What About Me? A Blog Essay by a Frum Man With Complaints

What About Me?

“The slave lives in silence, if such a meaningless existence may be called life. He has no message to deliver. In contrast with the slave, the free man bears a message, has a good deal to tell, and is eager to convey his life story to anyone who cares to listen.” (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah”)

For the past few decades, we have all examined, explored, debated, and tried to adjust the women’s role in Torah observant Judaism to work more productively with contemporary sensibilities and realities. I appreciate the need, the effort, and some of the results. However, as a man I often say to myself, as did the simple attendant to the demanding Shakespearean stage actor in the 1983 film The Dresser, “What about me?”

I have met with varying degrees of success in presenting this question to people. I said it once in so many words to a well-known rabbi who passionately promotes what some would call a feminist agenda in Orthodox Judaism. I told him that we need to start examining the man’s role in contemporary Orthodoxy for it needs some adjustment. All is not rosy. He told me that he didn’t know what I was talking about and he walked away.

As for other people, some whom I have approached seemed to feel that I had nothing to complain about since the halakha allowed me to be called up for the Torah reading. That this happens every four months or so and lasts all of 60 seconds didn’t seem to change their outlook.

However, the baal habatim I meet on the commuter train understand quite well. We all know what it’s like to spend 10 hours a day sitting in an office cubical. Men are assigned mitzvot that women are not. The world judges us negatively for the ones viewed as privileges, but not for the obligation to support one’s family. They tend to forget about this one. This overwhelming obligation, assigned by the male rabbis, defines most of our existence. It is incumbent on the male and not on the female.

We all know about the insane expenses involved in maintaining an Orthodox Jewish household in the 21st century. Some part of this is a result of our excessively high living standards as a group. For example, do you think that the average American high school graduate expects to study for a year abroad after graduation and to have his parents pay for it? Between the unavoidable costs like private school tuition for all and the frivolous ones that have become community norms, a typical frum family needs to land itself in the top 10% income bracket just to survive in the US. Question: How much income does one need to be categorized in the top 10%? Answer: $118,000 per year. It is a man’s task to get his family there. The great majority of us haven’t arrived. But we try. How we try.

This is particularly difficult in the corporate era. Gone are the days when a man could support his family with a simple hardware store. Home Depot and Lowes ended that. Gone are the days when a man could support his family with a simple clothing store, as my great uncle did, or a general store. Walmart and the like ended that. So it goes for restaurants, stationery stores, and even funeral homes. Corporate chains dominate. Thus, the man must go to work for someone else, where he tends to become something less than a man.

Corporations don’t set their wages with Orthodox Jews in mind. They set them at a level such that the typical gentile family can send their 1.9 kids to public school and barely get by living in their town far from an eruv. This means that the Orthodox Jewish male can’t just be a regular employee. He must battle his way up the corporate ladder. And it is not pleasant up the ladder. Jewish values decline with every rung to the top. However, the work load and pace increase as one nears it. (It seems to ease considerably for the few that get there.) All of this has worsened considerably since the financial crash. Terror about whether one will be employed at all is an hourly concern.

Furthermore, a man will not land himself in the top 10% with a creative writing or Judaica crafts career. Some, likely with significant family help, manage to pull it off, but this is not the normal case. Meanwhile, I recall how in my “single” days many of my dates were doing things like getting PhDs in history or studying art or journalism or social work. It was my dream to be a social worker. I would listen jealously while driving my date back to campus knowing how the next day I was going back to my cubical in the New York financial firm. On more than one occasion I told my dates of my interest in their field, how I have had a desire to be a college professor, social worker, or writer – are those not the kinds of fields to which our secular education points us? Each one stated in blunt terms that such professions would leave me unable to support my family. How privileged I was to be a man.

Now, I don’t mean to complain against the Torah and the role it has given me. My sarcasm wasn’t directed so much towards heaven as it was to the people who keep insisting that we men have it made, have it easy, to the people who don’t understand that men too need understanding and support and some tweaking of our situation.

Yes, many women work too. Some more, some less. But Jewish law does not require this technically. The pressure is not on them. (They have other pressures obviously.) Jewish law also does not require them to study Torah. This allows them more flexibility to come and go, to take hard work or not so hard work, to enter careers that they can enjoy and to prepare for them. Even the kollel wives rarely take jobs in the trenches of corporate America.

Recently I sat at a Shabbat table with some young modern Orthodox people. The young men talked desperately about how rapidly to score money to extend their Torah studies while the young women talked about fulfilling careers. Interestingly, the young men did not talk about earning a living in order to start a family. I considered the incredible irony to the tenor of the discussion. In the end, the young men would spend the rest of their lives working in jobs for which they are not prepared (if they could find jobs) while the women likely would abandon their careers to raise families. There was something incredibly wrong with the expectations and preparation for life that we are giving our young people.

I have been sitting in cubicles for 25 years. Like many of the men on the commuter train, I expect to continue until I die because these corporations do not offer pensions, and 401k savings amounts to just a few thousand dollars a year. The work is painfully dull even as it is high-pressure and thankless. Frequently, I and my commuter comrades endure abuse at the hands of bosses, colleagues, and customers. Each day is a battle in the long war to put kosher food on the table.

We are expected to log in at night. We get emails on the weekend. Our jobs take from us some 60 hours per week.

The commute from my town to Manhattan is an hour plus each way, if one makes the train. On the trip home I often miss the train due to the difficulties of extricating myself from the office. I try to read on the train, to study Torah, but it’s not easy. People push and shove. They come and go. Half-dressed women sit next to me. I’m not allowed to look at them, of course - another decree of Torah that falls on men. The world actually blames us for this one, as if I asked to be born with male urges and strict rules about their usage. Again, I’m not complaining against the Torah (well not mostly anyway) but am trying to show a little bit of what we men endure and how the rabbis by no means gave us the easy life as compared to our sisters.

Trees fly by my eyes, distracting me. I tried listening to recordings of shiurim, but the train noise makes it very difficult to hear. Mostly, I wait for the time to go, all the while feeling guilty that I’m not studying Torah. This plus work is half of a 24 hour day – 12 hours.

What do we baal habatim do for the rest of the day. Well, there’s sleep of about 7 hours. The Rambam suggests 8 and we likely need it, in part to recover from the stress of the day. We catch some sleep on the train. Running total: 19 hours.

Davening takes close to 2 hours if you count travel to and from shul and waiting for minyanim to begin and end. Some days more, some days less. Running total: 21 hours.

We each spend 1.5 hours each day taking care of the lowly creature, the body: preparing food, eating, dressing, taking care of hygiene. Note that I only allocated 1 hour for the eating of three meals and bentching. Only in America. A French-Lebanese man once told me a joke as follows: What two species of animals eat and walk at the same time? Answer: donkeys and Americans. I generally eat while working. For those who cannot afford takeout for lunch or who don’t work near kosher food joints, this may include food preparation as well. I gave a half hour to all personal grooming, dressing, and taking care of clothes. Americans expect one another to smell like a rose at all times. Gone are the days when a person could bathe once a week or once a year or get away with a stain on his shirt. Running total: 22.5 hours.

That leaves 1.5 hours a day for errands. I won’t bore you with the details as you certainly know all about your own errands. Much of this is neither fun nor fulfilling without extensive utilization of the philosophy of purpose in Torah, that even the mundane is holy and all that stuff. I utilize that material often.

Many of us have to go to night school because we spent our formative years in yeshiva totally ignoring the concept of parnassah – not that colleges are actually geared towards parnassah, but that’s another story. Oh yes, then there’s all the Torah study we are expected to do. All of the examination into women and Torah study fails to mention what comes with men and Torah study: lots and lots of guilt and pressure. This has the effect of taking an already pressurized American day where there’s barely a minute to spare and raising the pressure up a few notches.

In addition to all that Torah study are the shalom bayit classes where we hear that women are wonderful and men are terrible. I do not count this as Torah study because I do not think that the Torah presents such a view.

I once approached a rabbi with the following inquiry: why do we daven so much if Torah study is greater than davening and our schedules don’t allow for much Torah study. He told me that my question wasn’t really why do we daven so much but why don’t I study Torah more. (Evidently, I don’t even understand my own questions.) He told me that I should study Torah 4 hours a day. Then he stood up and walked away.

I concluded that either he couldn’t do simple math or he just didn’t understand the life of the baal habayit.

The latter conclusion is more probable. I was quite moved by Rabbi Marc Angel’s depiction of a Sephardic rav who while walking home stopped by each fruit stand to buy a piece of fruit from different Jewish peddlers. His goal, he explained, was to let the baal habatim know that the local rabbi is involved with their lives and understands their day to day existence.

Some community leaders appear to understand baal habatim only through the wealthy ones that host parlor meetings. I sometimes go to parlor meetings and am shocked to see how well some people live. One can get a warped view of baal habatim from these parlor meetings. They think we all live like that, have money to burn, and plenty of time on our hands. We are all big-time lawyers, doctors or diamond dealers who are lavished with cash and cavod.

A recent frum newspaper article on bar mitzvah expenses contained the following interesting quotation from a rabbi in Lakewood, “The fact that some people live simpler lives, while others maintain a more baalebatish standard, used to be an accepted reality in Lakewood.” I know wealthy baal habatim, and I know ones who struggle. I know rabbis who live in big houses and I know ones who struggle. From where did this gentleman get his rather simplistic notion of the “baalebatish standard”? Perhaps it is a throwback to the days of pensions, rising wages, and housing booms. However, since 1980 real wages for the typical male worker have fallen even as the GNP has grown 69%. (Source: IRS statistics and Money Magazine) Some in our community have prospered (somebody is grabbing that 69%) and perhaps this gentleman has benefited from their largess in his visits to their stately homes. However, the typical person is worse off since expenses for education, healthcare, and housing, particularly housing in frum communities, have gone off the charts. Remember also that baalei batim are much more likely to pay full tuition which at $10,000 a child or more easily can amount to the majority of their earnings.

I was at a fund raising presentation for a hesed organization recently where the organization’s rabbi set $500 as the amount of money we each should donate as a minimum to his organization. I was thinking, does he think I have $500 to spare, just like that? I’d be bouncing checks all over town if I drained my account with a $500 check to him. Frankly, I found it irresponsible of him to use his authority to pressure us into it.

As for cavod, the average baal habayit enjoys very little cavod. After all, we are but lowly baal habatim. Tell me, when you hear the term “baal habayit” do you hear “not a rav,” ie second class citizen? When was the last time that you as a baal habyit got any real honor or hizuk to help you deal with your life? I’m not talking about guilt and pressure to study more Torah. Every time I go to an evening of hizuk for men it amounts to the call for more Torah study and donations to the speaker’s organization. That’s not hizuk; it’s pressure. When I say hizuk I’m talking about appreciation for all that you do and all that you endure. I’m talking about praise. Can you imagine somebody actually praising the baal habayit? Well, I did once read something by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt’l where he did exactly that. As usual, this unique gadol hador led the way, but how many followed? What his essay got me thinking was how rarely this happens. I have seen shul dinners honor individuals, but that’s for their contributions to the shul, not for being a plain old baal habayit. Moreover, the fund raising aspect to it undermines the message somewhat. You wonder, what’s the real motive here? Perhaps, you hear it stam from time to time even though I don’t. I believe that you should hear it all the time because you need it and you deserve it. I have heard recordings of women’s evening of hizuk and I heard real hizuk.

I have laid out a bevy of gripes here and lest you deem me a miserable grumbler, let me say that I’m not speaking necessarily for myself with every point here. Moreover, I have my happiness. As Rav Avigdor Miller zt’l might say, just having eyeballs that function is a happiness. Complaining is a poor substitute for living and there’s no end to it. However, I have set aside a little time here for some concentrated complaining in order to highlight a particular set of issues. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said the following:

Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness. Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. (“Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah”)

Society does not allow men to protest on their own behalf. We must be silent. We must take it. As one sees from the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik, this posture is problematic not just for the men themselves. I’ll repeat the last line: “Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others.” Now that I have your attention, I am writing to let you know that all is not rosy with the male role in contemporary Judaism, particularly for baal habatim. I realize that we get the occasional opportunity to be called up for the Torah reading. But there’s a whole world of other things to look at: pressures, pressures, and more pressures. Many of them are imposed not by Torah but by society, by community, and even unnecessarily by family. We need to see what we can do about that. (Of course, this does not apply to all families, for example, not mine.)

I’ll say for the third time, I’m not coming to complain about the tasks imposed by the Torah. Having duties is a major part of our task as Jews, perhaps the major part of our accomplishment and happiness. I understand that. I think I do. But it is important for all to know that these alone are all consuming and frequently at odds with modern life. We need everyone to know this because we need your appreciation and your assistance.

I have seen gallons of ink spilled on the topic of women and tefillah, whether they can be called up for aliyot or have their own prayer groups. (I wonder what percentage of women really desires these.) I understand the frustration with the rules. I don’t want to shut down conversation there. But I would like to see some conversation on men and tefillah. After all, we all are required to spend nearly two hours a day doing it. Can it be made shorter? Can I skip some pieces if I am utterly exhausted? For all the halakhic gymnastics that go on around agunah, pre-nuptial agreements, and women’s prayer, there is no attempt to help make davening a bit more manageable for men. Yet, adjustments even slight ones to davening, I have never heard mentioned, considered, or discussed ever.

I feel bad complaining about davening because theoretically it is an opportunity to speak to the Almighty. However, the whole thing starts to unravel when the volume and frequency bumps up against the American materialistic rat race. As one sympathetic rabbi said to me, you spend the days counting milliseconds on your computer. How can you be expected to just stop and daven a 10 minute Shemoneh Esrei? The sheer quantity of prayers forces one to rush and all the feeling goes out the window.

Two hours a day, three appointments a day. This is a big issue. I don’t see it discussed. Moreover, I really can’t think of a time that I read an article in an Orthodox publication about the plight of the male baal habayit in general, or went to a topical presentation on the subject. I don’t hear anybody getting outraged or looking for solutions. I don’t see people gathering in protest outside the houses of the people who make life very difficult for baal habatim.

Since I have mentioned Rabbi Miller, let me say that he excelled in gearing his talks for baal habatim. He offered practical tips and outlooks that would make life better for them. He took pains to explain how we can grow from our struggle to make a living. He didn’t present it as an unfortunate distraction to Torah study. You can’t look at the great majority of your life as a distraction. Although a matmid par excellence, he understood the limited time for study available to the typical baal habayit and he presented goals such as emunah, awareness of Hashem, and character development as being equally important as Torah study. He said for example, “Our job is to learn that even when you are in the subway; you are jammed in the crowd; you are hanging from a strap; you close your eyes – but watch your pockets – and you think of Hashem.” Although fluent in Yiddish, he gave classes nearly completely in English so that people who are not sitting in yeshiva all day could understand them. I go to lots of classes that I cannot follow because of all the Hebrew and Aramaic. I was at a class recently at a local shul in a suburban town where the speaker quoted a Gemara in Aramaic and then gave a whole class on it without ever translating the quotation. Listen to Rabbi Miller’s recordings sometime. They have a refreshing flavor to them. They are precious material for the baal habayit. Rabbi Soloveitchik when speaking to the public was careful to speak nearly entirely in English and to translate any Hebrew.

And while I’m alluding to the topic of agunah, let me make mention of my numerous friends, some of them genuinely nice people, whose wives decided to take their children and their homes. These men obediently gave gittin; although it is not clear to me that the Torah truly requires that of them or even advises it. Maybe the Torah rule requiring the man’s willingness to give a get was created for the purpose of preventing rash destruction of marriage for reasons like, “I’m not into him anymore” or “He’s not wealthy.” I know cases like this. Granted, some women are in intolerable situations and have to get out. I have heard about that and I do sympathize. I am glad that people write about it and assist these women. However, I have seen lots of unjustified divorces where nice men lose everything. I have seen it, but I haven’t seen it written about.

Surely, divorce, gittin, and agunah are complicated topics with perspectives on both sides. Isn’t that usually the case in life? I have not heard perspectives on both sides. What I hear is endless wrangling over technicalities all for one purpose and that purpose is not to help unfortunate men. I don’t hear consideration of the big picture. I don’t hear sympathy for men for why would men deserve sympathy? Men have it all. It’s their world, all 16 square feet of it, from cubical wall to cubical wall.

Through it all, I believe in the Torah life and its distinctions in gender roles, including its imposition on men alone of numerous responsibilities. Obviously, I’m presenting some of the problems here and I hesitate in doing so lest people misunderstand. Life is a battle, but a meaningful one. The Torah helps me to see that and live that. And many of the challenges that are assigned to men and men alone are partly due to how life was set up and partly due to the folly of humankind as a whole. My gripe is that we should be working a little as a community to help men deal with their struggles just as we work a lot to help women deal with theirs. In my view, we fail terribly at this task. We hardly take it on at all. And the baal habayit, the typical Orthodox Jewish man, is left asking, “What about me?”

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