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Synagogues’ Absent Fathers

For decades, rabbis urged dads to play a bigger role in their children’s Jewish education

Jenna Weissman Joselit
June 14, 2024

Original photo: Library of Congress

Original photo: Library of Congress

If Rabbi Jacob Kohn had his druthers, the entire family—Mom and Dad and the kiddies—would fill the pews of the synagogue on an ordinary Saturday morning. He’d look out from behind his pulpit and behold a sea of fathers, dapper in suits and ties; mothers, sporting smart hats and gloves; and children, bored silly, and squirming in their Shabbos shoes.

A congregational rabbi of long standing as well as the author of Modern Problems of Jewish Parents in 1932, a detailed account of the challenges of raising a Jewish family in modern America, Kohn was out of luck: The man of the house was nowhere to be seen. In the office, on the links, or lounging contentedly at home, Dad had “abdicated” his role, “shirked” his paternal responsibilities, and become a “negligible factor” in the upbringing of his children.

This worrisome state of affairs hadn’t gone unnoticed. Kohn was hardly the first to point out the paucity of men in the pews or their indifference to synagogue affairs. That’s why, a decade or so earlier, the synagogue or temple men’s club, as well as the tefillin club and the Sunday morning father-son breakfast were invented: to bring back the men, and with them, to restore “masculine vigor” and a spirit of “fellowship” to the congregation.

Kohn not only made a point of the absent dad, as did others before him; he raised the stakes to an entirely new level. Devoting an entire chapter in his parenting manual to the “unique position of the father,” he laid out the case for why paternal absence was such a big deal and its consequences dire. Kohn’s guidebook started off traditionally enough, invoking the usual pieties that could be tidily summed up in the popular expression, the “family that prays together, stays together.”

The rabbi, whose parenting expertise was rooted both in his own experiences as a father of three sons and a daughter, and from having been a clergyman in “constant contact with children and parents under [his] observation,” went on to rehearse what had come to be a familiar refrain of the era: Unless father accompanied mother to services, Judaism would devolve into little more than a “feminine indulgence.” As things then stood, Jewish life was already on its way to becoming the province of the ladies. A “predominantly feminine Judaism,” Kohn wrote disapprovingly, “is taking the place of a predominantly masculine Judaism.” Men to the rescue!

Many of Kohn’s readers might have heard, or read, all this before. New and perhaps even startling to them was what came next as his account veered off into an altogether different direction: sex. Turning up the heat, the good rabbi invoked the dread specter of sexual deviance, an issue of heightened concern during the interwar and postwar eras: of sons becoming “sissified,” growing up “effeminized,” and their daughters sexually permissive.

I’m not sure how Kohn got from point A to point B, from gender to sex, but somehow he managed to link both to the father who didn’t live up to his appointed roles. By the rabbi’s logic, the dad who abdicated his shul-going responsibilities was equally likely to abdicate his responsibility to educate his children properly in Judaism’s ideals of “sex-sanity and sex-purity,” and the dad who shirked that task was likely to have sons who liked other sons and daughters who liked sex a bit too much.

Unless fathers stepped up to the plate and assumed their rightful places, the future looked rather bleak. As Kohn fiercely put it, “if the man does not live so as to illustrate the fact that Judaism and Jewish morality has a virile strength and make peculiar appeal to the manhood of the Jewish people, not even the women of Israel will long be interested in it.” With that warning ringing in their ears, errant fathers, it was hoped, would immediately mend their ways, and the next Shabbos morning, they’d put away their golf clubs, briefcases, or magazines, rustle up their tallis bags, and make a beeline for shul.

They didn’t. Despite the alarm bells, nothing changed. Even the advent of the five-day work week, which freed fathers from having to spend Saturdays on the job, had little effect on the American Jewish landscape. Instead of tending to their prayers, the steadily growing number of fathers who, in postwar America, now called the suburbs their homes, tended to their lawns, or puttered away in the garage. Little wonder, then, that American Jewry’s cultural custodians continued to hammer away.

Writing in 1958 in The Jewish Parent, a monthly magazine intended to help mothers and fathers “do a better job in [their] tasks as a Jewish parent,” rabbi and educator Isaac Swift singled out American Jewish fathers, urging them to take a greater and more active role in the education of their sons, leaving their daughters, it seems, to fend for themselves. While, admittedly, there was now an “ease” in the father-son relationship, a “new intimacy” between them, fathers still stayed “aloof” from their male offspring’s Jewish education, leaving it entirely in the hands of their wives. Either they came home so tired from work that they preferred to “rest” their bodies than “test” their sons, or, if they happened to send their boy to a Jewish day school where “sons know more than their parents,” they felt ill-equipped, not up to the job. “How can [the father] test the lad without exposing his own inadequacy?”

Swift had an answer to both dilemmas, insisting that it was never too late for fathers to bone up on Judaism by taking one of the many classes offered by the Jewish community center or the day school’s PTA. And should that not be an option, well, in that case, the head of the household shouldn’t hesitate to let his son know that he has “outstripped his father in knowledge—what proud encouragement this to a lad of ambition!”

Swift’s advice fared no better than Kohn’s. When, in the late 1950s, Albert Gordon explored suburban life among the Jews, publishing his gimlet-eyed observations in a 1959 volume titled Jews in Suburbia, fathers were still AWOL. Jewish women continued to rule the roost, to “drive the cars, do the shopping, transport the children to and from school, take them to the dentist and other appointments … pay the bills and make many other decisions which Jewish husbands were more likely to make in past generations.” In 20th-century America, the patriarch of the family had gone the way of the shtetl, his place taken by a “modern matriarch.” Though the book’s author never said so explicitly, the reader senses that he was not pleased.

Since the 1950s, contemporary Jewish life has changed so markedly that Kohn, Swift, and Gordon would hardly recognize it. No one refers any more to modern matriarchs or nudges Jewish fathers to pull their weight. Once hot button issues, they’ve run out of steam; no one seems to care. American Jews in the 21st century have bigger things on their mind, from the threats posed by an attenuating Jewish identity to the porous meaning of family. Given the increasingly high stakes, does it matter any longer who wears the pants?

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

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