On Gender and American Judaism: 7 Questions with Sarah Imhoff

In our interview series, “Seven Questions,” we ask some very smart people about what inspires them and how their latest work enhances our understanding of the sacred in cultural life. For this segment, we solicited responses from Sarah Imhoff, author of Masculinity and the Making of American (Indiana University Press, 2017).

1) What sparked the idea for writing this book?

I had been writing about gender and American Judaism more generally, and twice I heard some variation on the comment: “You say this about gender, but half of it is about men!” It made me realize how the term gender still meant “women” for some smart people. I wanted to write a book that showed how masculinity, like femininity, is a product of the time and place—and in particular how religion contributes to shaping that masculinity and how, in turn, masculinity contributes to shaping religion.

Writing about American Judaism also meant that I could write about the category of religion in American life with a view from a road less traveled. Americans have long seen Judaism as a religion (a view which is not so uniform for other groups like Native American traditions, Islam, or Hinduism). For a lot of American history, Judaism has been the most prominent non-Christian religion, and so it is a place where the category of American religion gets tested. When most Americans assumed that Protestant varieties counted as good, American religion, what were the characteristics that made them qualify? Looking at American Judaism helps us see those contours of “good” American religion in the early twentieth century: it should be rational, it should have universal application, it should promote healthy bodies, and it should go hand in hand with “normal” sexuality and family life.

2) How would you define religion in relation to your work? Where do you see the sacred or sacred things in this book?

I tried not to define religion at all—instead, I wrote about religion in the places and times that the people themselves talked about religion or about Judaism. So in this sense, I see religion as a fundamentally human and human-created thing. It isn’t some ahistorical, essential, or isolatable thing out there in the world; people make religion what it is. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s infinitely malleable, or that any person, through a sheer act of will, could make a religion into anything she wants. But I do mean that humans and human society make religion rather than just encountering it as a fixed and fully formed set of ideas and institutions.

The book doesn’t have as many typical sacred things as you might expect in a book that says it’s about religion. But considering that the book frames religion as a people-centered thing, as opposed to say, a God-centered thing, maybe that’s less surprising. Most of it doesn’t take place in a synagogue, and there isn’t extended discussion of liturgy or clergy.  I was more interested in the unexpected places that people talked about religion: when they talked about criminals and trials, when they imagined the American west, when they promoted farming, and when they fantasized about Native Americans.

The book begins with a chapter about American Jewish theology, however, and there I see the meeting of ideas about the social world with ideas about the sacred. Acculturated American Jews saw Judaism as a rational religion with universal importance. Its tenets, such as justice and neighbor love, followed from reason and applied to all of humanity, even if there was no need to convert everyone to Judaism. This is a familiar story about liberal Judaism in Europe and the United States, but what I write about is far less recognized. These two characteristics – reason and universality – were both gendered masculine by Jews and non-Jews alike. So sacred matters and gendered matters do overlap at a foundational theological level.

3) Can you summarize the three key points you’d like the reader to walk away with when finished?

One: Men have gender too, and that gender is not unchanging or ahistorical. We often hear about the changing roles of women, or how ideals of femininity have developed over time, but we hear less about how the ideals and traits associated with men change. It can leave the impression that the way women are seen is contingent and changeable whereas men have pretty much always been men. And that impression simply isn’t true. The feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” Perhaps it should be obvious that the same is true of men, but I don’t think either academics or American culture at large has internalized that message to the same extent. So I wanted this book to give us some concrete historical examples of the fraught process of how masculinity comes to be the way it is—and how there may be one dominant form, often called “hegemonic masculinity,” but other masculinities always coexist with it. The chapter about Jewish men converting to Christianity provides the clearest example of these multiple masculinities and the complexity of “becoming” a man. It shows how four different Jewish men negotiated the subtle differences between Jewish and Christian masculinities when they converted (and converted back to Judaism, in the case of Samuel Freuder), as well as how other Jews and Christians saw these men.

Two: Gender shapes religion. Cultural ideas and ideals about masculinity affect religious ideas and practices. This extends from more obvious examples, such as depictions of Jesus as a tough businessman (early 1900s) and MMA fighter (today), to less overt ones, such as valuing reason over emotion in religious expression, which I explore in the book. Ideas about good masculinity and good femininity shape what is seen as good religion.

Three: Religion shapes gender. The construction of gender and religion is a two-way street. For example, when American Judaism turned to downplay the Talmud and long hours of its religious study for men, that meant that good masculinity moved subtly away from religious learning and toward physical health as a way to be a good Jewish man.

4) Who were intellectual models or inspirations for you as you wrote this book?

I thought a lot about the scholarship of Winnifred Sullivan, Marie Griffith, and Courtney Bender. They all write brilliant things about American religion, but often from unexpected vantage points.

5) What was the most difficult thing about writing the book? Did you encounter any unexpected problems or challenges?

The hardest thing was deciding on the order of the chapters. The book isn’t chronological, and it isn’t a story of change over time. It’s set in the years 1900-1924, the time span of a single generation, so it’s more detailed photograph than feature film. I had nine chapters, each of which took place simultaneously. Grouping them together proved fairly logical to me: they would appear in clumps according to shared themes. There would be a section about the land and the healthy body, one about abnormality and criminality, and one about Judaism as American religion. But which of these should go first, or last? I finally decided that the section about American religion should go first to frame the overall story, and that the discussions about crime and abnormality should go last.

6) What’s the most unexpected response, critical or positive, that you’ve gotten about the book?

My uncle, after having read the introduction, said to my father, “It’s not nearly as boring as it sounds!” Neither of them is an academic, so I take that as about the best review I could hope for.

7) With this book done, what’s up next for you?

I’m writing a book about Jessie Sampter, a queer, disabled Zionist who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was a fascinating woman. She had polio as a child, moved to Palestine alone in 1919, spent much of her life there living with another Zionist woman, gave up her American citizenship, adopted a Yemenite orphan, and later joined a kibbutz. In addition to seven books, she wrote hundreds of articles, poems, propaganda for Zionist organizations (yes, she even called it propaganda), and philosophical reflections, many of which were published in English and Hebrew language presses. She spent most of her adult life passionately arguing for—though also subtly critiquing—Zionism. But Zionism championed strong bodies, working the land, pioneering, and reproduction, and Sampter did none of these things. One of the book’s major questions has become what story a person tells herself when her embodied life doesn’t match her religious and political ideals. In this way, what sounds like the story of a one-of-a-kind woman actually also taps into a widely shared human experience.

The book’s genre is weird biography: it tells her story in a radically different way in each chapter, and in doing so considers what it means to tell the story of a life. It writes her life as a story about American religion, as a story about disability, as a story about queer desire and queer kinship, and as a story of nationalism and internationalism. I recently spent some time on the kibbutz where she lived, and I was all the more convinced that her life and writing make for such great stories—full of brilliance, faults, roads not taken, insight, frustration, and humanity.

Sarah Imhoff is Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies department and Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University Bloomington. She researches religion and the body, including race, gender, and disability, as well as religion and law in the United States.