Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Getting back to…manliness

So, this blog has been quiet for a while now. The reasons are pretty simple – the normal end-of-the-year craziness kicked into gear, and my available time, and mental energy, were kind of scarce. Then, I went away for about 3 weeks – I had a week of vacation, followed by a week and a half at Camp Coleman (one of the summer camps run by the URJ (the main institution of the Reform movement); this one’s in Cleveland, Georgia).

As I try to get back into the blogging rhythm, I’ll share a little moment from camp. Let me say that Camp Coleman is a wonderful place. It’s physically beautiful (set in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains) and the daily schedule is filled with all of the camp-type activities that you’d expect – swimming, sports, arts and crafts (although, I don’t remember any camp I ever went to having an organic garden to tend, so that’s a bit different, I suppose). But, the really wonderful thing about Coleman is that, like all URJ camps, Jewish life and learning are a big part of camp life. There are regular programs where campers get to explore, in fun, creative ways, a huge range of Judaism. They might do a simulation of living on a Kibbutz, discuss Judaism’s views of using Steroids in sports, or have a silly-but-educational debate. Lots of fun learning going on.

So, one of the last nights I was at camp, one of the older boys’ units was doing a program on manhood. And, more specifically, on the different ways that we can all understand what it means to be “a real man,” beyond what our society usually says*. Now, these were teenage boys who were coming to the end of a session of camp (which is always an intense month of bonding), so they were incredibly willing to have this discussion – you could tell that some of them were really concerned with what it meant for them to be a man, and whether they could ever be “a real man.”

* I’ll admit that I found it wonderfully ironic that I was incredibly proud of myself because, at this program on thinking differently about manliness, I was the only one who could get the fire started properly.

It gave me a chance to share one of my favorite insights. In our culture, a “real man” is usually understood to be something like John Wayne. Tough. Strong. No nonsense. Few words; fewer words about emotions. But, the Yiddish word for “man” is “mensch,” and a “real mensch” is not a tough guy at all. That phrase always refers to a good, kind person. I think that difference says a lot about our societies and cultures, and what they value.

While the campers were discussing this difference between “a real man” and “a real mensch,” one of the boys offered an insight which struck me as pretty profound. He said, “A ‘real man’ does something because he thinks that’s what a ‘real man’ should do. A ‘real mensch’ does something because he knows that it’s the right thing to do.

Couldn’t say it any better myself.

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