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Book examines the images Jews have of their own bodies

The Jewish Body by Melvin Konner, Nextbook, New York; ISBN 978-0-8052-4236-2, $22.00, 255 pages

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By Fred Reiss, Ed.D

WINCHESTER, California–The Jewish people are obsessed with the body. While the Sumerians, Egyptians, Canaanites, and others prayed and sacrificed to idols, the embodiment of their gods, the Hebrews announced to the world that God is invisible. Centuries later, Christianity brought back God in human form, claiming that he felt birth, lived life like any other person, and died horribly and with excruciating pain. Years later, Jews would become identified through their blood by the Inquisition and the Nazis. Anti-Semites identified Jews through exaggerated physical features.

Traditional Jews understand that God created humanity in His own image, and so they personify God through their own bodies. A male Jew gives a small and delicate portion of his body to be part of God’s covenant. Jews, who follow the tradition, marvel at the complexity of their bodies and thank God “for fashioning humanity with wisdom” at every morning service. They observe what they put into their bodies, and scrupulously observe not to defile its outward appearance, and follow rules about menstruation and sexual intercourse. Because traditional Jews believe that from dust we are and to dust we go, they have their bodies placed in wooden coffins, giving nature the quickest way to complete her deed.

Melvin Konner, Ph.D., M.D., a professor of anthropology at Emory University, has written a marvelous little book, The Jewish Body, describing how the Jew treats his own body and how others perceive and react to the Jewish body. He begins with the most recognizable Jewish body characteristic—circumcision, and how that ritual may have developed from pagan fertility rites. Circumcision kept Jewish men from fully participating in the Greek way of life. So enamored were the Greeks with beautiful male bodies that any deformity rendered a man unfit for athletic competitions. The Greeks and the Jews differed in other ways. The ancient Greek way of life allowed for the Epicurean philosophy and feasts to Bacchus. The Jews had dietary laws. The Greeks had public baths; the Jews private ritual immersions. The Greeks conquered much of the known world. The Jews first lost their independence and later the entire country. The two-thousand year Diaspora, according to Konner, allowed the world to perceive Jews as weak and defenseless. The Jews were as powerless against village pogroms as they were against the well-armed Crusaders. Until the mid-nineteenth century, European Jews thrived only where they were protected by kings or noblemen.  

The Jews became caricatures in literature: Fagan in Oliver Twist, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Hirsch in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, and so on. Jews had wide noses, hooked noses, horns on their head, beady closely-set eyes, protruding ears, and thick lips. Even the eminent educator, Dr. Charles Eliot, President of Harvard University told the Menorah Society in 1907 that Jews “are distinctly inferior in stature and physical development… to any other race.” The Nazis portrayed the Jews as a virus that can attack a country from within. With this health metaphor, Jews were declared a public-health menace, and the Holocaust became a noble cause to eradicate a potential plague, which would defile the “pure” German race.

With the rise of Zionism came the call for physical prowess. Not the prowess of prizefighter Daniel “The Light of Israel” Mendoza, or boxer Sam “The Terrible Jew” Elias. Not even the more than thirty Jewish boxing world champions, including Max E. “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom. Zionism didn’t mean the toughness acquired in America’s cities, where Jewish gangs formed and festered. Places that gave us such personalities as bootleggers Waxey Gordon, Maxie Greenberg, and Arnold Rothstein. Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer terrorized the South Bronx, and the Purple Gang composed of Sammy Cohen, and the Fleisher and Bernstein brothers controlled parts of Detroit. Zionism wanted to toughen and remake the Jewish body through systematic training. And so they did.

Through outright purchase of land in Palestine, followed by back-breaking work to clear mosquito-infested swamps and tilling the land, the Jew showed that his image as a trembling coward was a mirage—a lie repeated so often that it became the truth. Jews fearlessly defended the State of Israel and in 1967 rose to the (equally false) image of superhero with the defeat of its Arab neighbors in six days.

Melvin Konner offers us a delightful and informative study of the perceptions of the Jewish body through history. He shows us the myopic and inaccurate view that Jews and non-Jews have of the Jewish body.  Reading The Jewish Body is like walking into a hall of misshaped mirrors: one cannot help but laugh at some of the vain and ridiculous Jewish self-images, and cry at the awful actions spawned by the distorted picture of the Jewish body perceived by others.

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 Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil CalendarsAncient Secrets of Creation: Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and Reclaiming the Messiah.

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