I’ve been wondering for a while now why I, as a man who has never been abused or had to go through some of the painful realities we’re now seeing finally being revealed to the world, have been so invested in bringing these stories to light. I’ve written about abuse in my community, the orthodox Jewish community, quite a lot. I will get out and support any cause I can, and I even started a site for people to keep telling their stories.
But the #MeToo campaign, which I’ve also been trying my darnedest to support, has been a moment of introspection for me. It happened almost organically. I wrote a post on my Facebook page supporting it when it first started and encouraging more women to come forward. I got a small backlash, and one I deserved: some women brought up that it was not my job to tell people to come forward. It was my job to support those who do. And it was not my job to tell people what the meaning of the movement was. It would create its own meaning, and it didn’t need me, a man who had never experienced these things, to assign it before that happened. They were right, and I edited my post.
I realized then that I perhaps take all of this much more personally than I realized. Why would I write as if I was part of this story?
It would be nice to think I’m just an empathetic person, or that I “care” more than others, or whatever. But I don’t think most of us are so simple. And I know many other caring people that can’t seem to even wrap their minds around the #MeToo movement, let alone take it personally.
For a while, I wondered if it had to do with having friends who had gone through these things. And surely, that is part of it. Exposure to these realities make us all more empathetic to their victims, and lack of exposure usually allows us to live in a fantasy world where abuse is not happening on such a wide level (and thus why so many people are liable to be doubtful of accusers and reflexively defensive of abusers). And when you see people close to you not just hurt by their experiences but hurt by a society that refuses to believe them, or to care enough to hear their stories, then that empathy is taken to a level of action: there’s a desire to fight for those we are close to that can turn us, at times, into warriors.
But that didn’t tell the whole story. If anything, the post I had written revealed that perhaps what my friends had experienced wasn’t just something I empathized with but something I identified with. Their pain wasn’t just something I cared about, but something I seemed to share in some way, in a way that went deeper than even empathy.
Could it have been fear of having three daughters growing at a pace I can’t even believe and desperately hoping I can make the world safer for them before it’s too late? Maybe, but that couldn’t explain the identification with victims, just the need to act and speak up.
Was it possible that running a site where abuse stories are shared almost daily could have something to do with it? I did notice an uptick in my willingness to stand up to the anger that comes with fighting against the structure that allows abuse to continue. It did get me to start talking about all this more, and to realize that the problem was more pervasive than I had ever imagined.
Closer. But the personal part still remained unanswered. No matter how I looked at it, whatever was going on inside of me was something deep, something deeper than I had realized. Maybe it was the self-satisfaction of thinking I was fighting for others, thinking this was an altruistic struggle of some sort. But the truth is that I know that any crusade I’ve gone on has in some way been connected to my own struggles. I only started caring about people who leave the orthodox world when I reached the verge of it happening to me. I only got involved in being a vocal defender of liberal orthodox Jews when I realized I was one myself. I’m a selfish advocate, for better or worse. I find causes that mean something to me personally and then I run with them.
So, the abuse conundrum continued to bother me, especially as I realized just how hard it is for most people to come to a place where they can even acknowledge its existence at all, let alone its pervasiveness, let alone how culture impacts its spread.
It was only after the #MeToo movement turned into something more, an outing of the predators like Louis CK and Weinstein and Moore, that I realized what was happening.
It was the women who wrote about how frustrated they were that no one listened to them. That no one saw what they saw. Not just the ones who were abused, but the ones who had been harassed, or who had to simply deal with a structure by which they had to avoid the ones who did so. How it was about understanding that this wasn’t just about ignoring abuse, but about ignoring how predatory men are given a free pass, are even encouraged because of their “masculinity”, how societal and workplace structures built around a few incredibly powerful gatekeepers almost always leads to these problems.
All of these articles, and all of these revelations, started to hit me on a visceral level. They would anger me because I started to realize that the things they were describing were things I had struggled with my entire life. Not the abuse, of course, not the daily struggle women have to deal with… no… do not mistake this piece as me equivocating their experiences with my own.
Rather, it wasn’t about the type of pain, but about a different kind of pain: being a man (and a boy) who has never fit into the traditional structure of hierarchical structure, or alpha male masculinity, or any of these things that allow the sick, or simply the aggressive, to rise to the top.
I remember reading an article and having a vision of being in the bathroom during a high school wrestling meet. I did wrestling because it gave me a feeling that maybe somehow I could become an alpha, could become stronger, could be a fighter.
But when you enter that world in high school and you’ve always identified more with your mom than your dad, and when your favorite thing you ever did was taking a philosophy class at a college on winter break, and when you prefer books and video games to the real world, a place like wrestling can be the opposite of empowering. It can turn you into a target.
I was in the bathroom, sitting. And I felt something wet and heavy hit me in the face. I was too surprised to register what had happened before I felt another one hit me in the shoulder.
I looked down. They were wet, balled up paper towels. I heard laughter on the other side of the stall. Two boys, the two boys who had been bullying me since I started wrestling, were laughing like this was the funniest thing in the world. I couldn’t get up because I was in the middle of going to the bathroom. I yelled at them to stop. More hit me, over and over and over. I stopped yelling, refusing to give them the satisfaction.
When I was finally done, I remember leaving the stall, dripping wet, and seeing them laugh hysterically. No shame. I had been bullied enough at that time not to wonder how other young men could have so little shame when all they did was cause another person shame and pain. But I still looked at them like foreign objects, like aliens from another planet that I would never understand. I walked away from them, refusing to give them the satisfation of being upset. I washed my hands, left the bathroom.
My coach was waiting outside, and he gave me a look of concern when he saw how wet I was.
I didn’t think to say a word to him.
To open your mouth about bullying? Never. It just subjected you to more abuse eventually. And in a place like wrestling, where you literally fight to resolve who is the better? It would be an admission of weakness. And besides, I had had enough experiences trying, vainly, to speak to adults in power about bullying. I had seen how fickle they all were, how they were too afraid to take sides, and would rather blame both or neither of us than one of us. It didn’t how much of a victim you were; in their eyes, if you were involved in any of the badness, if you were someone who spoke up about it, you were probably involved in it all. Even if you hadn’t done a thing, maybe you had brought it upon yourself.
I didn’t have the words for it then, but the moment I heard the words, “toxic masculinity” I understood this struggle I had seen in my childhood and young adulthood. What would allow a young man to feel willing to embarrass someone and find it funny? What would allow teachers to think that if a child bullies, the one bullied is also somehow at fault? Toxic masculinity. And so much more, I knew. A structure built to avoid responsibility for the evils within it. People afraid to take on moral authority. And young men raised to think hurting others is strength.
And as the articles and the revelations kept pouring out (I started writing this two weeks ago. Since I started writing this, it was revealed that Al Franken, Charlie Rose, Glenn Thrush, Matt Lauer, Russell Simmons, and probably many more, were also sexual harassers, sexual abusers, or worse), more memories started to flood me. The first one was like a dam opening, a memory put aside to think about at rare times and then shoved down. Now, it had a place finally, in a narrative of power and sick masculinity that had seemed to pervade my life.
This new memory happened only two years ago. 18 years after my memory from wrestling. 10 years after I became an orthodox Jew partly because I had seen how much of a lie the secular world I had been brought up was, how toxic, how hypocritical.
I was now living in Crown Heights, a Hasidic community. I had already begun the process of leaving the community to join a more modern one because of a change in personal beliefs. But I still was a voice in it, someone who had written publicly about the joys (and more recently, the struggles) of the world and its beliefs.
My community had built an eruv, a controversial structure that allows people within a certain area to carry things on Shabbat (which is normally probited). More crucially, it allows women to push strollers which allows young mothers to go from feeling imprisoned in their homes to being able to pray, be part of their synagogue, and go out to eat at others’ homes.
The Hasidic community was deeply against the eruv, partly because they have different standards than the modern orthodox community about what qualifies such a structure to be built. But more importantly, their Rebbe (also my Rebbe), now deceased, had been strongly against its being built.
The day it was announced the eruv had been built, there was a relatively muted response. Even after Shabbat, the outcry came from a few voices, but was in no way pervasive. It was hard, and I spoke up against the voices who were divisive, but I figured it would be over soon.
Then, a highly regarded rabbi who spoke up against it. His speech, which was then shared in a widely-read local website, claimed that the eruv didn’t even technically exist, according to Jewish law. And so anyone using it was not just violating one law, they were violating the sacredness of Shabbat. He claimed that even the modern orthodox Jews who had found their own authorities to deem it kosher, were no better than “reform Jews” and were openly, blatantly, and proudly breaking Shabbat.
The difference in the reaction from the community from that moment forward was stark. Whereas it had previously been individual voices who had spoken up against people like me and against my synagogue, the leader’s voice turned this into a community-wide, cultural war.
It started with angry online comments. It escalated from there to stories about some of the radicals in the community vandalizing the eruv. I then heard the stories about people being harassed on the streets. A friend of mine was spit on. Another friend described an incident in which a young man and his daughter were chased by a drunken man into their synagogue because the man was carrying something. I found out who the man was, and it turned out to be one of my former mentors. Since then, I’ve heard at least six stories about this man doing the same thing, running down the streets calling people, in front of their children, Nazis, traitors, worse. Even now, I am afraid to name who he is because he is a well-respected, if somewhat eccentric person. So is his entire family. My naming him would, in my mind, only result in a huge backlash against me and my family, and in few if any consequences to him.
But worse, I could see how the moment a leading man from the community spoke up, even some of those closest to me felt this sudden freedom to demonize me and my family, and my synagogue. I could see how they turned a blind eye to the vandalizers (or even cheered them on). How the rabbi who had spoken up had not said a word about those who harassed on the streets, and how his silence allowed it to continue.
I saw what it was to be a man with power in this community, and how it could be used to weaponize a population against another.
What was even harder, though, was seeing the silence of those who did accept me. The people who were either afraid of backlash, or who, more commonly, saw this as just an argument between two equal parties. Not an organized backlash. Not something where only one group of people was being verbally abused on the street. Not something where only one group was the victim of vandalism.
That they wouldn’t even speak up against the most extreme, horrible offenders to me was a sign of what had become a culture of complicity. One in which it was easier not to say something, but by not saying anything, they were part of the acceptance of the toxic aspects of their culture.
This is what it is to be part of a culture. You are responsible, whether you like it or not. You have a voice, whether you realize it or not.
And so when these thoughts flooded me, I realized how much of it reminded me of watching the people in middle and high school, especially the teachers, not saying a word as bullying happened all around them. I also realized just how easy it is to think, “This is just the way things are.”
That was, until only a few weeks ago, how most people spoke about sexual abuse and sexual harassment in the workplace, and in their cultures. As if Hollywood just had to be an immoral sewer of “sleeping your way to the top” (a victim blaming term in and of itself). Culture, ironically, is the one of the things we are the most empowered to change, and yet which is the thing we’ve all been trained to think is as unchangeable as the rising and setting of the sun.
And I hate that. I hate it. I want to smash that illusion to smithereens. I want to bring down the people who perpetuate it, who use that illusion to hurt others. I want to bring up those who have been hiding in the corners, in the dark, because of how those who’ve abused a culture of top-heavy, male-centered power have pushed them into obscurity.
That is what I share, that is what many men and women, share with the movement happening now, and why so many of us are cheering it on with this personal sort of vindictive anger.
Because a culture that allows women to be abused, harassed, that is quiet and ineffective at facing the monsters in its midst cannot possibly limit the people it hurts to those specific people. It is a poison that eats at every single person living within it.
We wonder why bullying continues at our schools.
We wonder why depression affects so many Americans[.
We wonder why anger has become the new national pastime.
When we realize that we live in a culture where poisonous men are rewarded no matter the way they treat others, in a culture where 50% of the population is crying to be heard, where the status quo is prized over the wellbeing of the people who make up our culture… well, then, why are we really surprised that all these issues plague us?
It is this that I have now realized motivates me, that I see in the stories coming out my own pain, even if it will never, in a million years, be equal to the experiences of the women coming forward.
Rather, I just know, deep in my bones, that when such a huge group of people are in pain, then we are all in pain. It is impossible to have a society so unequal, so imbalanced, so blind to the suffering of its members, without even the society’s privileged members being affected negatively.
And that is why I take it personally, but also why I think we should all take it personally. For if we really opened our eyes to the poison in our culture, we’d realize even as we perpetuate it, allow it to continue unabated, we are all its victims.
My Responsibility (Epilogue)
For a week now, what I wrote above was supposed to be the end of this article. But no matter how much I wanted to get it out, no matter how deeply I believed in it, something held me back from publishing it. It sat on my computer and in my mind as I mulled over what it was that was stopping me from putting it out.
Then I had some people over to my home for a farbrengen. A farbrengen is a Hasidic gathering in which the goal is to raise each other up to a higher spiritual plane through deep conversations about religious concepts.
The farbrengens at my home are a bit different than the usual ones. Besides some other changes, they’re coed, while most farbrengens are either all-men, all-women, or have a separation between the two.
Now, this makes me feel good, feel comfortable, like I’m doing the next-stage Hasidic gathering, smashing the illusions I’ve spoken about.
But last week’s was a wakeup call.
My friend, who helped me come up with the idea in the first place, pulled me aside halfway through, and spoke to me.
“I just spoke to someone before she left. I said, ‘I’m sorry today has been so male-centric,’ and I saw her eyes light up in recognition. Do you realize you’ve only been calling on men?”
I looked at him in surprise. Me? No.
But I thought back and I realized that he was right. What had happened?
“I just think the men dominate the conversation more. They’re more willing to volunteer for a turn to talk. You gotta direct it so they’re not the only, or the primary, voices.”
He was right. I hadn’t even noticed.
And at the last farbrengen, a woman got angry with a man for repeatedly speaking over other women.
I was contributing to the illusion. The illusion had me wrapped up in it. I was part of it.
It’s one thing to realize how all of us are victims of it, how we’re all hurt by it. It’s another to realize that just by virtue of being men, it is almost impossible not to both benefit from it, and to feed it. One definition of culture is that it is a group’s shared assumptions about the world, and so no matter how much any of us try to deconstruct our assumptions and build up new ones, we can never 100% separate ourselves from its all-encompassing effects until the culture itself is changed.
I got a text the day after the farbrengen. It was from my wife. She had come late to the farbrengen because she needed to rest after a long day.
“I want you to save a seat for me next time. I wasn’t sitting with you, and I think that affected things.”
She was right. Usually, she’d sit with me and we’d share these events, even if I was primarily leading them. We were partners. But the day before, we weren’t partners. I was by myself, leading without a concern about where she was.
“I think it also affected how the women felt, whether they felt included,” she continued.
Again she was right. Without her leading, the culture that I was still working to wrest out of my mind was not offset by her clarity of vision, one that could see past the assumptions, purely by virtue of her being a woman.
And that’s when it became clear to me why I had been holding on to the article, why it wasn’t ready to be published yet.
Because I can’t leave, men can’t, leave the story at the point of thinking we’re all victims and that we’ll be the ones to smash it down. We can’t, not on our own. The illusion is one very few of us will ever be able to fully escape because it was one that we grew up with, one that was put deep into our hearts and minds no matter how much we could see its ill effects in our lives. There’s a reason so much fewer of us have been abused, why I had to write a bunch of qualifying remarks about why I wasn’t in any way comparing my own experiences to those of women.
Because ultimately, while I can acknowledge this is a culture that hurts us all, and I can provide insight as to the experience of how it hurts men too, it is women who will help us truly escape the illusion, who will truly break it down, who will truly help us rise out of this and into a world where every single human is treated with the dignity and respect we now only accord to a few.
Whatever I wrote here was deficient because I am looking at it from the perspective of one who suffers from the symptoms of the culture, but cannot see it from the view of its root causes, let alone the cures.
To do that, I’ll need my wife next to me. And all tables will need more women at the table. And the men will have to learn to quiet themselves, to not dominate the conversations. To take a step back. And to listen.