Boys who grow up without dads are always looking for father-figures—role models to provide them with the stability and life lessons they crave from the absent males in their lives.
I was no different.
Growing up in a small Jewish community in Chattanooga, Tennessee wasn’t easy at times. Though I was never faced with hard-edged anti-Semitism, I did get my regular dose of proselytizing.
But at a time when I was still trying to figure out what kind of man I was going to be (in a way, I’m still doing that), the rabbi at the synagogue I attended with my family stepped in. He offered me a spiritual education that helped build a foundation of morality that I still cling to today.
But he also taught me a very valuable lesson in masculinity. And it was completely by accident.
In 1979, Rabbi Richard Sherwin came to Chattanooga to take the role of rabbi at B’nai Zion synagogue. He stayed until 1992. Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and a graduate of UCLA, he was one of the smartest men I had ever met.
Rabbi Sherwin was a forward-thinker, teaching his high-school religious classes in innovative ways to think about God, religion, faith, and life. He used the power of story—both personal and culled from pop culture and scripture—to teach us about social issues such as gender identity and race relations at a time when these issues weren’t a daily news topic. Some of his teachings were controversial at the time, which made me respect him even more.
Rabbi Sherwin was passionate about his beliefs but also open-minded enough to listen intently and without judgment of others’ opinions, even if they didn’t mesh with his own. Our synagogue’s leader was loud and boisterous, yet quiet and reflective. He could be zany and then could get angry; but he was always wise and caring.
During our class, Rabbi Sherwin regularly encouraged thoughtful conversation. Sometimes, the dialogues were heated, with emotions flying in the face of others, as teenagers tend to do. On one occasion, though, tensions were high and the rabbi, who usually excelled at keeping the class under control, had had enough. Through the screaming of raging hormones and pent-up anger from a few students, Rabbi Sherwin lost his composure and shouted in his frustration something like:
“Maybe I’m just no damned good at this.”
It was the first time I had seen a man so vulnerable. And it had such a profound effect on me. To see this man of authority display a moment of self-doubt made me realize that he, like me, was capable of making mistakes.
In other words, he was human.
I remember going to him after he left the room, and telling him that he was, in fact, very good at what he did. And that he mattered to me.
Rabbi Sherwin left our synagogue a year or so later, moving his family to Orlando, Florida to take a job at another synagogue. His absence left a hole in me that would never quite be filled. And lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about him. So I called him a few weeks to get his perspective on what happened almost 30 years ago, and to let him know just how much he shaped me as a man.
It was interesting because I thought for sure he’d remember the incident. But he had no idea what I was talking about. It just goes to show that sometimes we make impressions on people when we don’t even know it. As I described to Rabbi Sherwin how his actions taught me an important lesson in manhood, we talked about what vulnerability means to both of us.
Typically, when we talk about vulnerability and manhood, we use the example of crying.
However, there are other ways to be unguarded. If you look it up in the dictionary, vulnerability is defined as a condition in which we open ourselves up to potential harm, a way of letting down our defenses.
Rabbi Sherwin, in a way, let his defenses down that day so long ago. It may not have been a proud moment for him. Most likely, he saw it as a mistake that teachers must never make. For me, that moment gave me permission to allow myself to stumble too and to accept that I will mess up for the rest of my life. But, to be okay with that.
During our phone discussion, Rabbi Sherwin broke the act of being vulnerable down into two variables: the act of making the mistake, and the act of acknowledging it. “You can’t have vulnerability without self-awareness,” he told me.
He used an example from the Torah in the story of Genesis where God asks Adam in the Garden of Eden, “Where are you?” Rabbi Sherwin explained to me that God wasn’t asking a literal question, but a metaphorical one. It’s a question we all should be asking ourselves, he says. That’s the awareness part. Where are we in our lives? What led us to here, this moment of vulnerability? And where do we go from here? How do we learn from our mistakes so we don’t repeat them again?
I’ve never been particularly religious, but Rabbi Sherwin has always had a knack for inspiring me to be a bit more spiritual. Our recent conversation was no exception, even after almost 30 years.
The struggle with masculinity for a lot of men is that we are taught from a very early age, usually by example, that we’re supposed to be stoic. By showing anything other than a rigid sense of purpose is a sign of weakness. That’s why we have the age-old trope of men not asking for directions. We know the way, dammit. And even if we don’t, we’re going to find it on our own.
But what Rabbi Sherwin taught me so long ago is that it’s okay to have a chink in the armor. He taught me humility. He taught me it’s okay to doubt ourselves sometimes because everyone at some point in their lives does. These are the moments when we should take a look at our lives, to examine what we might be doing wrong, so we can figure out how to fix it.
As a father of two boys, I try to practice this. And I try to teach these lessons to them as they grow older. But I’m not always great about it.
I need to do better.
We all need to do better.
If you want to chat with me about the project or have an interesting story, hit me up on Twitter @chachimoss
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