Do not judge by the vessel but by what it contains. —Mishnah, Pirkey Avot 4:27 Size matters not. Judge me by my size do you? —Yoda
Historically speaking, the Jewish male body has been a subject of ridicule. Anti-Jewish cartoons for the last three centuries have depicted Jews as hairy, fat, hook-nosed, pale, crooked-backed, and swarthy. While these images are no longer the dominant ones (except in a certain strain of political cartoons seeking to demonize the actions of the Israeli government) They are a part of teen’s lives when the study the Shoah. Many teen guys have also encountered the antithesis of this type of Jew—the “muscle Jews” that emerged from Max Nordau’s vision of Zionist pioneers. These days, soldiers in the IDF, Jewish players in the NFL and in Major League Baseball, are the “muscle Jews” who counter the anti-Jewish stereotype. But between these two polarities, there is still an “American Jewish” stereotype. Think about the most popular Jewish actors that teens watch—Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill for example—and a different caricature emerges. These guys are slightly pudgy, pale, and appear nervous or ashamed of their looks. They often use their looks for comic relief (if it weren’t for writer/director Judd Apatow, then they wouldn’t get the girl in the end). But they are just good looking enough to make their romantic encounters almost believable. In this session we address Jewish male body image and male body image in general. Keeping in mind that today, all guys are told that they need to have a six-pack of abs, massive biceps, a large penis and to be able to strut comfortably at the pool, we’ll critique the cult of male beauty. And we’ll talk about health and strength and why they matter. In this session, we will ask: What body images are associated with being Jewish? What does it mean to “look Jewish?” What parts of the body should be private? What should I feel proud of? How should I take care of myself? In what ways should I accept myself and in what ways should I undergo efforts to improve my strength, flexibility, or looks?
- To help identify the major challenges of living as embodied male teenagers and beyond.
- Creating awareness around clothing and food choices and how they impact our view of the body.
- Address difficult subjects such as body image and masturbation and to explore ways to have healthy conversations about it.
- Learn how our Jewish ancestors understood the responsibility of how to treat their own bodies.
#1 In the Square
This is a basic challenge that gets guys to be close to one another and aware of body type.
- Mark a square in masking tape on the floor that is big enough to contain your group. Ask everyone to stand in the square.
- Explain to them that the rule is that nobody’s feet can be outside of the square.
- Use tape to cut the square even smaller and see if everyone can be in the square.
- Cut the square again, restating the rule.
Once the game is complete, help the guys reflect on the experience. Ask:
- Did you look around to see who you might be able to lift up?
- Were you more conscious about the size of your body?
#2 Line Up
This is an exercise in which they line each other up based on physical characteristics.
- How hairy are you? Left is Chewbacca-like, right is Mini-me
- How sweaty are you? Left is dry as a lizard, right, you are an ever-flowing fountain
- How flexible are you? Left is like C3PO, right is like a yoga master
#1 What to Wear
In this activity, guys are given scenarios and must decide whether the featured clothing fashion tip is appropriate or inappropriate for the occasion. Ultimately, they should come up with their own scenarios. Add some clothing props to make the activity more visual. Have one person argue in favor of why it’s appropriate and one person argue against. Then take a vote.
|Sweat socks and dress shoes||Yom Kippur|
|Cowboy Hat||Grandparent honored at JCC|
|Bow tie||Weekday Dinner|
|Ripped jeans||Brother’s graduation party|
|Mullet Haircut||Star Trek Convention Keynote|
|Spandex Shorts||Ice Skating|
Questions about clothing:
- Why do we wear clothes at all?
- Should we all wear the same type of clothing?
#2 A Manly Smell
This film clip is about smelling “Manly”
- Video from the movie Anchorman—Brian Musks Up:
#3 Hygienic or Aesthetic?
For large groups, split the group into two smaller groups. Place the following words on notecards and have the guys pull them out of a bag and tape them on the wall under the two categories “Hygienic” and “Aesthetic.” Have the groups compare their lists.
|Using deodorant||Showering daily|
|Using cologne||Shaving your face|
|Shaving your legs||Getting a pedicure|
|Trimming your pubic hair||Cleaning your ears|
|Using face soap||Getting a manicure|
|Squeezing zits||Using hand lotion|
|Tweezing your eyebrows||Using whitening toothpaste|
Questions about Hygiene or Aesthetics:
- Which ones were hardest to categorize?
- Which one is without a doubt hygienic?
- Which one is without a doubt aesthetic?
#4 Body Tracing
Get some butcher block paper and crayons and have the guys lie down on it and trace each other. Cut out the bodies, cutting the crayon marks off as well. Mix them up, and then have the guys see if they can identify everyone by the shape. Questions about Body Tracing:
- What are the most basic ways we size each other up? I.e., height, build, muscles, etc.
#5 Would You Rather?—Guy version
Split the guys into groups of three or four and give them each of these questions on notecards.
- Would you rather be able to run 100 yards in ten seconds or be able to slam dunk?
- Would you rather be able to bench press three hundred pounds once or be able to bench press two hundred pounds ten times?
- Would you rather have a six pack of abs or have perfect teeth?
- Would you rather do ten chin-ups or fifty push-ups without a break?
- Would you rather finish in the top ten in a marathon or win a 10k race?
- Would you rather swim underwater for two Olympic size pool laps or do a double back-flip off a diving board?
- Would you rather be invisible or be able to fly?
Before jumping into the text, you may want to prepare the guys by saying something like:
- Explain the activity.
- Before we look at some Jewish text, we are going to pair up.
- Ask your partner: What is something that describes your body that does not describe mine? It could be a small detail, it could be something about any body part, about brain chemistry, about anything real, that a doctor would describe. Not about personality though—about something physical.
- Now pairs meet up with each other, go into groups of four. Identify something unique about each person.
- Now let’s look at some Jewish texts:
Texts #1 Physical Differences
If you see a strange person, a person with some physical feature that is unusual or atypical, even from far away, even through a window, you are supposed to say the following blessing:
Baruch atah . . . meshaneh ha’briot Blessed are you, Adonai, who makes difference in all creatures (Shulchan Aruch 225:8-9)
This blessing is never recited again upon seeing the same or different person with similar unusual features.
— Mishna Berura Siman 225:29
People were created unique, in order to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One. For if a person presses many coins from one mold, they are all alike. But even though the Holy One intended every person to come from the first human, not a single one of them is exactly like another. —Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a
Text #2 On Health and Exercise
By keeping the body in health and strength one walks in the ways of God… it is therefore a person’s duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body and cultivate habits conducive to health and strength. —Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 4:1
Text #3 On Modesty for Men
You might start off by discussing “Sagging.” Here’s some background on it:
- Sagging Pants: Trend or Trouble
- “Origin of Droopy Shorts” University of Michigan Fab Five 1992
Then introduce this text from Maimonides:
What should a respectable man wear? His pants should reach his ankles, but not lower so as to drag on the ground like the arrogant. His shirt sleeves should come to his wrists. His clothing should not be transparent, not rags like a man who is desperate, and not overly elaborate like one full of pride. His clothing should be reflective of his way with others—modest.
Text #4 On Eating
One should never eat unless one is hungry, not drink unless one is thirsty, and nor should one hold oneself back from even a single moment of relieving oneself, for whenever one feels the need to pass water or to defecate, one should do so immediately. —Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 4:1-2
Text #5 On Being Sexy
Say something to the guys like:
- What does it mean for a guy to be sexy?
You might want to show the video clip: “I’m Sexy and I Know It.”
Then add in this midrash:
Joseph was so attractive that when the friends of Potiphar’s wife visited her, and the hostess asked them to help slice some fruit, the Egyptian women cut their fingers instead of the fruit. They could not take their eyes off the wonderfully Hebrew slave. —Midrash Tanchuma
Text #6 The Jewish Penis
Say something to the guys like: Before we start talking about penises, I want to be clear about what we don’t want to do: We don’t want to make jokes at each other’s expense. We don’t want to take our anxiety about this issue and make other people feel threatened. We don’t want to share personal stories that make us feel uncomfortable. What we do want to do is to have a healthy talk about how we think about the penis in a Jewish context and about how we are taught to think about the penis by the culture we live in. We all know that the Jewish male body is traditionally marked by circumcision. But many of us have never asked—why would we do this? That’s what I want to discuss. Click Here for source text. From Genesis:
9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.
Ask the guys:
- Why is the mark on the penis and not in other places?
Think about other tribal markings (if possible, show pictures of tribal markings)
A Few Videos About the Penis
What does the culture we live in say about guys and their penises? NOTE: All of these videos are “rated R” (or at least PG13). If you choose to actually view them, get permission and proceed with caution. Ask: Do you agree or disagree with the following?
Men are taught that it is very important to have a big penis.
Men are taught that there is something wrong with looking at another guy’s penis.
Men are uncomfortable with people even seeing the outline of their penis.
Men are obsessed by other men’s erections
Here is a video that captures some of the “anxiety” around masturbation…
NOTE: This section is a very challenging one to bring up with teen guys and if you are not comfortable raising the topic, simply move on to other topics. If you do plan on addressing it, please read the essays we suggest here.
- Conservative Rabbi Elliott Dorff has a wonderfully titled essay, Masturbation: A Touchy Subject that gives some background on this topic: Click Here for the essay.
- Reconstructionist Rabbi Rebecca Alpert has a more in-depth article, that includes a clever riff on one of the scenes in Borat: Click Here for the article.
One possible way to approach the topic is by creating a sense of privacy. For example, say:
- We are not going to discuss masturbation as a group, if we were, here is an agree/disagree on the topic. Just think to yourself about how you would answer and then we’ll ask a question in the group.
- A lot of guys lie about masturbation
- My friends talk about masturbation in ways that I find uncomfortable.
- I would be embarrassed if someone thought that I was masturbating.
- You can masturbate so much that it becomes a health problem.
- Most guys my age are masturbating a few times every week.
- Most guys my age have not masturbated.
Consider These Jewish Texts:
Rabbi Ila’i said: If a man’s urges overtake him, he should go to a city where he is not known, dress in black clothes, cover his head in black, and do what his heart desires. —Talmud, Mo’ed Katan 17a
Questions about this text:
- Why is it important that this is done discreetly?
Exercise removes the harm caused by most bad habits, which most people have.
Questions about this text:
- Why would Maimonides connect physical exercise to bad habits?
#1 What I See
For this mirror activity, you will need two shoe boxes. In one, place a picture of Alfred E. Neuman (from MAD Magazine). In the other, place a mirror. The group should be very comfortable with themselves in order to do this.
Round 1: Picture of Alfred E. Neuman
- Everyone should sit in a circle with a mostly closed large box in the middle.
- Each participant is instructed, one by one, to open the box and look at the picture inside and say what they think of when they look at this well-known person.
- They are instructed NOT to say who the picture was.
Round 2: Place a Mirror
- Everyone should sit in a circle with a mostly closed large box in the middle.
- They are instructed NOT to say who the picture was (the picture is the mirror).
- Each person goes, and depending on time, go a second time around.
Questions to ask:
- What was it like for you before and after you knew what the picture was?
- What was it like to hear what others said about themselves?
- Were you surprised by what you said? Why or why not?
#2 Getting Personal
If your guys are mature enough to speak personally about body issues, have them pair off in twos. Start with an agree/disagree they can discuss: Agree/Disagree:
- Every guy has a part of themselves that they are not happy with.
- No one is totally healthy.
- People can change their attitudes about their bodies.
- It is hard for guys to talk about serious illnesses.
Now have them think about the following scenarios. Go through the scenarios one at a time so that they have time to think about each one.
- Think about a time when you saw someone with different physical abilities—something atypical—that made you think differently about having a body.
- Think about a time when you were frustrated with your body.
- Think about a time when you deeply appreciated your health.
#3 How Do We Feel About Our Bodies?
We see countless images in advertisements that tell us how we should feel about our bodies. What do we think about when we see those images, and how do those images connect to how we actually feel about our bodies? Here is a trigger of images that help start that conversation:
Click Here for images part 1
Click Here for images part 2
Click Here for images part 3
Choose images from all three parts for the trigger.
There are a number of great Jewish rituals connected to the body that you might consider:
Rabbi Abayei said, when one comes out of the bathroom, he should say:
Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher yatzar et ha’adam be’chochma, u’vara vo ne’kavim ne’kavim, chaloolim chaloolim. Galooy ve’yadoo’a lifney chi’seh chevodecha, she’im yipateh’ach echad me’hem, oh yisatem echad me’hem, ee efshar le’hitkayem ve’la’amod lefanecha. Baruch atah Adonai, rofeh chol basar u’maflee la’asot. Blessed is the one who has formed humans in wisdom and created in us many orifices and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them blocked, it would be impossible for me to survive and stand before You. Blessed are You that heals all flesh and does wonders. —Talmud, Brachot 60b
Create a mikveh experience. Mayim Chayim, a mikvah in Boston, has developed an approach for teens (with bathing suits). You can read about it on their website: Click Here for the website.
Teaching guys about physical closeness between guys is difficult. You might start by reading from a line in Genesis, about the reconciliation between Esau and Jacob.
But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. —Genesis 33:4
Questions about this text:
- What is it to hug someone?
- Why are we afraid of it?
- What does it do when we open up to it?
Fred Small’s song about Hugs is fantastic:
And for comic relief, there is always the Guys Guide to Hugging Guys:
Do Let people know that it is okay to sit aside if they do not feel comfortable with this. End with a ritual of everyone who feels comfortable either receiving or giving a hug exchanging hugs. NOTE: As a group leader, be mindful that it is likely appropriate for you to receive a hug but not to initiate or give one. No participant should feel pressured in any way into receiving or giving a hug.