Walk Like a Man: A Personal Exploration of Masculinity
In Robert Bly’s “Iron John” he speaks to the issue of a man going through the ashes before he can emerge as a fully developed man. Joseph Campbell wrote, “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” A similar viewpoint is attributed to Nietzsche who said, “Out of life’s school of war: what does not destroy me makes me stronger.” Prior to my formal exploration of masculinity in my work as a president and group facilitator for my non-profit men’s organization, Men Mentoring Men, I did go through the ashes and climbed out of my abyss. Years later with what I have learned about life, the men’s studies literature and with the clarity of hindsight I have developed a deeper appreciation of how my inherent manliness sustained me and motivated me in the recovery of my identity. This work is intended to explore and understand what events and factors in my formative years helped create the man I became that allowed me to shed my ashes and grow stronger.
I wrote this essay several years ago as I began my internal exploration of my identity as a man and have included it in the introduction to my memoir “Walk Like A Man”. I have always felt comfortable with my masculinity and given that part of my life’s journey has included working with men’s issues at Men Mentoring Men and presentations I have made about why we are losing our boys I continue to seek to understand why I fully embrace my masculinity and attempt to help men redefine masculinity in our current cultural context.
“Albert, Willie, Vito & Rick
On the wall of my study, over my desk, I hung pictures of four men. They were not acquired at the same time nor was there any significant forethought about their selection. Yet, I have come to realize that collectively they convey to me the unique and disparate qualities of masculinity. Somehow, subconsciously, I have chosen representations of the elements which constitute, for the most part, my gestalt of manliness in its most actualized forms.
On the upper left, no particular thought went into their placement, is Albert Einstein. The photograph is a head shot of the Einstein of later years with the unruly mane of white hair, the bushy mustache and the large doe eyes. Despite the fact that the name Einstein has become synonymous with genius to the point of cliché, I cannot think of another man who so clearly embodies creative intelligence and rationality especially when mediated by a powerful dose of humanity. The power of pure reason, with its reliance on empiricism for seeking truth, is an essential aspect of a man’s dedication to problem solving as a primary strategy in meeting the challenges of life.
Next to Albert is Willie Mays in the follow through stage of an apparent home run swing. The bat is held only in his powerful left hand while his head is raised, peering at the flight of the ball as it heads over the center field fence. Willie’s greatness came before the mega-buck contract environment of today’s athletic world. Unlike our current generation of “prima donna” sports figures, Willie played his game with an unparalleled exuberance while simultaneously realizing the full achievement of his enormous natural ability. To me, Willie exemplifies a man’s pure and joyous expression of energy. Willie perfectly symbolizes the unfettered yet directed physical force that is one of the core ingredients forming the male identity.
Under Willie is a fictional man – Don Vito Corleone of “Godfather” fame. The photo shows Marlon Brando in a tuxedo holding a small cat which he is stroking. There is a telling contrast between his right hand gently petting the animal and the hardness of his face. Deep set eyes hidden in shadow peering unwaveringly. The lips are slightly parted and the head is tilted to the left. Overall, it is an expression of absolute resolve. A countenance which communicates certainty of decision tempered with the wisdom of knowing that every choice has its consequences both positive and negative. Unlike Hamlet, trapped in indecision because of his hyper-awareness of consequences, Don Corleone understood that one must act and then deal with the outcomes of that choice in order to assert control in the world. He wielded his power with purpose and honor. Not an honor which conforms to conventional morality, but rather one that adheres to a more primitive ethic that accepts the fundamental truth that some men are naturally more dominant than others. Therefore, it is implicit that the ability to assert ones will over others carries a concomitant responsibility. If they remain loyal, those who yield to the hierarchy will be protected. Brute force is only utilized when other alternatives fail to achieve the desired goal. Family always comes first and protection of its interests transcends political or other externally imposed values. The character of Don Corleone, as constructed by Coppola and Brando, is my archetypal representation of a man’s assertion of power as he attempts to control his environment.
To the right of Don Corleone is a photograph of a scene from the movie “Casablanca.” Rick and Ilsa are standing next to the piano while Sam is seated by the keyboard. Rick is pouring drinks with his eyes focused on Ilsa. Ilsa has her head down, seemingly unable to meet Rick’s eyes. Rick, as portrayed by Bogart, is the consummate “man of the world.” He is masterful, but not in the same way as Don Corleone. Mastery is different than control and power, because it involves an amalgam of characteristics that is driven by the ability to make one’s way even when power is not in one’s grasp. Rick is savvy, sensual, courageous and world wise with an underlying vulnerability that protects him from arrogance. He navigates his way through life with the belief that he will find a way to get what he needs. He is a realist and a survivor but still open to sentiment. Not always honorable, sometimes cynical yet still possessing a strong personal sense of right or wrong.
What have I concluded? Manliness is a strong positive value for me that is measured by benchmarks which I have constructed from four real and fictitious images of men. Reason, physicality, power and mastery tempered by wisdom, sensuality and vulnerability form the package. I know there are unanswered questions. Can women possess these qualities and to what degree? “ (2000)
Men’s studies courses and myriad books and articles are focusing on the issue of gender roles in our post-industrial world. From Robert Bly’s “Iron John” to Harvey Mansfield’s “Masculinity” much has been written and discussed as to the virtues and handicaps of the Y chromosome. The need to help men define their masculinity in the wake of the tremendously successful feminist movement has become an issue of importance as we move forward in the 21st century. If we are truly in the era of emerging female supremacy and gender neutrality – significant data suggests this is fact – what are men to do to navigate these changes yet still hold onto a sense that there are characteristics of masculinity that are worthwhile and that men can contribute more to society than just being sperm donors. If we fail to redefine masculinity in a positive light we run the risk of diminishing the value and energy of half of our population with the resulting loss of self-worth and fulfillment in a man’s life’s journey.
Instead of re-hashing the current literature and research on masculinity, I have attempted to explore the development of my personal sense of masculinity. Starting with my earliest childhood recollection, I will share my progress from boyhood to my personal markers of manhood to help me understand what I perceive to be the best of masculinity.
A useful and frankly rather simple framework for defining masculinity can be found in the work of Moore & Gillette. In their book, “king, Warrior, magician, lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine” (1990) theydescribe four archetypes of masculinity: king, Warrior, lover and magician. An archetype, as defined in Webster’s, is an original pattern or model from which other things of the same kind are made. According to Jungian psychologists, in individual people the archetypes are derived from the experience of the human race and are present in the unconscious of the individual. Current research on neural connections suggests that there are gender specific styles – archetypes – of perception and thought that are hard wired in our brains.
Each archetype plays a role in the life of a man. At times a particular archetype may be suppressed or dormant. Furthermore, each archetype when expressed has a light or positive side and a shadow or negative side. When the result of our behavioral choices is negative (anger, depression, poor outcomes) or we experience an inability to act we need to ask of ourselves how each archetype can be better harnessed to live a life which is more fulfilling and productive. The fully evolved male is one who has learned how to consciously access the energy of the four archetypes and to confront the potentially destructive shadow side of each.
The king – reasons, plans, focuses, manages, uses logic, seeks vision.
The Warrior – takes action, confronts, commands, motivates.
The lover – nurtures, sexual, connects, passionate, joyful.
The magician – creates, solves problems, makes it happen, transforms, intuitive.
My goal is to attempt to explain how each of these archetypes emerged and matured in my developing masculinity from my earliest memory to early adulthood. I will relay 13 stories which I believe defined my journey as it relates to the evolution of my masculinity and that helped me climb out of the abyss. These episodes reflect my recollection of how I experienced these events at the time and my interpretation of their significance with a mature adult’s perspective. In the great scheme of things, the stories themselves are not of great importance nor are particularly heroic. However, their value was personal and defining for me as a man and as a human being. Since context is important I will offer some background as to the setting of each of these events in order to fully understand the behaviors in relation to time and place and try to apply a consistent perspective for analysis. As would be expected the stories of my early childhood are briefer. They represent the nascent aspects of my masculinity revealing how they emerged at such a young age as much as the underlying message embedded in the event itself.
The little boy or girl you once were, you still are!” Dr. Kevin Leman
- Ice Cream Sticks
One of my earliest childhood memories is getting lost at Rockaway Beach. It was 1949, the summer before my fourth birthday. Rockaway, was a shore community in Queens, New York which had low priced summer rentals frequented by middle and working class families from various parts of the city. My parents rented a modest bungalow near the beach for July and August. I shared a small bedroom with my older sister and there was one bathroom, a small living room and an eat- in kitchen. My father, following a typical pattern at the time, would visit on the weekends and stay in our Bronx apartment during the week so he could get to work. I remember how much I enjoyed the warm sand, the sound of the ocean and the relative sense of freedom to roam outside of the walls of our bungalow. Even at this young age I felt confined by our Bronx apartment and city block as there was no place to wander beyond my mother’s reach. In contrast the beach provided an environment less restricted and unlike the crowded tenement streets of my neighborhood. My big sister, almost seven at the time, and I would walk on the beach to search for abandoned ice cream sticks. Apparently ice cream and ice pop eaters would simply discard their sticks in the sand. I have no idea why it was important to collect them but I was careful not to question my sister as we embarked on our daily beach activity. I am sure my mother’s rule was not to wander out of her vantage point on her beach chair. She was a typical parent, vigilant but not obsessive about limiting her children’s freedom to explore the world. However, on this particular day my emerging competitive instincts motivated me to out collect my sister. In my zeal to beat her, and with my eyes glued like radar to the sand, I drifted down the beach in search of the prized sticks away from mom’s and sister’s sight. I have no clear idea how far I strayed from home base but at some point I picked my head up and realized that I didn’t know where I was. I looked around and didn’t see my sister, mother or any other familiar landmarks. For the first time in my life I was lost. Instead of being overwhelmed by fear, other than dropping my stick collection in a semi-panicked state, somehow the feeling quickly became co-joined with excitement. No tears – just a core adrenaline rush. I looked around and spotted a lifeguard stand. The knowledge that a lifeguard was an appropriate authority figure emerged from my unconscious. It must have been drilled into me by mom. Peering up in awe at the imposing bronzed behemoth sitting on his perch I called out, “I’m lost.” He climbed down and asked me my name. I told him and recanted my ice cream stick undertaking. The golden haired beach God smiled and picked me up and placed me on his shoulders with an explanation. “Let’s see if we can find your mom.” There I was, sitting atop the shoulders of this powerful man with a glorious and unrestricted view of the beach and ocean. Any vestige of being scared quickly dissipated as the prospect of adventure took hold. I felt excited and liberated as we started down the beach and soon all eyes of the blanket squatters were upon us further reinforcing my sense of being special. Some time passed and we caught sight of a hysterical women and a crying seven year old. Of course, it was my mom and sister. They ran toward us with my mother in full voice simultaneously heaping praise upon the lifeguard and chastising me for wandering off. The lifeguard put me down and my mother, much to my embarrassment, infolded me in her arms and thanked god that I was returned safely.
Since fully grasping time is beyond the cognitive ability of a four year old, I am unable to accurately recollect how long this incident took from being lost to returning to mom. Frankly, it does not really matter in my retelling since the essence of the story is how I felt and what it meant to me then and what I can take away from it as an adult. The question I put to myself is what elements of manliness were emerging in a mere four year old? I’ll start with competition. I unknowingly sacrificed safety simply to collect more sticks then my sister. Are boys more competitive than girls? I believe that in aggregate they are. Again like any trait or characteristic the exception does not disprove the general rule. All boys are not more competitive than all girls. However, I believe that the need to win, especially in a zero sum endeavor, is stronger in boys than girls. Task commitment is another variable that shapes this story. I was so focused on collecting sticks that I was apparently was oblivious to my surroundings. Again, is it a male characteristic to get so singularly focused that we ignore the environment around us? I would answer and I think most women would agree in the affirmative with the same caveat I offered for being competitive. Not every man is more goal focused than every women. Yet we can generalize that it is a trait of masculinity to be single and even obsessively focused.
An obvious question is what was the shift from fear to excitement all about? It seems that a four year old lost on the beach might have cried and panicked. I didn’t. The fear quickly morphed into excitement and adventure. Is this an expression of the trait of risk taking? Again another manifestation of masculinity is risk taking. The need for the adrenaline rush that goes along with sky diving, bungee jumping, race car driving, etc., is generally more prevalent among men than women.
Applying the four archetypes of masculinity sheds a bit more clarity on my behavior. The competitive drive to collect more than my sister is a reflection of my warrior. Taking action to achieve a goal fits the emerging warrior. Seeking out the lifeguard reflects the energy of both the king and the magician. The situation had the potential for paralyzing fear taking over and dominating the efforts of the king and magician to find a solution. However, my king and magician along with the thirst for adventure was strong enough to keep the fear at bay and guide me to the lifeguard.
The personal take away is that even at age four my Y chromosome’s characteristics were emerging and at least partially were driving my behavior.
2. The Mouse That Roared
The year was 1950. I am a Kindergarten student at P.S. 93 in the south Bronx. The neighborhood was multi-ethnic and predominantly lower middle class white. Those families that were financially able were starting to migrate out of the neighborhood either to “better” sections of the Bronx or to private homes in the suburbs. It was a time when people knew their neighbors and engaged in conversations on hot summer evenings (it was pre-home air conditioning days). We sat on folding chairs outside the building or lounged on the roof. Pushcarts, some still horse drawn, plied the streets selling vegetables and collecting junk. Doctors made house calls and the seltzer man came every week to our apartment door to replenish our seltzer bottles. My maternal grandparents lived in the same building two floors below us and were part of my everyday life. We shot marbles in the street into modified wooden cream cheese boxes and played army in the vacant lot around the corner.
P.S. 93 was four stories high and built in the 1930’s according to the cookie cutter blueprint designed by the NYC Board of Education. I estimate there were at least 1000 students in attendance. The school was so overcrowded that my sister, in third grade at the time, was on split session with half of the upper grade students attending school in the morning and the rest in the afternoon. I remember my classroom as having weathered wood floors, desks that were bolted to the floor and loads of highly varnished wooden storage cabinets in the back of the room. The storage cabinets were filled with supplies and the musical instruments that were occasionally provided for our use. I, like so many of the boys, always reached for the drums first. They were in limited supply so more often than not one wound up with a “faggy” triangle or tambourine. As an aside, during my growing up we used fag or the adjective form, “faggy”, as synonymous with today’s “wimp or nerd.” In my mind it was less a homophobic vocabulary choice than an anti-masculine expletive. In other words something labeled faggy was judged girlish or just not cool. Even un-cool girls could also be described as faggy because of frumpy clothing or kiss ass behavior to teachers.
One random school day, my teacher, I do not remember her name, instructed two monitors to go to the back cabinet to retrieve the instruments. I was not chosen as one of those monitors and was sitting quietly facing the front of the room. Suddenly there was a scream from the monitors and the teacher went racing to the back of the room. Twenty five student heads whipped around to witness the reason for the screams. The teacher was looking into the cabinet placing herself in front of the monitors. She had a look of disgust on her face and started to retreat from the cabinets. One of my classmates started to shout, “It’s a mouse, a dead mouse in the cabinet.” At that moment time seemed to stand still. The teacher froze and my fellow students were either laughing or screaming. Without direction or suggestion, I rose, walked to the cabinet, picked up the mouse by its tail and proceeded to deposit the remains in a trash basket. The teacher quickly calmed the class down and did not say a word to me. She acted as if the situation never had occurred and I felt like a hero.
What elements of masculinity or manliness was I expressing. Again I will re-visit hierarchy and competiveness. On one level I was compensating for not being a monitor. A monitor was a leader and peer authority figure. That fact probably unconsciously increased my motivation to act in a manner that would be perceived as bold and heroic by my classmates; both traits that are associated with manliness. I exhibited emotional control as well. As my fellow students were either yelling or screaming in discomfort or appeared to be in a semi state of shock, I chose to remain calm and take action. Our culture has reinforced emotional control as a trait of manliness – real men don’t cry. This brand of John Wayne stoicism has some benefit but in the long run has probably caused more harm than good. Additionally, and in some sense at least by the perception of five year olds, it was a risk to remove the dead animal – again, risk taking a characteristic of manliness.
What do I take away from the dead mouse incident? I felt like a hero. I was bold, decisive, emotionally controlled and brave. I left school that day with a reinforced notion of how a male should act and how I was fulfilling that expectation. Obviously, I was not the only one in my class with a Y chromosome. A possible explanation is that my Y was stronger. Was this the beginning of becoming an Alpha male? Another dimension, and I think a significant one, was the reaction by my mother after I told her what happened. At age five I was in the habit of telling mom everything about my school day – a practice that ended somewhere around age 11. Mom told me how proud of me she was – an external reinforcement of my choices. If mom had scolded me for touching a possibly contaminated dead mouse, what would that have done for my identity as a male willing to act boldly and take risks? My mother’s response raises a core question which is so difficult to parse as to the degree our manliness is shaped both positively and negatively by the feedback one receives, especially at an early age. Does the six year old boy who likes to play with dolls become more or less feminized by the reaction of his parents to his choices in toys? My take is that a parent’s response to our gender oriented behaviors has an enormous impact on our future development. It reinforces my belief, an unpopular perspective, that to a significant degree homosexuality is not just something already determined at birth. Our sexual orientation is also formed by how our sexual and gender impulses are shaped by our caregivers and the cultural context we live in.
In terms of the archetypes three seem to be in play. The king seeking leadership was waiting for an opportunity to prove his leadership among his peers. The warrior acted on the understood motivation from the king and took the risk of removing the dead animal. In addition, the magician also was involved in that he guided the way the warrior acted. There were other possible alternatives for the warrior – tell everyone to be calm, offer to go find the janitor to take care of the problem, cover the mouse with a paper towel – but these would have been less fulfilling of the king’s agenda. The magician found the most creative and compelling course of action for the warrior to fulfill that was in sync with the overriding goal.
3. Foster The Bully
My journey continues 2 ½ years later – now I’m seven years old and in the second grade. Many life changes had occurred. My father was doing a bit better in business so we were able to move to a new neighborhood in a more middle class section of the Bronx. My parents finally got their own bedroom. In our previous one bedroom apartment, my sister and I shared the bedroom while my parents slept on a sofa bed in the living room. This close proximity of living could either bring excessive friction or cooperation and compromise, in our case it was more the latter and we managed to coexist without much privacy but with a fair degree of harmony. My parents bought new furniture and my sister and I felt like we had truly arrived and climbed the social ladder. We moved in the middle of the school year which was a bit awkward for us. It was uncomfortable on both ends because of my mother’s strict rules regarding school attendance. We were slated to move during the Christmas vacation. Our teachers threw us a farewell party and our classmates wished us well as we were sent off on a Friday before the holiday break. However, my parents got word that our new apartment would not be ready for another week. This delay meant that there would be about five school days after Christmas where we would still be in our old neighborhood. My sister and I begged my mother to let us stay home for those five days because it would be mortifying to return to our old school after the formal leave taking. Mother refused to relent and we sheepishly trodded back to our old school justifying to all the reasons for the setback in our announced migration to a new school.
There was less transience in those days as few new face were seen once we were in the middle of the school year. Our new school, P.S. 105, was across the street from our apartment building, and like most of our peers, we went home for lunch every day to a meal prepared by our stay at home moms. Imagine that for the new millennium school kids. As newbies my sister and I were the center of attention in our respective new classes. This attention did have its drawbacks. On the first day in my new class the teacher called me to the blackboard at the front of the room to diagram vowel sounds indicating either short or long. There existed a major problem. I had no idea of what she was talking about. At my prior school we had been taught reading by the sight method, not by the phonics model. Although I was a proficient reader I lacked awareness of the basic rules of phonics. I blankly stared at my teacher as if she had asked me to split an atom in front of the class. With complete confusion I told her I didn’t understand and she replied, “I guess they didn’t teach you anything in your old school.” The rest of my classmates started to giggle and I returned to my seat wanting to crawl into a hole somewhere under my desk. This degradation of status among my classmates probably contributed to what soon followed. Several days later during dismissal, right outside the school door; Robert Foster got in my face and hurled some sort of insult at me. The other kids from my class were all standing by like it was the beginning of a TV show they had watched a hundred times before but with alternate endings. Foster was clearly attempting to demonstrate his supremacy over the new kid, me. He was a bit bigger than me but not by much. With little hesitation I grabbed Foster and put him in a headlock, a move I was familiar with applying. In those days youthful fighting was more wrestling than boxing with the goal being to force the other guy to utter “give,” which signified the end of the encounter. This school yard scene was a classic demonstration of hierarchical behavior apparent even among seven year old boys. Foster fell to his knees as I squeezed his head as hard as I could. I asked him if he gave up and after a minute or two he said yes and I released him. Foster rose quickly and walked away defeated. The youthful onlookers were shocked at this occurrence. They never saw this ending before. One of the kids said, “That was Foster the bully, he is the toughest kid in the second grade.” I supremely replied, “I guess I am now the toughest kid in the second grade.”
Several themes of masculinity emerge from this event. The dominant male in this case, “Foster the bully”, was attempting to assert his control over the new comer to the group. The previous humiliation by my teacher most likely contributed to me being singled out as a likely victim. My response was to accept the challenge and fortunately I was victorious. It elevated my status and yet I did not become a bully or seek to challenge other new comers. However, the hierarchy seemed to be accepted because no other peers emerged to challenge me. I also am convinced that the positive reinforcement I received from my previous dead mouse encounter coupled with my desire to regain status after the embarrassing vowel incident enabled me to confront Foster instead of backing down. In other words, intrinsically I was absorbing evidence of my manliness based on the accumulation of data and the outcomes of my behaviors. Responding physically to a threat rather than verbally is another characteristic of manliness. Some evidence does suggest that men tend to be less likely to rely on language and more likely to be physical than women when engaged in confrontation. For me, a physical response was automatic and since the outcome was favorable, it further reinforced my association between manliness and physical confrontation.
Referring to the archetypes for additional understanding, it appears that this Foster incident was a pure warrior response. When threatened physically, the warrior acted with little thought or interference from fear. The king was silent. I wonder looking back that if I had known beforehand that Foster was indeed the toughest kid in the second grade, would I have acted so boldly? My lack of data silenced the cautionary message that my king might have asserted over my warrior. Without the forewarning, the warrior took charge no hesitation. In this case the warrior acted in the light. The warrior energy was utilized for a just cause – preserving self-image and overcoming the bully. As best as I recall I did not tell my parents about the encounter with Foster. This was a change from what I had shared about the kindergarten experience with the mouse. My growing sense of independence meant less sharing with mom and dad. At the time I was beginning to equate masculinity with self-reliance. This growing characteristic of my personality led to a hyper-responsible approach to solving problems with both positive and negative consequences later in life.
4. Rabbi Rubin & The Reindeer
Three years after the Foster battle, I’m now an 11-year-old fifth grader well past my vowel sounds at P.S. 105. Our neighborhood was predominantly lower middle to moderate middle class and Jewish. There were four kosher delicatessens, three bakeries and three candy stores within a six block radius from my apartment building. The concept of neighborhood in New York City compromised a number of self identified blocks with really no distinct geographical boundaries. Yet, everyone knew where their neighborhood began and, more importantly, where it ended. The vast majority of my acquaintances and classmates in elementary school were Jewish. This created considerable confusion about being a member of a minority group, especially at holiday time. On one hand the world around us participated in the religious and secular frenzy of Christmas while simultaneously in our insular day-to-day existences we behaved as if Christmas was just a brief distraction having little personal meaning; possibly serving as our defense from the feelings of exclusion. My family was not very religious but we were heavily steeped in Judaic culture and convention. Therefore, I was required to attend Hebrew School classes to begin preparations for Bar Mitzvah. This was not a negotiable item. I complied with minimal protest being that the majority, if not all of my friends had a similar obligation. The Hebrew classes were held two afternoons a week, following public school, at a local Orthodox synagogue. My teacher was Rabbi Rubin, the chief Rabbi of the congregation. As November was coming to an end, the outside world was revving up for the upcoming holidays; my public school was planning a “Holiday Pageant.” The Irish school principal, appropriately sensitive to her surroundings made sure the show would be more holiday oriented than religious. I was eager to be part of the show and fortunately selected to be a reindeer. My costume would consist of construction paper antlers and, my role along with several other reindeer classmates, was to pull Santa across the stage. At the time I thought that this was pretty cool.
Meanwhile, at Hebrew school, Rabbi Rubin opened his class with an admonition. He said that he wanted to make sure that none of us participated in any Christmas activities at our secular school. The Rabbi elaborated and intimated that it was “sinful” for Jewish boys to participate in any Christmas celebrations. I was being branded as a potential sinner for playing a reindeer in a holiday pageant show. My initial reaction was shame. Perhaps I had missed the moral ramifications of my desire to participate in the school holiday show. Then the anger shortly ensued and I was filled with confusion. It made no sense to me. How would being a reindeer betray my religion? In my head, there was a strong distinction between the holiday show at school and participation in a Christian religious ritual. I wanted to speak my mind to Rabbi Rubin but I was scared; The Rabbi was definitely not the warm and fuzzy type. He was strict, cold, autocratic and prone to shaming a student who gave a wrong answer. However, my moral outrage – not sure I understood the phrase at the time – overcame my fear and I raised my hand and said, “Rabbi, I am supposed to be a reindeer at our school’s holiday show. This is not religious. Can’t I be a reindeer?” The silence in the room was palpable. My fellow students were in shock that I had the nerve to question the Rabbi. I think he too was a bit surprised. He raised his head and spoke in the most rabbinical of tones declaring again under no circumstances should any Jewish boy participate in a Christmas event. The Rabbi was absolute, unmovable. Instead of his intended effect of shutting me up, I felt empowered by his lack of validation and with more questions raised my hand again. “Rabbi, it doesn’t make sense to me. The show is not Christian. I don’t understand why it is wrong for a Jew to do this.” He grew angrier at the very notion that his authority was being questioned by a mere child. In a tone even more severe than before, he said with no uncertainty that I was “forbidden” from participating and that he would not discuss the matter further.
At that point I was sensible enough to keep my mouth shut and the class ended. I went home and waited for my father to return from work. He arrived and asked me how my day went. I told him about my confrontation and may have used the word “idiot” to describe the man I considered to be highly unreasonable. I told my father that I never wanted to return to that Hebrew school again. He intently listened and carefully asked me to repeat, to the best of my recollection, the what exchanged in my debate with the Rabbi. My father questioned whether or not my tone was respectful and I told him, quite truthfully, that it was. He thought about it for a while and stated that I must continue with my religious education leading to at least Bar Mitzvah. However, he said that we could look for another Hebrew school where I felt more comfortable with the moral structure. This was an incredible moment as I felt extremely validated by my father and respected for my search for justice and understanding. I told my father that I wanted to get training for my Bar Mitzvah in a place where one could question and seek reason, not just follow pronouncements.
As it turned out, my rebellion led to opening new doors for the entire family. We found a newly formed Reformed Temple in our neighborhood that was much less rigid in its interpretation of religious doctrine. My parents became active congregants and specifically my mother eventually became treasurer of the Temple. New relationships were formed, friends made and the Temple evolved into their primary social network for many years.
As I reflect with appreciation the Rabbi Rubin confrontation has had an enormous influence on my life as a man and father. The discomfort with the Rabbi’s edict reflected my developing internal outrage to injustice. My parents had raised me with a strong belief in social justice providing me the courage to stand up to and question the Rabbi. My father’s response reinforced the values that were already instilled and demonstrated that he “walked the walk” not just “talked the talk.” The king inside my father considered the problem and prompted his magician to provide a creative solution which actually benefited the entire family. Furthermore, the developing wisdom of my king was reinforced further strengthening my sense of justice and fairness.
Much time has passed and I am now grateful to Rabbi Rubin for providing this teachable moment. And also to my father for modeling the behavior of what it is to be a man and a father