From Boils To Baldness


Man, oh man, is this Haggadah different.

Forget frogs and boils and darkness over the land. The 10 Plagues in this Haggadah include prostate cancer, weight gain, hair loss and impotence.

This Haggadah still has the Four Questions, but each has a gender-bender twist. For instance, “Why is it that no matter how old I get, I don’t understand women?”

And this Haggadah is shot through with the buzz phrases of the so-called men’s movement: male bonding, searching for our brothers (the biblical Joseph gets a lot of ink), getting in touch with our feminine side.

No, this isn’t a “Saturday Night Live” skit or a spoof in The Onion — after all, men have had a monopoly in Jewish religious life and at the Passover seder going back thousands of years.

For the Reform movement, it’s serious business.

In an effort to stanch a modern-day Exodus — men fleeing its synagogues — Judaism’s largest denomination has for the first time adopted a new seder and Haggadah for men only.

Not even female cantors are allowed.

“It uses the structure of a Haggadah to bring men together to explain contemporary Jewish men’s issues,” said Doug Barden, executive director of the Men of Reform Judaism, which represents 250 temple brotherhoods and its 20,000 members.

The authors of the Haggadah — Dan Moskovitz, a Reform rabbi, and Perry Netter, a Conservative rabbi — note in an introduction that there are “certain experiences that only men can share … Men need the company of men, to be men.”

Although some men might turn to the all-male Orthodox yeshiva world to find male bonding, the authors write, “few of us feel, for a multiplicity of reasons, that the yeshiva is our place.”

They also discount the military and sports and conclude that “religion is where a man can go and not be evaluated for his material possessions, or his notoriety, or his romantic conquests, or the power of his biceps. … We believe that the experience of a male seder offers the tools to achieve what men need.”

Barden said 25 brotherhoods around the country have bought the Haggadahs and are conducting men’s-only seders this week and next. One of those being held next Tuesday is at Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, L.I.

“We’re trying to get men more involved by trying to make our religion more relevant in our lives,” explained Steven Koteen, the group’s president.

Rabbi Jeff Salkin, executive director of Kol Echad-Making Judaism Matter in Atlanta, a trans-denominational adult learning program, said he has noticed in the last 10 or 15 years that “men have been alienated from synagogue life.” Salkin, who used to be a congregational rabbi, said he recently attended a ceremony at a Reform synagogue in the New York area that honored its adult learners and that “almost all of them were women.”

“Men are not worshipping or learning or leading in the way they used to,” he said. “There may be many reasons for this but it is time for us to have some theological affirmative action that will bring men back into synagogue life. We have to show them what’s in it for them.”

Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University, calls this phenomenon the “feminization of liberal Judaism.”

“It’s not a good thing,” she said. “It is better to have a situation where men feel engaged by Jewish culture and women feel engaged by Jewish culture … They may not be the same activities, but it’s better to have both of them involved.”

To encourage greater male participation in synagogue life, Rabbi Salkin has edited a collection of Torah commentaries by male rabbis and others that “illuminate the spiritual issues for men” found in each week’s Torah reading.

The book, “The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary,” deals with such things as power, body image and sexuality.

“We want to create a feminism for Jewish men,” he said. “We want to take the gift that feminism has given to the Jewish world and help men understand what a Jewish ‘his’ story would be. … Much of the new spirituality in Judaism feels effeminate to men. They are not touchy-feely. And while we don’t have statistics to prove it, probably a good percentage of them are not into healing either.

“The big issue is that in America today spirituality is considered a woman’s enterprise. … How do we show men that there is something in Jewish learning that will touch their lives?”

Rabbi Salkin stressed that his comments were primarily directed at men in the Reform movement.

“My experience is that the Conservative and Orthodox are still more male-friendly,” he said.

Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, pointed out that the number of Conservative men’s clubs is growing and that its members are getting younger.

“I don’t see feminization [of the movement],” he said. “I see a level playing field … We have more men volunteering in Conservative synagogues than ever before.”

Although Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, largely agreed with Rabbi Simon, he said the movement’s decision to count women in the minyan has diminished the sense of obligation men had to attend services.

“Men used to feel a responsibility to come to minyan,” he said. “I’m concerned that fewer men seem to be going. They say, ‘Get a woman in my place.’ I’m also concerned that fewer men seem to be going into the clergy because women can do it as well. …

“It puts the sense of responsibility on the leadership to continue to make the point that it is not a matter of men or women but men and women — every Jew is obligated and responsible. And the challenge for us is to give them a reason to want to be there — to convince them that it will enrich their lives.”

Barden said the decline in men’s participation in Reform synagogues began in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

“Fewer and fewer men began attending services and participating in the life of the congregation,” he said, noting that before the decline there used to be 400 brotherhoods with 40,000 members.

Barden said this phenomenon is not unique to Reform Judaism but rather has occurred in “almost every religious denomination.”

“One explanation is that men are not spiritual,” he said. “I think that is bunk.”

The only hard data he has, Barden said, are the figures coming from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Since 2005, he said, 75 to 80 percent of the rabbinic class is female, and the percentage of female students in the cantorial program is even higher.

“So we are now trying to figure out how we can create the appropriate environment for men without in any way being perceived as reversing the gains women have had,” Barden added.

“We don’t want to go back to the old Orthodox model with the curtain [separating men and women at services]. We have no desire to set the egalitarian clock back. We are trying to create a new paradigm. We have to find a way for men and women to meet their religious and spiritual and social needs. … We have to appreciate their differences.”

In a recently completed study, “Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent: The Growing Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life,” Fishman and a graduate student, Daniel Parmer, write that the “growing gender imbalance among American Jews is a critical — and painful — challenge in Jewish life today.”

The current situation, they write, “contradicts thousands of years of Jewish history, during which men were the public and signifying Jews — and during which women were often marginalized or shut out of organized intellectual activities and public Judaism.”

“Young Jewish males in the non-Orthodox world report they are alienated from the ‘maternal vibes’ — as one young man put it — of religious institutions,” according to the study.

“Just as women were marginalized from the centers of Jewish life for much of Jewish history, for complicated social psychological reasons American Jewish men now feel displaced from Judaism,” it says. “Jewish women’s transformative influence on contemporary Jewish religious life has been sweeping and powerful.”

The men’s Haggadah recognizes that fact indirectly — and flexes its biceps in defiance — with the following refrain from the popular Passover song “Dayenu”:

“Dayenu, Dayenu, being a man shouldn’t be so tough,

Dayenu, Dayenu, enough is enough!”