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God's Loneliest Creatures

Until a few months ago, I never really thought of men as people. My father wasn't a person--he was a set of standards lcould never meet, and he was almost always at the office. My male classmates were to be outdone and my male congregants to be served. Most of the men in my life were either competitors, clients or strangers. Like most men, l had never really left the Junior High School locker room where the main thing was to measure up.

For me and for so many others, to be a man among men meant to talk around things and keep my guard up; to carry the unique weight of manhood in mighty silence. Men are God's loneliest creatures.

Sure we have friends: our racquet ball partner, our poker buddies, our bar, our board room. But they're not like the deep, whole friendships that women seem to cultivate with ease. Our friendships with other men tend to be limited; intense in one area--sports, business, politics--and silent about most others. It's no wonder l never thought of other men as people. How can we ever know each other, how can we ever be understood, in silence?

My tradition tried to teach a wonderful lesson about being a man. It was called the minyan and when you turned thirteen you were obligated to join one. I'm not an anthropologist, but I'II bet something similar existed in every culture. The minyan was simply a group of ten men who gathered every day in the early morning and late afternoon to pray. Often, the prayers ended with a shot of booze for everyone involved.

Besides praying twice daily, the men of a minyan went to each other's weddings, welcomed each other's children into the world and then watched those same children get married. They saw each other age with stubble and paunch, buried each other's loved one's and eventually each other.

Imagine the potential in spending an hour every morning and afternoon with the same ten guys. Having a sense of obligation for other men, being involved in their lives, touching something spiritual and eternal with them, that's what the minyan could have been about.

Instead, the men of the minyan usually remained spectators in each other's lives. They prayed each morning out of a sense of duty, had a stiff drink and went to work. They prayed each afternoon and went home. All of them, every day, in relative silence. Rather than enriching their lives with friendship and love, the minyan merely became the Jews' way of enlisting in God's army--real man's stuff.

Now for all except the old and the rigid the minyan is gone--an opportunity lost. It's passe', even immoral to separate men and women. In fact, most all-male environments in the western world are gone. Don't get me wrong, organizations that excluded women and denied them the power they rightly deserve in society should be gone. But in the process men lost the opportunity to create something they need and have always lacked,' times and places to talk and to be with each other.

There are a few places left--sports bars, strip joints and hunting trips. But men don't really go to these places to be with other men in meaningful ways; they go there to get away from women. These few remaining arenas of male exclusivity are mostly places conducive to piggish oinking or passive spectating. We sit in stadiums by the hundreds of thousands, week after week, watching but not talking--at least not about anything that matters.

Men almost never talk to other men about feelings because doing so means unlearning a lifetime of defensive and aggressive posturing--the silent sizing up of the other, the camouflaging of spirit and soul bequeathed to us by generations of men who went to work and went to war and didn't want to talk about it, thank you very much.

At my synagogue, we're struggling to build a new kind of men's group; one that tries to create something the minyan could have provided if men were better at talking to each other. It's not exactly a product of the men's movement (few of us relish the thought of running through the woods singing cowboy songs and hugging other hairy men). We're on to something different.

Sixty of us ages 22 to 75, married, single and divorced, meet every month for dinner and a discussion led by a facilitator about a predetermined topic. Tempting as it might be, we don't talk about sports, business or politics. Instead, we've talked about our fathers, workaholism, marriage, women and sex. We are plunging into new, uncharted waters for most of us--we are sharing our stories.

At our first meeting, men who barely knew each other confronted what they learned from their fathers about being a man. Titles, status, age--none of it mattered, none of it separated us that night. We poured out our confusion, our anger, our sadness, our love, and our fear of our fathers. We talked about the ways, good and bad, that we resembled our fathers. More desperately than any of us knew, we needed to tell our stories to other men whom we hoped would understand.

At our third meeting, we talked about our relationships with women. We said things we could never say with women in the room and yet, things we have never shared with any man. Things about how painful and muddy our marriages sometimes become. About the sex we are not having. About the workaholism we inherited from our fathers. About the burn out we feel at home and at work. We talk about growing old--the diabetes, the heart attacks, the prostate cancer.

There are a lot of men in the group who think we'd attract more men and be more successful if we'd lighten up a little bit. Maybe throw in the occasional sports night or volunteer to man the barbecues at the next temple picnic. It's possible that we would attract more men, but we wouldn't be more successful.

By forcing ourselves to confront the things all men experience but rarely discuss, we've achieved the greatest success of all. We are slowly beginning to talk to each other, to understand each other and be understood ourselves.

The meetings never end on time. Each of us tries to tell one more story, one last moment of connection--the minyan's potential realized. Sure it's only once a month. Sure it's artificial. But we're on to something that every church, temple, mosque, Kiwanis, Rotary, Elks, Shriners and fraternity ought to be on to as well.

Men have never been very good at it, but we are learning to unbuckle our emotional armor. We tell our stories and we tell the truth, revealing just how fragile and strong we are as men. We are becoming the minyan's rightful heirs; sanctifying time and place, piercing the mighty silence of manhood--God's loneliest creatures no longer.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is the Associate Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. A shorter

version of this piece first appeared in Playboy magazine.

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