Lessons on Gender: A Class on Jewish Family Life

  • by: Chaye Kohl

Chaye Kohl (chayekohl@aol.com) taught and was an administrator at Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School, The Frisch School and the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach. Ms. Kohl, on sabbatical from administration, is an adjunct professor of writing at Adelphi University. An outline of the course described below can be seen at http://www.lookstein.org/resource/mishpacha.pdf.

A year into my high school teaching career I began teaching a class called Mishpacha: Jewish Family Life. This opportunity at Yeshivah of Flatbush enabled me to craft a course which would provide high school seniors a forum to discuss teen issues.

We discussed the challenges they faced, using Jewish ideas and attitudes as a guide. We explored, through general and Jewish themed texts and discussion, healthy and unhealthy relationships in their family, the temptation of drugs, alcohol and risky behavior. We examined dating attitudes, as well as the nature of true love and marriage.

Whenever I discussed the class with colleagues outside of the Yeshivah, they were shocked to find that a class like this did not require the separation of boys and girls. What I discovered was that having both girls and boys in the same classroom established a real learning-lab aura. During the first few weeks of the term we established a de facto code of honor – what we discussed in the classroom could only be discussed outside the classroom if no student names were mentioned. Mishpacha-Jewish Family Life class quickly garnered a reputation for being a class where a student could share confidences.

Educators can often predict how students will react – I was getting to the point in my career where I thought I would be able to read their DNA. This class dispelled that notion for me. Many times the discussions in class took us all into uncharted territory, especially when I moderated heated discussions between the boys and the girls.

.Gender roles and expectations are clearly defined in the Syrian Jewish community, and Yeshivah of Flatbush is a school with a high percentage of Syrian students. Syrian girls automatically perceived their future selves as wives and mothers, while Ashkenazi girls were planning for a year in Israel and college. Often there were Syrian girls who became engaged during senior year. Their fellow students offered Mazal Tov / Mabruk, but were puzzled: why would someone want to get married right after graduation?

I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist, yet years of teaching, observing and reflecting on this course, taught me many things about boys, girls and their view of themselves. With apologies to Robert Fulghum, (almost) Everything I Need to Know About My Students I Learned in Mishpacha Class.

Teenage boys don’t understand how girls think. Girls may miss some of the nuances, but seem more attuned to what young men think.

No matter what the discussion, there were always the amazed looks and comments that crossed the gender gap; there were the “no way” and “I can’t believe you think that” retorts when boys and girls discussed topics related to family, teen behavior, dating and marriage. Seventeen year old girls were more emotionally intelligent than the boys. On occasion, while the boys were unable or unwilling to consider the serious nature of a topic in relation to their own lives, the girls would be immediately attuned and would demand seriousness.

Self-esteem issues cross gender lines.

Girls raised the issue of bravado exhibited by boys of all ages. Boys eventually and reluctantly owned up to masking feelings of inadequacy by annoying other kids. The situations where boys said they felt most pressure were usually in social situations involving girls. Reckless behavior and clowning helped them protect themselves. Girls countered, admitting that they sometimes pretended to like certain guy behaviors or they helped the guys look smarter, as a way to make themselves more socially acceptable. Female students said they consciously “dumb down” to gain social acceptance when boys are present in the classroom, and some confessed they were afraid to sound too smart in front of a boy they liked. Girls admitted that wearing the right clothing and having the right friends very important.

Teens believe their parents believe that boys will be boys but girls have to behave…

One session was devoted gender stereotyping. In gender separate groups, students were asked to complete the sentences:

As a Boy I should…should not…

As a Girl I should…should not…

The examination of stereotypical expectations held by parents, the students themselves, and society at large sometimes clashed.

There was much exasperation. “This is the twentieth century for God’s sake!” For example, on the discussion of the comment, “Boys should not show emotion,” they all agreed that anger was acceptable, but that boys should never cry. Both boys and girls believed that boys should not show emotion. Girls think this societal norm is not healthy. Boys admitted it was sometimes tough to hold back the tears, but they would control themselves. The consequences were dire: being labeled a sissy or a Mamma’s boy.

They often discussed the double standard of boys “sowing their wild oats” vs. girls being called sluts for similar behavior.

Students believe apologetics are used when discussing Halakhic issues vis-à-vis females.

There was discussion about the place of religious practice in community and in family. The girls often asked: “Why do rabbis always make us feel second class?” The boys would often retort, “You girls have it easy!” (referring to the exemption of women from many time-bound mitzvot.)

Scholastic achievement, tied to financial potential, result in high pressure put on boys… Girls are expected to marry and raise children, even if they have careers – family comes first.

These topics came up later in the year, when we discussed dating and marriage. Debate raged over matchmaking and dating exclusively for marriage as opposed to dating for fun. Dating for fun, they believed, would help one make an educated decision about choosing a spouse. Some students were fascinated by the shiddukh (matchmaking) approach used in right wing communities. Others said that is was unnatural to separate the genders so much, but that dating should be done when one was ready to marry.

As a group we discussed qualities to consider when choosing a mate. Not surprisingly, financial issues came up repeatedly, with a significant divide between the Ashkenazi boys (who had years of education ahead before establishing themselves) and their Syrian counterparts (who were already being groomed into lucrative family businesses). The debate about the right age to marry was fanned by the presence of Syrian girls in the classes who, at seventeen, were already dating for marriage.

A few telling anecdotes:

One session was devoted to reading and reflecting on the story of teens involved in a life threatening accident, one that resulted from drinking and driving. Boys were seen as major culprits in drinking and girls claimed to be more responsible drinkers. Boys thought smoking was cool while girls thought it was unfeminine, and the majority in both groups agreed to the gender stereotypes that boys can smoke and drink but girls should not.

On the first day of class, as I discussed the parameters of the course, invariably students would want to know how they would be graded. My response: “The test is life!” As the year proceeded and I juxtaposed societal norms and halakhic requirements, there would often be rejoinders: “But, Ms. Kohl, that’s halakha and this is real life!”

Mishpacha class provided a forum for all of these young people to exchange ideas and learn about each other. For me, my years spent teaching Mishpacha truly embodied the adage from Pirkei Avot:Umitalmedai yoter mekulam.”

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