Tamar Lilienthal

Tamar is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. While she’s not sure what she’s majoring in yet, her dream is to write for film or television. She's a dancer, a member of the Penn Shabbatones, and staff writer for Penn’s The Moviegoer. Tamar is passionate about the arts and believes in using them as a vehicle for self-expression and healing.

Me Versus a Swarm of Ultra-Orthodox Men: On Standing Up to Toxic Masculinity

I am only one person, and I made a man realize the damage caused by his behavior. With more people out there speaking up, imagine just how many men will get the message they need to hear.

When my dad passed away in August of 2018, I committed to saying the Mourner’s Kaddish in his memory. The Mourner’s Kaddish is a Jewish prayer said after losing a loved one. It is said three times a day in the context of religious services. While for some relatives the Kaddish is said for only 30 days, when a parent passes away, it is said for 11 months. I knew I was making a long commitment, but it was the last thing I could do for my father—and I was going to do it.

The problem is that in many Orthodox Jewish circles, the practice of women saying Kaddish is not accepted, even though Jewish law allows it. 

In the United States, it has become increasingly common, but I was only going to be in the U.S. for two weeks after my dad’s passing. I was on my way to Israel for a gap year, and I knew that there, women rarely said Kaddish in Orthodox synagogues.

Still, I was going to try.

At many services I attended in the different cities I visited, I was gently told that it wasn’t the community’s custom to have women say the Kaddish prayer. While I disagreed with their practice and thought it was unprogressive, I respected it. I wasn’t out to cause controversy, especially in communities that weren’t my own. Plus, people always approached me with the utmost respect, and the least I could do was offer the same respect in return.

But at one synagogue I attended, the situation was very different.

About midway through the year, I decided to try out a synagogue that was next door to my school. Up until that point, I was walking 25 minutes in each direction to attend a synagogue where I was allowed to say Kaddish, and, frankly, it was getting tiring. I knew there was a service next door to my school, but I had avoided trying to say Kaddish there because I knew the people were ultra-Orthodox, and I figured it wouldn’t be a place where I would be welcomed. But as the fatigue caught up to me, I decided it was worth a try.

When it came time for me to say the Kaddish prayer, I heard some men shout angrily in Hebrew, “Women cannot say Kaddish!” The commotion slowly got louder and louder, to the point where the service stopped entirely. The men kept yelling, “Be quiet!” and “Get out of here!” A few minutes later, one of them came upstairs to the women’s section of the synagogue to tell me off.

“Get out of our synagogue!” he told me. “Women aren’t allowed to say Kaddish! Are you even religious?”

He continued yelling insults in my face, and I think he assumed that given my young age and the fact that I was a woman, I would be intimidated enough and agree to leave. I also looked American, and he probably figured my Hebrew wasn’t good enough to argue with him.

But my Hebrew is fluent. And I’m not easily intimidated.

I began arguing back, citing sources in Jewish law that I had studied that proved women could say Kaddish. I also told him off for the way he treated me and reminded him that just because he was a man didn’t mean he knew more about Judaism than I did.

Still, he and the rest of the men banned me from returning to their synagogue. I left the service, went back to my dorm room at my school, and sobbed. I had put on a tough front in the moment, but the truth was that I was hurt by the way I was treated. It was scary, frustrating, and unfair. People commended me for standing up to the men at the synagogue, but everyone agreed that it wouldn’t make a difference.

Months later, I told this story to a teacher at my school. Her eyes widened and she said, “I didn’t know it until now, but I have an apology to deliver to you.”

She told me that a few months earlier, she had walked out of the campus gate at the end of the day and had been approached by a man from the synagogue next door. He told her that he didn’t know what to do, since he had yelled at a young woman who had tried saying Kaddish at his synagogue and he was feeling really guilty for what he had done. He wanted desperately to apologize to her, but he didn’t know who she was. 

He also told my teacher that he had since looked into the sources I mentioned in our argument and discovered that, indeed, Jewish law supports a woman saying Kaddish. But that wasn’t what mattered most to me. 

What mattered most was hearing that a grown man recognized how he had mistreated a woman and was humble enough to apologize.

In Orthodox communities, men have a more active role in communal life, which leads some of them to believe that they are naturally superior to women. These behaviors can only be described as toxic, obviously to the women on the receiving end, but also to the men who exhibit them. Studies show that boys and men who adhere to the “tough guy” attitude associated with toxic masculinity resort more often to aggression and violence and are at higher risk for “school discipline, academic challenges, and health disparities.” However, at the end of the day, these behaviors are learned. Not every ultra-Orthodox Jew—nor every man—is stuck in a spiral of toxicity.

Toxic masculinity isn’t irreversible, and my story proves that. But in order to reverse this trend on a larger scale, people need to speak up.

This year, Gillette launched an advertising campaign aimed at combating toxic masculinity. A play on their slogan, “The Best a Man Can Get,” the campaign was called “The Best a Man Can Be.” Tons of men criticized Gillette for shaming their kind, including celebrities like British TV personality Piers Morgan and American actor James Woods. The criticism was also reflected in the numbers—in August, Procter & Gamble reported that Gillette had lost 5.24 billion dollars in that quarter of the year. 

But as Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “This commercial isn’t anti-male. It’s pro-humanity. And it demonstrates that character can step up to change conditions.”

That’s exactly what I saw with the man at the synagogue. People with strength of character can indeed step up to change their conditions. And I believe that companies like Gillette are doing something powerful and positive by displaying these messages to the American public.

I am only one person, and I made a man realize the damage caused by his behavior. With Gillette’s campaign, and more people out there speaking up, imagine just how many men will get the message they need to hear.

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