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September 2, 2015 | 18th Elul 5775

Men and women II

Galilee Diary #322, January 28, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

…Taking each others’ pictures with the distinguished dead at Rachel’s tomb
And Herzl’s tomb and Ammunition Hill,
Weeping for the beauty of the heroism of our boys
And lusting for the toughness of our girls…
        -from Yehudah Amichai, “Tourists”

Israel is of course not immune to the cultural currents that flow around the globe. The small, close-knit society of the pre-state Yishuv has grown into a modern state, diverse, divided, integrated into the world economically and culturally. While it is still true that Israel feels that if it does not remain the alpha male in the neighborhood it could disappear – and that feeling trickles down to an emphasis on traditional masculine virtues and male dominance throughout society - still, nothing is as simple as it used to be.

Israel’s entry in the Eurovision song contest in 1998 was transsexual pop diva Dana International. And in 2002 a popular film, Yossi and Jagger, dealt with a homosexual love story set in a combat unit in the army. Periodically the media cry gevalt over statistics that seem to indicate a decline in interest by high school seniors in combat units - and increased numbers of kids who find ways to opt out of army service altogether. The courts have found in favor of men who sued over prospective employers' use of their army record as a criterion for hiring. And now it seems that the traditional path from military to political leadership exemplified by people like Yitzchak Rabin and Ariel Sharon is no longer taken for granted; both our prime minister and our defense minister rose to their positions through civilian channels, and are not military heroes or even veterans of elite units. It is interesting that while the army remains perhaps the most sacred of Israel's sacred cows, its centrality as a unifying and leveling force, its role as melting pot and identity builder have diminished over the past several decades. There are probably at least several reasons for this shift; e.g., the disillusionment over the Yom Kippur war; the feeling of failed leadership in the wake of the first and second Lebanon wars; globalization and the rise of individualism and materialism at the expense of the willingness to sacrifice for the nation; the realization that not all existential threats can be solved by force... These can be seen as disturbing trends, signs of disintegration - or as indications of the maturation and "normalization" of Israeli society. In any case, the decline in the centrality of the army experience in life and culture has helped open up the definition and expectations of male identity.

Recently I conducted a havdalah service for a dozen non-religious Israeli teenagers, in the context of a shabbat seminar preparing for a visit to an American Jewish community. After I took a sip of wine, I passed it around the circle - and got an indignant earful from a number of them for not having passed the cup among the males first. Nevertheless, while traditional family gender roles are still firmly entrenched in large sectors of the population - even among those who see themselves as liberated from tradition - one does encounter more and more young families where these roles have been consciously broken down in favor of a more egalitarian structure. While cartoonists and comedians continue to laugh at the stereotypical Israeli male, beer belly hanging over his short shorts as he fans the barbecue (and in fact, surveys show an appallingly low level of physical fitness among Israeli men, army training notwithstanding), it seems that with time, more of us are laughing at that stereotype - and fewer of us are fulfilling it.

Even in the most traditional communities, like the Arab villages, the increasing availability of local options for higher and vocational education means that young women are not consigned to working in local sewing shops until their marriage at 21 - but can aspire to a more satisfying intellectual and professional life path. And so, willy nilly, men too have to readjust their expectations and their roles. These shifts often cause a great deal of personal suffering, and there are reversals and backlash. But the wheels of change seem unlikely to stop turning.

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