those stories, the objects of their historical inquiry. What I’m interested in here is, yes, the stories about men, but also—and almost more importantly—the stories of how our ideas and our ideals about men came to be. Asking questions like, why do we seem to think that these traits are masculine but not those? Why do these historical characters imagine that this is “good” masculinity, but this isn’t “good” masculinity? Or, why do they think this is what it means to be feminine, where that’s not what it means to be feminine?
You could do, perhaps, not very good women’s history, but you could do a women’s history that didn’t pay an awful lot of attention to gender by simply lifting up the stories of women and telling them in the same ways that the stories of men had been told. I actually think that lots of women’s history does this much better now, and does both history of women but with attention to gender too. So I think you can have them together. But, yeah, I see my work and this book as more explicitly gender history than it is even the history of men.
LK: I think that’s really interesting, and a really important contribution today, when we’re seeing more references to masculinity in the news, for example, I think it’s really important this gets extended in various ways as a gender history in the university.
So, I want to get into to the arguments you present in your book. Your book is set in the early decades of the twentieth century, and you look at events and conversations that happened across the United States. In this period, many of the historical actors you write about were recent immigrants from Europe or were children of immigrants. Can you talk a little bit about how their experience as Jewish men in the United States might have differed from their experiences as men in Europe?
SI: Yeah. So there were a lot of differences. There are also a lot of similarities. The early twentieth century is a time of pretty rapid change in lots of places. So, even your life in eastern Europe as a Jewish man in 1880 wouldn’t really be the same as your life in Eastern Europe in 1920, say, because of some of these broader changes of economics and industrialization and political movements and things like that. But broadly speaking, we can say lots of these immigrants, even before they came over, had stereotypes about the U.S. as what sometimes got called the “Goldene Medina,” the golden land or the promised land. And of course, many of these were overblown. But it is true that one of the reasons that many eastern European Jews came to the U.S. was greater economic opportunity. The U.S. was experiencing general economic growth. There were fewer restrictions on occupation. And there were also just fewer entrenched conventions about what your family would do to make a living here.
Another thing that people pay a lot of attention to, and certainly has some resonance for some immigrants, was the violence or the threat of violence against Jews in eastern Europe. These are often called pogroms. Those are the incidents of violence, usually organized incidents of violence, against Jewish communities. Many Jews were trying to escape that violence, and other Jews were of nervous that that violence might come to be, even if they themselves hadn’t experienced it. So not to say that there’s no such thing as antisemitism in the United States. Of course there is. You can see moments of that in my book, but there are more likely ones in eastern Europe, and they’re more visible to many eastern European immigrants who are coming to the U.S. In the hopes of building a different life.
LK: You also began your book by claiming that Protestant Christianity structured American Judaism. So we hear a lot about structures these days, and I’m wondering if you could talk about what you mean by this claim and tell me why you thought it was important to make the claim at the beginning of your book. You really bring that in, within the first chapter, and I think it’s really fascinating.
SI: When I say this, the thrust of the claim is that when we think about religion in the U.S. and even to today, the way we think about it is structured by Protestant Christianity. You can see this even in the way we today, or people in the early twentieth century, talked about religion as belief or faith—like “people of the Jewish faith.” The emphasis there is on what you, the individual, believe, not who your parents were, and not even the religious rituals that you do. You can see this in, say, statutes about conscientious objection or something like that, we see a religious sincerity, that’s all about what you believe on the inside. That’s a fairly Protestant way of imagining what religion is. It’s not a situation where the census-takers count you as Jewish simply because your parents were, Jewish or organized all of the citizens of the United States according to their religious descent or even exactly what they practice.
So it’s less that American Protestants themselves came and told American Jews what to do, and more that if American Judaism wanted to fit into the religious structures that already existed in the United States, what it did is it talked about itself in those same ways, that might be about belief or about the rationality of religion or about the kind of universality, the ways that Judaism made a contribution to everyone. You’ll see things like, especially in the early twentieth century, these conversations about the “contributions” of Judaism to civilization. And those are often pointed to, like, the Hebrew Bible, that’s where our notion of justice comes from. All of this works to present Judaism as a contribution for all of humanity, which, when you back up and think about it, that kind of sounds similar to the way Christians might talk about Christianity as for all of humanity, right? It has that universal “this is a contribution for everyone” aspect. So when I say the Protestant Christianity “structures” American religion, I mean both legally, but also perhaps more importantly socially, it provides the model for how we think about religion and religious groups.
LK: Of course, a lot of the people you talk about again, are coming from Europe where Christianity is very important. There’s Protestant Christianity and Catholicism, which are quite different, do you think that these ideas shifted when they came to America? So, the ideas that are associated with Protestant Christianity in America were different than those in Europe?. Do you think that it was structured similarly in Europe?
SI: Yeah. This is a big question. I think that you’re right, there’s certainly continuities and these American Jews wouldn’t have said, “oh my gosh, Protestant Christianity, we’ve never thought about that before.” Right? This was something that was not totally new news to them. But one of the things that happens with disestablishment—the disestablishment of religion in the U.S.—is that, and this would be different for many eastern European immigrants, there’s no structural governmental body telling you what religious group you belong to. Religion is fairly voluntary. So whether or not you want to be Jewish, and how you want to be Jewish, is up to you, or how you want to identify as Jewish is up to you perhaps to a greater extent.
Now, of course in eastern Europe you could decide to be a bad Jew, right? I’m going to eat on Yom Kippur, I’m never going to go to synagogue. And you could do that in the U.S. too. But there is something that represents something of a change for many of these immigrants where now their religion has a chance to be seen as an equal player. The other thing is some of this is pragmatic. If Judaism appears to be a “good” religion and doing things the way religion should, and it gets recognized as a religion, then it’s easier to do things like get your chaplains recognized as military chaplains or fight Sunday laws that don’t allow business to be done on Sundays, when if you’re an observant Jew you’re also not doing business on Saturday and so you’d like to be able to do business on Sunday. If you are in a space where then you can present your religion as doing these same things that Christianity is doing, being rational, being universal, then you kind of have a better leg to stand on to make those arguments. So I don’t think it’s wholly and completely and entirely different animal from everywhere in Europe, but I do think that disestablishment and certain ways that the nation is still working itself out, as we have this big influx of immigrants, does make the future of American Judaism, I would say, look a little more flexible. And so there are opportunities to shape it in certain ways where we’d see less of that in Europe.
LK: You’re talking a little bit about what you mean by a “good” American religion in the early twentieth century. I wonder if you can connect that to masculinity for the listeners. Explain why that is important for men, specifically, or ways of masculine behavior?
SI: Here, it might help to think about what would constitute “bad religion.” And you can see some of this even today: it’s bad religion if you do what you’re doing without really thinking, it’s bad religion if it’s fanatical and emotional. But it’s “good religion” if it’s well-considered, if it’s about a belief in a higher power, if it’s about a personal relationship with a higher power that is reasoned and well thought-through rather than emotional or not thought-through at all. So “good” American religion in the early twentieth century, and you can certainly see echoes of this today, was often seen as a rationalreligion. If you walked into a many a Protestant church, you might see everyone at the same time together standing up to sing the hymn and then sitting down and then quietly listening to the preacher who gives you a sermon about connecting a Biblical verse to an ethical idea, something like this.
And many American Jews, especially with the arrival of new immigrant Jews, worried: What does Judaism look like when you compare it to this? Now, if you’re a Reform Jew, your synagogue or temple might not look terribly different from this. There might be music, there might be a sermon, there might be some standing up and sitting down in unison. However, if you are practicing Judaism at an immigrant shul, so a small immigrant synagogue, you might see a lot of noisy coming and going. You might see standing up and sitting down at different times. You might see people all talking and praying at their own pace. It kind of looks like chaos. It doesn’t look well-ordered, it doesn’t look reasonable. It looks kind of emotional and it looks like it’s more about ritual than about some sort of intellectual understanding. And so some more acculturated American Jews were like: Uh oh, we really like the Reform model where people are reasoned, they’re doing things together, they listen to a sermon, we like that model. And Americans like that model better than they liked this immigrant model that looks kind of chaotic and unreasoned and perhaps more emphasis on the ritual than on the actual believing. “Good religion” has that rational component. The, I understand these things to be true about God and I understand them with reference to my experience of the world too.
The other aspect that I highlight is that “good” religion should be universal, and I mentioned this a little bit before, but universal meant that a religion should apply to everyone, something that Christianity obviously claims and its idea that Jesus died for anyone’s sins who are willing to accept Jesus. So, some Jewish leaders also sought to explain the ways that Judaism could and should apply to everyone. So for example, they often saw it as offering an ethical standard. They would focus on the Hebrew Bible as the source of justice or the source of wisdom. And they would say that’s for everyone, for all peoples, not just for Jews. So I would say both of these things, the rationality and the universality, were also connected to masculinity. Whereas things like emotion or particularism or this religion that’s more emotive, those things were more connected to femininity.
LK: Of course, that dichotomy had existed for a really long time. So I think it’s really fascinating that you bring that out, this association of rationality, universality with men and emotion with women, which, you know, was not restricted to Jews by any means but existed very widely among Americans at the time. I also like that your book brings out this other reason or the gendered reason in particular that Reform Judaism might have been especially popular for American Jews.
SI: You’re absolutely right to say this association of masculinity with reason and universality and emotion with femininity is a long standing one. We see it for a lot of what people might sort of glibly call western culture. You can pinpoint that happening in a lot of spaces. So yeah, it was a way for Jews to talk about themselves. And it was definitely also a way for Jews to talk about themselves to others that they saw would also recognize this gendered way of thinking.
LK: That’s a really important aspect of your book, that you’re not talking about conversations just between Jews, but Jews are interested in portraying themselves in particular ways to others, to non-Jews, which I think is an interesting point that is not often discussed in gendered contexts in this way.
One of the historical techniques you use, I think very effectively, is to uncover representations and commonplace assumptions about American Jewish masculinity by looking at the margins, so unique minorities or even abnormal movements and events. For example, you look at the Galveston movement between 1907 and 1914, which was a relatively small and definitely marginal movement that sought to settle young European Jewish male immigrants in Texas as a means to rehabilitate what some non-Jewish and Jewish men believed where their “sickly” or weak bodies. You also look at the highly unusual 1913 trial of Leo Frank, in which a Jewish factory manager from Atlanta was accused of murdering a young non-Jewish girl. Both of these historical examples are far from mainstream events or ideas. So why do you think that looking at marginal movements is a useful method?
SI: Yeah. I thought a lot about this as I was trying to figure out how am I going to talk about American Jewish masculinity? There is so much material. There are so many Jewish men who sometimes reflect on being men. There are so many non-Jews who imagine the lives of Jewish men. And here I took a cue from some gender theorists like Judith Butler and some other theorists like Michel Foucault who have done similar things when they want to point us to a really broad and sometimes difficult-to-see cultural phenomenon. So when Judith Butler is trying to think through gender, one of the groups she thinks about are drag queens. And it’s not because drag queens are a majority in the societies that she’s interested in studying, but it’s because when we look at drag queens, we can see some of our assumptions about everyone else and about what it means to be a woman or what it means to be a man.
One of the things that I thought about, and the particular reason, for example, that crime is in here, is, as I was going along, I began to build a sense of what people imagined Jewish masculinity to be like, right? They imagined it to be nonviolent, to be gentle, but then maybe also not to be terribly strong. And so I thought, okay, where can I look to find somebody who would violate these assumptions? And of course crime is one of those places you might look. If there’s a cultural assumption that this group of people might be gentle or even bordering on passive.,Let’s find someone who’s not gentle and not passive, and is in fact violent or seems to be violent. So that was one way that I could, for myself, see what happens when people confront something that challenges their assumptions. But it also was a social location where people were talking more explicitly and more at length about Jewish masculinity, even if that’s not exactly what they thought they were doing.
When people were talking about Leo Frank, like you mentioned, that’s part of what they’re doing. They’re, imagining when they talk about him as a Jewish man, they’re imagining what it means to be a Jewish man and whether this guy fits our expectations of what it means to be a Jewish man. So I found this to be even though, like I said, I’m not looking at the vast majority of American Jews, I would say probably the chapter that focuses on the biggest number of American Jews is the chapter on Zionism. And even then a very small number of American Jews are Zionists at this point. So, looking at these more peripheral or marginal moments was helpful for me because that was the place where people were talking in ways that made clearer the central assumptions about masculinity. Just like when people talked about drag queens, we could see some of our more central assumptions about what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman, these marginal places really helped highlight what actually the central ideas about Jewish masculinity were,
LK: How did you deal with the geographical aspect of this? Because you really range across the United States, which is not really what comes to mind when we think about Jewish history in America necessarily—we think of large cities, we think of New York. How did you deal with the sheer geographical decision making about where you would look?
SI: Primary to me was having a diverse group of geographical locations. I knew I wanted cities, but I also wanted more rural places. And then it became, okay, where are these marginal places that have compelling stories to tell? The Galveston movement became a really interesting and compelling story to tell and that represented a lot of more rural places. But interestingly, it also had these connections to say philanthropists in New York. There is a New York story in there about the police commissioner in New York saying, “Oh, all of these immigrant Jews are criminals,” and then kind of backing down. But then Leo Frank is in Atlanta. I wanted to make sure that there was some story about the Jewish south. Of course, Galveston does a little bit of this too. But because American Jewish life isn’t just New York City—although New York City has been a big part of it—I did think that we were going to get a better fuller picture if it wasn’t merely an urban story, in part because some of the antisemitic stereotypes and then some of the things that more acculturated Jews thought about Jewish immigrants actually had to with the difference between urban and rural spaces.
So if you are an antisemite and think, “oh, Jews they are so alienated from the land, they’ll never be good Americans because they have no relationship to the land,” or if you’re an acculturated Jew and you say, “wow, you know, what would make these immigrants who healthier is if they became farmers,” that’s a significant conversation that’s going on at that time. So, to look at some of these movements that really did try to help immigrant Jews become farmers or move out west, I thought was a really important part of that story to tell. And I think it would be an important story even if you just wanted to tell a story about New York, certainly the industrial removal office has interest in moving immigrants from New York to more rural locations.
LK: I think the point that you make that there were plenty of connections between philanthropists, journalists, all kinds of people that had an interest in other areas, makes a really good case that looking at these geographical margins tells us something about what we think of as the center of New York City, for example. I also noticed that you describe instances when Jews and non-Jews disagreed on what masculinity was. But there were also many times when Jews and non-Jews actually agreed about Jewish masculinity. They even sometimes agreed when Jewish masculinity was portrayed non- favorably, such as when Jewish men were described as physically weak or non-courageous, for example. Why do you think there was this overlap, and why do you think that Jewish men sometimes took up what we would consider antisemitic opinions?
SI: That’s a great question, and I can tell you this was a thing that surprised me early on in my research. I imagined that Jews would be champions of Jews and that sometimes there would be antisemites and sometimes there would be non-Jews who were generally in favor of Jews. But it turned out to be a much messier situation than that, in part because the American Jewish community wasn’t entirely homogenous. We have people I call acculturated American Jews, so these are generally English speakers, often people who have been in the U.S. for a couple of generations. They themselves kind of feel like Americans. And then we have immigrant Jews—and, by the way, the lines between these are fuzzy, because sometimes the immigrant Jews, by the time they’ve been in the U.S. for a decade are very much acculturated, and sometimes people who have been in the U.S. for a while feel more connected to the more recently arrived people., so I don’t want to imply that we kind of have two factions or something like that. But it does mean we have a complex landscape of Jews and we also have a complex landscape of non -Jews.
So in some of the moments, like you mentioned, what happens when Jews are described as physically weak or not courageous, and why would Jews ever agree with these things? And sometimes what we have there is the issue of acculturated Jews looking at immigrant Jews and saying, “Oh yes, we see that these Jews are weak, but that’s just a temporary problem. It’s because of the oppression they faced in eastern Europe. Don’t worry, they’ll be not weak very soon, we’re going to do things to help them, like show them how to farm or send them to the west or even smaller things like give them job training or teach them English.” We also have some situations where we’ll have different groups of people looking at the same trait and giving it different values. So here’s what happens when New York’s police commissioner says, “Oh yes, Hebrews are about half the crime even though they are only about a quarter of our city,” he says they do these kinds of crime like arson and things like that, but they don’t do more courageous things. Now, he is saying this, and it’s definitely an anti-Jewish thing he’s saying. He’s saying, Jews are criminals and they’re not even courageous enough to do the “real” crime. Now, the Jewish community largely responds by saying, Jews aren’t criminals in the way and the numbers that you suggest, here’s our data that shows differently. The commissioner backs down from that part. But they do agree that, yeah, don’t do those “courageous” crimes because Jews are nonviolent.
So they’re looking at the same thing. Whereas Jews are saying, that thing, that characteristic, that non-courageousness, we recognize it, but we’re going to describe it as nonviolent. We actually see that as a value and asset, a positive aspect of our masculinity, which is frankly a negative aspect of your masculinity, Mr. Bingham, because your’re the one who is suggesting this is a value, but we don’t see it as a value. So you end up with this messy situation where sometimes everyone agrees, these immigrants are physically weak, but antisemites would say, it’s constitutional, they’re physically weak, there’s nothing to be done about it, we just shouldn’t accept them into the U.S. Whereas acculturated Jews say, well, of course they’re weak, they’ve been in these situations of oppression., all we need to do is help them out. And then we also ended up in these situations where there’s agreement that Jews aren’t violent criminals, Jews don’t beat their wives, Jews aren’t drunkards and Theodore Bingham can have a negative take on that where Jewish community can have a positive take on it.
LK: Do you think that race science played a role here? I mean, I’m thinking about the proliferation of what we now certainly consider problematic ideas about race. Do you think that that played a role in determining when Jews might agree with some of these bad assumptions about other Jews?
SI: Yeah, I think both sides used it for their own ends. So Jews would use it to say, oh look, here you can see these structures of our heads here, you can measure immigrants over generations and you can see that we are becoming better Americans. And then other people could say, oh no, Jews are constitutionally weak here. Let me point it out to you using phrenology, or let me point it out to you using this other geographically- based race science. So yes, I do think race science has to do with it, but interestingly both sides use it. In retrospect, we look at race science and we say, wow, that’s a horrible thing. It’s really racist. But it’s interesting to note that in the time Jews were also using race science to counter other claims about race science to support their ideas. So I think you’re absolutely right. That’s part of the discourse, but in a surprising way,, perhaps if you’re not accustomed to reading a bunch from this period, we see it on both sides.
LK: So I think that kind of fit with my followup question, which was if you saw lines between groups of people who believe that Jewish masculinity could change and those who didn’t, right? Because you say some people believed that, I think the word you used was constitutionally set, so Jewish men would always tend towards certain types of crime an,d others believed they can change. Do you see lines between who believes what?
SI: I would say the vast majority, not every single person, but the vast majority of American Jews thought that these things were changeable. I don’t know if they thought that, say, being nonviolent or not being an alcoholic was constitutional. They might’ve thought that, but certainly when they talked about things like being weak or not having a relationship with the land or being hunched over, almost all of the Jews thought that this was changeable. They had different ideas, speaking of race science, about the timeline for changing this. Could you do it very quickly? Would it take a generation or two? They had a variety of opinions, but generally American Jews thought that this stuff was changeable, in part because acculturated American Jews felt themselves to be American. And so they felt themselves to fit in even with respect to gender, even the, that they might differentiate themselves from other white Americans. So they also tended to think that the immigrants could change.
Now, non-Jews were a little more mixed about how much change they thought could happen. There are definitely plenty of, of non-Jews who would say, Oh yes, Jewish immigrants have the potential to become excellent Americans. And when they said that they were thinking of things not only like learning English, but also of having their boys play baseball and fighting in wars, for example. Jewish soldiers could be courageous and fight in wars. We see that both within the Jewish community, which is very much interested in promoting and making visible the number of Jewish men who fight, for example, in World War I, but we can also see this outside the Jewish community where people are like, ah, yes, look, Jews can become good Americans. And they would talk about that in gendered ways.
Now, there are other people who show up in the book who are antisemites who think that, yeah, maybe a few Jews can become good Americans or maybe they can become a little better, but still they are racially or constitutionally or somehow essentially going to hang on to some of these negative traits.
LK: Has the messiness of this, the surprise that Jews aren’t always on the side of other Jews, has that shaped your research that you’re doing now? Has it changed your methods?
SI: I think it changed my method pretty early on. And I can tell I’ve gotten some pushback from other scholars here. It changed my method early on, when I was working on this book. The way I worked on it was to think about how people in general were talking about Jews, and that included both Jews and non-Jews. So when I was thinking about, for example, the structure of the book I could have done, here’s what Jews said and here’s what non-Jews said. But I actually think that’s a less faithful representation of what was happening historically. Jewish communities were talking amongst themselves, but they were also always talking to other communities. I came to refuse an a priori assumption that we have some Jewish way of thinking of things and some non-Jewish way of thinking of things, or the idea that things are always a response to the non-Jewish community, but rather that many of these people in their social lives and their professional lives interacted with non-Jews quite intimately and at length. So I think it’s a mistake to think that we have some sort of insular or singular Jewish set of ideas and experiences, and then non-Jewish set of ideas and experiences that are separate from it. Like I said, I recognize, it makes me different from some other American Jewish historians. And frankly (it) might be different if I were studying another period or another community, there might be reasons to do that differently, but for the people that I was looking at and in this time period, I really do see that these ideas, especially ideas about masculinity, are—well, a collective effort makes it sound like it’s some sort of intentional thing—but masculinity is certainly something that emerges from conversations that involve Jews and non- Jews together intimately throughout, rather than sort of two separate voices.
LK: I mean, you also point to other really salient differences—urban, rural—that I imagine were equally important in particular cases.
SI: I think that’s right. And I would say that the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish was not, as you point out, always the most salient difference.
LK: I’m really curious how your book has been received. What kind of conversations are you having?
SI: I would say it’s been received well, but I think that’s mostly because you tend to hear from the people who have nice things to say and no one wants to say, oh, your book, what a waste of time. One of the things that people have wanted to talk about is the present. Interestingly, I wrote this book about the history of Jewish masculinity, it concentrates on the early twentieth century, and in the last year or so we have a lot of reasons to talk about contemporary masculinity, including Jewish masculinity. I would say that’s been one of the totally unexpected things that I didn’t think about so much when I was writing the book, although I thought about contemporary Jewish masculinity, I wasn’t thinking about the #metoo movement or Harvey Weinstein, and those are things that people now want to talk about. So that’s, I would say, one of the interesting things for me to think about, as far as people’s response goes.
LK: That actually brings me to my final set of questions, because I did want to bring your scholarship forward and think about today. First of all, I wanted to know if you still think that understanding Protestant Christianity is important for understanding Judaism. And also perhaps ask about the role of Evangelical Christianity, which mostly took rise after the period that you study.
SI: In legal arenas I would say that Protestant Christianity is still important for understanding what gets accepted as “religion,” or deserving of religious protection. So, you know, right now you can sincerity of belief as a major rubric in the Supreme Court, for example. I don’t think Protestant Christianity has gone away as a way that we structure the way we think about religion in the U.S. But Judaism, especially the more liberal branches like Reform and Reconstruction, in the past few decades have moved more towards some of the things that the liberal Jews in the early twentieth century really wanted to shy away from. For example, stuff like Kabbalah or even the Talmud as opposed to the Bible. We can see a re-embrace of certain kinds of ritual that might have made some of the Reform rabbis in the early twentieth century a little bit nervous. And we see that in the liberal parts of Judaism, too. So we see still moves of rationality, a little bit less on the universality ,and also a greater space for things like emotion and ritual. Evangelical Christianity and fundamentalism, I think, intersect with Judaism in fascinating ways. I mean, probably the most relevant one is the state of Israel, which is its own can of worms. But, in fact, those are some of the ways that we see those religious interactions happening.
LK: I’m really looking forward to your second book on JDate and the image of the Israeli soldier. But you talk about both of these things, or many of these things, in your conclusion, I think really brilliantly. One of the main points that you make, however, is that there is no one dominant form of American Jewish masculinity. So, there are multiple masculinities. How does this change the way that we think about Jewish men in America today, especially in a world of social media and globalization when conversations are happening at a wider scale in some respects than they have in the past?
SI: I think this is a really interesting question, and it’s not one that I have studied in the kind of detail that I have the historical moments. But I can say today that there’s, I would say, a wider variety of Jewish masculinities. For example, the Israeli soldier is a visible form of Jewish masculinity that would be recognizable to Americans that wouldn’t have been recognizable to most Americans, especially non-Jewish Americans, at the turn of the century. But we still have a fair amount of continuity in some of these other ideas. There’s still a strong sense that Jewish men don’t become alcoholics, or Jewish men don’t beat their wives. Right? These are assumptions that can cause problems within the Jewish community, of course, because what happens if you are a Jewish woman who was being abused by your Jewish husband? If you live in a community in which people assume that’s not a thing that happens, there may not be resources for you. You may wonder if it’s your fault, if you think Jewish men don’t beat their wives, why am I suffering domestic violence? We can see continuity, and we can see some fairly widespread assumptions, like that assumption of nonviolence. But we have a number of additional possibilities for what constitutes Jewish masculinity. And I would say that Israel is the source of the most distinctive new set of possibilities for masculinity in the American imagination that I would say is most distinctive from the early twentieth century.