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Brandeis University Press authors win 2013 National Jewish Book Awards

Published: February 7, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

Brandeis University Press has recently boasted a series of successes, with two authors nominated as winners of the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards. Anita Shapira’s “Israel: A History” won in the history category, while Elana Maryles Sztokman earned a win in women’s studies for “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World.”

Brandeis University Press is a member press of the University Press of New England (UPNE), which publishes in various fields, the majority of which are related to Jewish culture, thought and Israeli studies. Yet, the published books cover diverse subjects and viewpoints on topics such as politics, history, gender and philosophy. While their focus may be on the Jewish experience, their “goal is to illuminate subjects of all stripes with intelligence, curiosity and care,” according to the University Press website.

“My book was published by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, an organization at Brandeis University led by Professor Shulamith Reinharz and Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, that focuses on scholarship in issues of gender and Judaism,” Sztokman said. Originally granted a research scholarship, she then submitted a proposal to be published, a request that was granted. “The people at HBI are phenomenal,” she said. “[They are] wonderful scholars and really incredibly supportive of emerging voices. I feel really lucky and privileged to have received their support.”

Sztokman’s book, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World,” examines gender identities of Orthodox men.

“I wanted to know, when Orthodox Jews say things like, “Be a Man,” or “Today you are a man” (said at every bar mitzvah on the planet), what do they mean?” she said. “What does it mean to be an Orthodox man?” Her research drove her to interview many Jewish men, especially ones who belonged to synagogues called ‘partnership synagogues.’ These are places that have found a compromise between feminist ideals and Jewish law, allowing gender equality. “The men in these synagogues are deeply engaged in this gender struggle,” she said.

The idea for her book came to her during a conversation she had with an Orthodox Jewish man. She remembers him saying, “I could never go to a synagogue like that, because if women are doing everything, what’s left for men to do?” Sztokman decided this was actually an important point. “He was articulating something very poignant about society,” she said. “When women step into roles that were once exclusively owned by men, the men suffer from a crisis of identity. They no longer know how to define themselves as a man.” This drove Sztokman to write a book that addressed what men were going through, instead of exclusively focusing on women in this movement. “We have to pay attention to how men deal with this if we are going to successfully create equitable, compassionate communities,” she said.

Sztokman is very aware that Orthodox Judaism creates strict gender divisions. Men are allowed public actions such as leading prayer services, as well as more intellectual roles such as studying the Torah. Women are exempt from commandments about public prayer, which Sztokman described as being “considered the epitome of maleness.”

“Women and girls are taught from early on that their divine role is to be kind, to raise children, to be a ‘good’ wife and mother, perhaps to pray (but privately), and most importantly to cover their bodies,” Sztokman said.

Regarding this focus on clothing, Sztokman is a well-educated researcher, having covered the topic in her doctoral research. “I found that the dominant definition of religiousness for girls is wearing skirts and long sleeves and, later on, covering their hair when they’re married,” she said. While men live in the public life, Sztokman argued that women “are taught that to be religious means to be covered and at home.” As Sztokman examined Orthodox men and women in her book, she came to the conclusion that there is no ‘Orthodox person.’

“There is an Orthodox man and an Orthodox woman,” she said. “And they are two completely different entities with different rules, expectations and personalities.”

Sztokman has received several positive responses to her book.

“People come up to me all the time and tell me that the book helped them understand some of their struggles,” she said. “Men especially tell me that I helped give definition to things they struggle with.” This coincides with Sztokman’s personal dream: to help open up Orthodoxy. “I want to help break open the boxes that Orthodoxy puts men—and women—into.”

As she brings home a win in the women’s studies category, Sztokman mentioned, “We have to understand that feminism can liberate men, too.”

Sztokman and Shapira’s books are a success for Brandeis University Press. Sztokman describes her reaction as “ecstatic,” and feels, “enormously grateful, especially to the women of HBI who believed in me from the beginning.” She considers it to be a “great privilege.”