Long before the 2013 Pew study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” set tongues wagging, “The Voice of the Jewish Laity,” a survey commissioned in 1927 by the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods and released a year later, made waves within the interwar American Jewish community. Touted as the “authentic expression” of American Jewish men at the grassroots, it reflected a “spirit of religious analysis, of religious self-criticism,” explained Roger W. Straus, the organization’s president, upon launching the venture.
The two-page questionnaire took the pulse of middle-class, American Jewish males affiliated with Reform Judaism, asking them to share their “innermost thoughts” about modern Jewish life. Slightly over 1,000 men, approximately 7% of the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods’ membership, heeded the call to “express YOURSELF as fully as YOU like.” While the rate of return disappointed the survey’s sponsors who had hoped for a much larger turnout, the “refreshing frankness” of the responses delighted them, or so they publicly claimed, noting that the study’s findings “precipitated earnest discussion.”
What an understatement. Those Reform Jewish men who took the time to reflect were fierce and unsparing in their criticism of just about everything that went on within the precincts of the contemporary synagogue: The members of the congregation were too cold, the sermon too abstract, the rabbi too dull, the cantor too “theatrical,” the announcements at the end of the service too long, congregational singing too off-key and infrequent, and on and on it went: one long, keening lament.
Reform Jewish men were asked: How do you feel about the use of Hebrew? “I like Hebrew only when translated,” said one layman. What of congregational singing? “I would enjoy [it] if I could sing,” said another. Do you benefit from the rabbi’s sermon? Only if the rabbi would have a “more modulated voice,” wouldn’t shout and would hold forth for no more than 20 minutes, indicated a third. How do you find the atmosphere at your local temple? It’s “almost as cold as a marble bank.”
Multiply these comments several times over, render them in the form of graphs and pie charts and the sad, underlying truth will out: Reform Jewish laymen of the 1920s suffered from an acute sense of displacement. Little about the modern synagogue pleased them, much less bound them to it. Where once they had been the most stalwart of its champions, they had now become passive spectators—and extremely disgruntled ones, at that. The traditional relationship between “pew and pulpit” had gone sour.
Brotherhood to the rescue! The only thing that seemed to stand between Reform Jewish men and the exit was the men’s club. Seeking to stave off their imminent departure, it encouraged modern Jewish males to “talk temple, think temple.” Make of worship services a “real spiritual adventure,” foster a meaningful sense of “fellowship,” and infuse religious life with “all your masculine vigor,” they were told. “Re-inspirit.”
Men’s clubs were not a new phenomenon; they had been around since the early 1900s. Often working in tandem with the temple sisterhood, itself a late 19th-century phenomenon, they tended to those of their coreligionists in need and outside their immediate circle. The Temple Emanu-El Brotherhood, for instance, was formed in 1904 “to provide means for the Americanization of the young people” in New York’s Jewish immigrant neighborhoods. It operated out of two row houses on East 6th Street, where, among other things, it offered Friday night services with an organ; maintained a gymnasium; and sponsored sewing classes, an orchestra, and a kindergarten, as well as occasional health talks by physicians.
By the interwar years, as the field of social service became increasingly professionalized, rendering the well-heeled and equally well-intentioned volunteer passé, the members of the men’s club (as well as those of the sisterhood) were essentially out of a job. Casting about for a new raison d’etre, they found it—and one another—in “firing the faith anew” and in training their sights on themselves. Under the aegis of the new and improved men’s club, Reform Jewish men sought to repair their relationship to the synagogue and, in the process, to spark a “national awakening of Jewish men in Jewish interest.”
They went about it by enlarging their sphere of usefulness, or what supporters preferred to think of as the exercise of “Jewish man-power.” Members of the men’s club now served as ushers during Sabbath and holiday services and, come Brotherhood Month, even led them. They drove the congregation’s children to religious school on Sunday, sponsored radio broadcasts on Jewish themes, held father-son breakfasts, and promoted an active program of adult education so that even the most “calloused businessmen” among them might warm to Jewish affairs. They also kept things light by sponsoring all manner of social events, from Valentine’s Day parties to “minstrel entertainment.”
Thanks to the brotherhood, the newly “rejuvenated” men of the temple were back in business just as they had been when there was no need for a brotherhood because the “synagogue was itself their brotherhood,” and Judaism “so clearly and preponderatingly masculine.”
Energized by their mission, men’s clubs soon took root within the emerging Conservative movement as well. Like their liberal cousins, they formed a national organization—the National Federation of Jewish Men’s Club of the United Synagogue of America—and drew on The Men’s Club: A Manual, a pocket-size compendium of brotherhood do’s and don’ts to “strengthen loyalty” to the synagogue, “stimulate interest in Jewish religious and cultural subjects,” and “encourage self-activity in religious exercises.”
The story I’ve just laid out—a tale of resolve and innovation—is a good one, don’t you think? To their credit, American Jews identified a problem and came up with an institutional remedy. From “Puget Sound to the tip of Florida,” it was said, men’s clubs had saved the day for modern Judaism—and they’re still going strong.
Not so fast. As I discovered in the course of my research, there’s an underside to this narrative that ain’t pretty. For one thing, at no point did American Jewish laymen accept responsibility for the “cleavage” between themselves and the synagogue. Absolving one another of any culpability, they were quick to blame history—specifically, that of the Reform moment—for their growing absence from the synagogue. When earlier generations of Reform leaders “abolished many of the customs and ceremonies of Orthodoxy which gave laymen a number of physical tasks, nothing was offered them as a substitute for such concrete means of expression,” explained Arthur Reinhart, the assistant executive secretary of the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods. What ensued was a “delegated and proxied Jewish consciousness,” clarified Rabbi Philip David Bookstaber of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
But that bill of indictment only went so far. To make it stick, adult Jewish men also blamed the women in their lives, claiming that it was as much their fault as that of the rabbis that they no longer felt at home in the synagogue. Where the clergy attended to religious affairs, Jewish women attended to just about everything else, leaving their fathers, husbands, and sons with little to do. Was it any wonder they felt “unwanted,” a fifth wheel, or, worse still, that they had come to see religion as “beneath their dignity”?
Finger-pointing was bad enough. More disturbing, more incendiary still, was the rhetoric on which it was based. Under the putative dominion of the women and the rabbis, modern Judaism was repeatedly described within the pages of the Temple Brotherhood Monthly as “enfeebled,” “endangered,” and “in peril.” To add insult to injury, it was also medicalized and gendered to the nth degree. Aficionados of the men’s club were quick to define Judaism of the Jazz Age as unhealthy, unwholesome, effeminate, and in desperate need of “virility,” “rehabilitation,” and the “virus of tradition.”
Back in the day, this language was rather comme il faut: just the way things were. More than 90 years later, it startles, even shocks. You’d need an awfully thick skin not to be taken aback by editorials in the Temple Brotherhood Monthly insisting that Judaism was “in danger of being feminized,” or that the only way to ensure a “healthy Jewish life” was to “rally” the men to the synagogue.
Fighting words, these. They suggest that beneath all the ushering and chauffeuring, the broadcasts and the bonhomie, the temple men’s club was, at its core, an exercise in the restoration of power.
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