Several years ago, my wife, Linda, and I attended a conference of psychotherapists and sat next to a recently divorced female therapist who said to us, "Next time I'm going to marry a Jewish man."
My wife asked, "Oh, are you Jewish?"
The female therapist replied, "No, but I've always heard that Jewish men make the best husbands and the most involved dads for their children."
This wasn't the first time we'd heard someone insist that Jewish men were the "chosen" husbands. But my wife and I weren't sure if she was correct. Should we have told her about certain Jewish men (including some in our extended family) who are quite frustrating for their wives and frequently unavailable for their kids? Or should we have let her go on believing the stereotype?
As a Jewish psychologist counseling couples for more than 23 years, I wanted to find out the truth about "The Myth of the Menschey Jewish Husband." So, for the past few years, I have been collecting data. I've surveyed several hundred couples in my counseling office and several thousand more at workshops nationwide. I've interviewed individuals and couples at men's club programs, sisterhood events, federation gatherings and temples nationwide where I've been a guest speaker or instructor. I've also talked to friends and colleagues. Based on this sizeable but unscientific sampling of over 2,700 Jewish men from 22 Red states and Blue states, here's what I found:
Good News: Almost 34 percent of Jewish husbands and fathers seem to qualify as a definite mensch.
Slightly more than one-third of the Jewish men I was able to assess in these surveys fit the criteria for a great husband and father. These individuals are able to work hard at their jobs and still find time and energy to be involved in household chores, child-care, shared spousal teamwork and family activities. On Father's Day 2005, these multitasking and compassionate men deserve something a lot nicer than another department-store tie. They deserve our heartfelt thanks because their kids are growing up with great role models and their wives know the joy of having a true teammate in life.
Sad News: Almost 29 percent of Jewish husbands and fathers are emotionally unavailable to their loved ones.
Despite the stereotype that says Jewish men are great catches, in fact, there are a sizeable number (some with high incomes) who don't seem able or willing to be good listeners or helpful partners at home. They don't tend to pitch in much with child-care or family activities. His wife and kids typically complain that, "When he's finally at home, he's either cranky and short-tempered or he's obsessed with golf or video games or watching his favorite shows on television while tuning out the rest of us." Or he's described as, "A bit self-absorbed and even though he does some good volunteer events for the community, he's always got an excuse as to why he won't do his fair share regarding the kids or the chores." It's almost as if the kids are being raised by a single mom.
Mixed News: Approximately 37 percent of Jewish husbands and fathers fluctuate between sometimes being a caring family member and at other times being too stressed or unavailable because of other priorities.
This group fascinates me most as a psychologist. More than one-third of Jewish marriages have occasional tension because a husband/dad, who deeply desires a peaceful and involved family life, gets pulled away by stressful work demands, sporting events, volunteer commitments or hobbies that eat up most of his free time. Most, it seemed, didn't grow up with good modeling from their own dads or from other adult males in their lives. These dads are appreciated sometimes by their wife and kids and resented at other times for failing to follow through on family commitments.
There are remedies, and the problem is obviously worth addressing if you are a Jewish husband and dad (or if you know one) who needs either a minor tune-up or a major overhaul. The first place to start is early in the week when you carve out sacred family time. You should make sure nothing will disturb a beautiful family Shabbat dinner, and you should plan some enjoyable, connecting family activities on the weekend. You also should set aside time for one-on-one conversations during the week. And you should volunteer to share the load of weekly tasks with your spouse rather than waiting for her to plead or get fed up.
To do this, it helps to carry in your wallet a "Kavanah Note Card" stating your good intentions. You can pull it out and reread it just before entering your home each night. The note card that you write in your own words should say something like: "The precious souls I am about to listen to during the next few minutes and hours are more important than any customer, boss, or colleague I've spoken to all day. They deserve my most compassionate and helpful self, not my crankiness or my criticism. Don't take this for granted, because the emotional and financial costs of doing a mediocre job with my family life will be enormous."
Collectively, we Jewish men still have some inner work to do. Father's Day 2005, possibly, will inspire each of us to make improvements and learn what they don't teach in high school, college or even graduate school -- how to be the involved, deeply caring husband and dad that your kids and truly deserve.
Leonard Felder, a licensed psychologist, has written 10 books. His newest is "Wake Up or Break Up: The 8 Crucial Steps to Strengthening Your Relationship" (Rodale, 2005). www.wakeuporbreakup.com.