The Thinking 
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A Walk in a Patriarchal Neighborhood

September 3, 2009

There were children everywhere, as if this was a reservation for a vanishing tribe. They were running and playing. They were talking and laughing. The girls wore dresses of pink or blue. The boys were dressed in shirts and slacks, not T-shirts with commercial logos. They crowded the sidewalks, some in strollers and others on their feet. Some walked along holding hands with a mother or an older sibling. A boy and a girl of about ten years were running an errand for their parents with plastic bags in their hands. A boy tore down the sidewalk on his bicycle, his head close to the handlebars. A group of teenage girls in dresses stood on a corner in long skirts, with a conspiratorial look in their eyes.

It would be hard to kidnap a child here. There were mothers everywhere. They were pushing strollers, putting children into cars, standing in small groups chatting. Many of them were young and they all wore dresses or skirts with stockings. It was strange. They were smiling and relaxed.  Mothers with many young children are supposed to be angry and depressed. They were smiling and laughing. Two old women sat outside one townhouse and watched children play.

There were some men, walking in pairs, strolling with their wives pushing strollers or visible through the front windows talking on the phone. There were people of every age, interacting and proceeding through the day together. But, most of all there were children. Was this a museum? Perhaps it was called, “The Neighborhood Museum,” a place where people come to see what a real neighborhood looks like.

Such was the scene earlier this week in Outremont, a neighborhood of Montreal I happened to be visiting. This part of Outremont is home to Hasidic Jews. The community has grown in recent years and now numbers more than 15,000. It subsists peacefully with the urban professionals who share the neighborhood in spite of occasional tension. Not long ago there was a controversy. The Orthodox Jews paid for new tinted windows in the local YMCA. Apparently, their teenaged boys were gathering outside a nearby school to watch the women in the Y work out in scanty clothing. Some non-Jewish residents said the new windows were an offense to religious freedom and made yoga exercises more difficult. 

This neighborhood is emphatically patriarchal. I will never be an Orthodox Jew and yet this is my tradition, more familiar to me than the sterile, childless no-man’s land that passes for a neighborhood in most parts of America. This sort of patriarchy doesn’t mean imprisonment for women. It means freedom from Sex and the City. It doesn’t mean women never work or never make money. It means a peaceable order, and a new and abundant generation. It means men confidently strolling down the street.  It brings people out of their homes and into the neighborhood, laughing and talking, running and playing.

Interestingly, these Orthodox Jews survive in the modern economy. How is it they can afford all these children and all these wives at home? Haven’t they heard that all this is no longer possible?


DSCF9465 by christopher dewolf |


DSCF9567 by christopher dewolf |



Male and Female, Summarized

September 3, 2009


A male reader writes:

I would just like to ask you a very simple question, what do you consider the main masculine attributes and the main feminine attributes to be?

Laura writes:

That’s not a simple question! But, even complicated questions have simple answers.

Two years ago, I took a tour of a prestigious liberal arts college and the co-ed leading the tour mentioned that a specific dormitory was assigned to students who declare themselves to be the opposite sex. That’s how plastic masculinity and femininity have become. The truth is a woman can no more become a man than a dog can become a cat, or an apple tree can swim in a pond. Many people today believe that each person is potentially either masculine or feminine, or both, and that ideally a harmonious balance can be achieved, a state of inner androgyny. 

Let’s start with the premise that masculinity and femininity are engraved in the structure of the person.  They are both physical and psychic, no more interchangeable than our personalities. We are not androgynous at our core, but are born one or the other according to our anatomy and can never transcend our masculine or feminine natures. We arrive at self-realization not by overcoming our inborn nature, but by honoring and understanding it. There’s always some compelling bit of truth to the view of universal androgyny. Every masculine trait can occur in some degree in a woman, and vice versa.

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