Interrogating Masculinities: How Professor Daniel Kimmel is Challenging YU’s Perceptions of Gender and Sex

By: Molly Meisels  |  November 14, 2018

By Molly Meisels, Junior News Editor

What does it mean to be a man? This is a question that Professor Daniel Kimmel attempts to answer in his Yeshiva College class, “Interrogating Masculinities.” This course follows the writing-intensive structure of other sociology classes, but its subject matter is a rarity for YC. The questioning of masculinity is infrequently brought up on our campuses, as many view it as irrelevant or threatening to Jewish manhood. Yet Kimmel challenges these rigid perceptions, keeping his students constantly rethinking their judgments. In its essence, the class is about correcting the myth that masculinity can be defined as one thing, and one thing only. The syllabus explains, “The definition of what it is to ‘be a real man’ changes across time and place, and a surprisingly varied set of traits, behaviors, and expectations are valorized under the umbrella of ‘masculinity’ across cultural contexts.” The class explores a broad range of topics, from the valorization of masculinity to masculinity and aggression.

It is shocking to many students that this class exists at Yeshiva University. To some, it seems strange that this progressive course would be celebrated by a number of students in a school as traditional as ours. This celebration would not exist if it were not for Kimmel, since “Interrogating Masculinities” is his brainchild. According to Kimmel, the class is the product of his sociological work in violence and bullying in schools, which his first “purpose-built” class at YU, “Violence, Schools, and Education,” was based on. The teachings of his University of Chicago mentor, Donald Levine, factored into the inspirations for the class as well. Kimmel articulates, “After I came to Yeshiva… I noticed that in class we kept talking about the ways that school shootings, bullying, harassment… is grounded in staid cultural notions of masculinity…In short, tied to patriarchy.” This was the catalyst for him to approach administrative figures with his “crazy idea to teach a class called ‘Masculinity and Violence.’” This was eventually molded into the class in its current form, which has been taught since 2014.

In writing this article, I sat in on the class to observe Kimmel and his students in action. The day I arrived, the topic of Jewish masculinity was on the agenda. I was concerned that the students would be hesitant to share their true feelings on Jewish masculinity and male vulnerability, as I was present. Professor Kimmel calmed these concerns before the class by saying, “In past iterations of the class, I might have been worried about it. This time around, I think the group of students I have are much more accepting. Not to mention, the world we live in is actually much different from when I started teaching the class… before Caitlyn Jenner, before Obergefell, before #MeToo went mainstream…” Fortunately, my concerns were unfounded, as Kimmel’s students openly shared their feelings on the day’s topic. The men were tolerant of one another, and seemed comfortable with my presence. This is owed to Kimmel and his natural ability to turn the most controversial topics into class banter, allowing students to cozy up to the issues at hand.

A focal reading of the class is Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man by Daniel Boyarin. This work focuses heavily on the ideals of Jewish masculinity, and how it is perceived by those in the Jewish and secular worlds. Boyarin speaks of the feminized Jewish male, and how throughout history, the Jewish warrior was not the only male ideal. He is of the belief that the ideal Jewish male of history was the frail, pale, and stooped scholar who sported a beard and wore glasses. He even brings sources from women of centuries ago, who wished to marry kind and gentle men who spent their days poring over ancient texts. This text is meant to show the class that current perceptions of Jewish masculinity are warped, and do not resemble the perceptions of our ancestors.

In addition to teaching his students about Jewish masculinity, Kimmel speaks to his students about the importance of voting. Kimmel is not a professor who wishes to merely teach his students about his designated topic, but believes in sharing life lessons. When passionately speaking about voting, Kimmel said, “Vote… Please vote… If you’re late for class because you’re waiting on line at the local polling place, just come in with your ‘I Voted’ sticker and we’re all good.” Since Kimmel shows this compassion and acceptance in the classroom, students are unafraid to voice their thoughts, even if they oppose what he has taught them. Kimmel stated in class that he is “willing to entertain counter-arguments.” And he means it.

Current students in the class have very positive things to say about Kimmel and the course. Matthew Haller, YC ’19, says, “‘Interrogating Masculinities’ is by far the highlight of my coursework this semester. Professor Kimmel always leads us down paths of discussion that cause us to probe our own gender performances in unexpected ways. I can’t wait to see where the course goes as the semester progresses.”

Even though most students take this class to fulfill a Core requirement, they find themselves falling in love with the course. “I’m taking this class as a Core and didn’t think I was going to love the class at first, but the intelligent conversations we have, the level at which the students respect each other and each other’s opinions… really makes me excited to come and participate, day in and day out,” says Solomon Shulman, YC ’20.

Part of the reason students enjoy the class so much is because of its lack of censorship. When asked about any pushback he has received, Kimmel says, “I never got pushback from admin… And I never really felt even unofficial pressure to exclude or skip over topics… And while I did get some pushback from students, especially the first couple of times I taught the class, it was fairly tempered… And the kind of pushback I got usually came early in the semester, when students were first being introduced to ideas.” Kimmel sees a decrease in pushback the more comfortable the students get with these newly introduced topics. Most have never heard these notions before, like the difference between sex and gender, and the arbitrary nature of gendered preferences, so it is unsurprising that they would fear them in the beginning.

One notion repeated time and time again by both the students and Kimmel is that the class is self-selecting, and therefore does not reach enough of the student body. Zack Rynhold, YC ’19, says, “Even though the students… in the class are not necessarily the students at YU who most urgently need to interrogate their masculinity, having the class available at all maintains a sense of intellectual curiosity and honesty.” Another student mentioned the self-selection when I expressed how pleased I was with the class. It is believed that those who would benefit most from the material taught would never enroll.

The importance of the class could not be stressed enough by Kimmel. He believes that the myths associated with feminism and gender need to be eradicated at Yeshiva University. When he first taught the class, he received pushback to a feminist perspective, which prompted him to ask, “Do any of you know what feminism means?” Not one of his 35 students did, which has led the course to include lessons on “basic building blocks.” The rewarding aspects of teaching this vital subject are not lost to Kimmel. He expresses, “By the end of that first semester, the most amazing thing wasn’t seeing students ask questions about things they’d never asked questions about – it was seeing students learn to ask questions about things they didn’t even know it was possible to ask questions about. I still get that sometimes, even now, and it’s immensely rewarding – and, I think, very important for citizens of our world!”