Monday, January 16, 2012

Elana Sztokman - Her Book, Her Launch, Her Inspiration, Her Audience

Guest Author: Elana Sztokman  
The Men's Section:Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World  

I had my first book event on Friday, and it left me uplifted, inspired and humbled. I just can't believe how many people are so deeply engaged in the ideas that I wrote about. It's more than I could have ever hoped for.

Some 80 people came to my home in Modi'in, Israel, for a champagne-bagel brunch and a short reading to launch my book, "The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World" (HBI 2011). Congratulations were flying, as were excited reactions from people who have already started reading. My dear friend Dr. Ariella Zeller who did all the organizing, gave a lovely toast and made me feel like a queen. It is  an indescribable feeling of empowerment to have friends who truly believe in you.

I prepared a short talk that related my research to recent events in Israel around the exclusion of women in public spaces. I talked about sociological theory of identity, which posits that all of us are searching for social acceptance in some form or another, everyone wants to be labeled as "normal" and "healthy", and the young boys and men who are fighting violently to keep women excluded from society are no different. But they are clearly having a hard time - a harder time than most, I would argue - resisting their troubling socialization. We all have choices, and we all need to practice talking back to our culture. But in Orthodoxy, that can be particularly daunting. And that's what my book explores. It's about identity and agency among Orthodox Jewish men, and the complex and multifaceted processes of finding the "I" within a culture that values male dominating conformity.

I prepared three passages to read, each one reflecting different components of my research. I wanted to give expression to the men's voices, but also wanted to describe the larger theory. I also wanted to explain why I was interested in this particular demographic. I prepared the three sections around those issues, noting to myself that I would have to read the audience first. Were they bored, irritated and restless? Then I would only read one. I put them in order in my mind first, and said I would go with the flow and count the yawns if I have to.

To my astonishment, they urged me to keep going, and would have stayed for longer had I prepared more. Truthfully, while I was reading you could hear a pin drop. At the end of the second passage, I actually heard a gasp from the audience. Wow, I thought. This is all an author can ask for. People stayed longer than they had intended. And at the end of the reading, after a few questions and overflowing champagne, lots of people came over and told me that they can't wait to read the book! In fact all but three copies were sold! I'm just so excited about that.

I really want to engage in conversation. I want the Jewish community to be talking about itself in different terms, in a framework of sociology and issues of conformity and power, rather than just in the self-justifying language of halakha, Jewish law. I want my book to make a difference in people's lives, truly. I know that's a bit grandiose, but that's my dream. I want my book to impact the way people think about themselves and their life choices and identities.

And from my experience at my book party, I feel like I'm on my way. How
thrilling!!

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