Jewish Body

Jewish Body

by Melvin Konner

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A history of the Jewish people from bris to burial, from “muscle Jews” to nose jobs.

Melvin Konner, a renowned doctor and anthropologist, takes the measure of the “Jewish body,” considering sex, circumcision, menstruation, and even those most elusive and controversial of microscopic markers–Jewish genes. But this is not only a book that examines the human body through the prism of Jewish culture. Konner looks as well at the views of Jewish physiology held by non-Jews, and the way those views seeped into Jewish thought. He describes in detail the origins of the first nose job, and he writes about the Nazi ideology that categorized Jews as a public health menace on par with rats or germs.

A work of grand historical and philosophical sweep, The Jewish Body discusses the subtle relationship between the Jewish conception of the physical body and the Jewish conception of a bodiless God. It is a book about the relationship between a land–Israel–and the bodily sense not merely of individuals but of a people. As Konner describes, a renewed focus on the value of physical strength helped generate the creation of a Jewish homeland, and continued in the wake of it.

With deep insight and great originality, Konner gives us nothing less than an anatomical history of the Jewish people.

Part of the Jewish Encounter series

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805242669
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/13/2009
Series: Jewish Encounters Series
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

MELVIN KONNER, PH.D., M.D., the author of nine books and is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta, where he teaches in the anthropology, human biology, and Jewish studies programs. He has written for The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, Science, and the New England Journal of Medicine. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Read an Excerpt

There is an illustration, an informative chart in fact, reprinted in a book called Kike! A Documentary History of Anti-Semitism in America. The chart was first published in 1888 in a book called The Original Mr. Jacobs, by the noted author “Anon.” It consists of nine small pen-and-ink drawings of body parts, with a helpful legend keyed to them. It is called “How We May Know Him,” and the legend says:
Fig. 1 Restless suspicious eyes.
Fig. 2 Curved nose and nostrils.
Fig. 3 Ill-shapen ears of great size like those of a bat.
Fig. 4 Thick lips and sharp rat’s teeth.
Fig. 5 Round knees.
Fig. 6 Low brow.
Fig. 7 Long clammy fingers.
Fig. 8 Flat feet.
Fig. 9 Repulsive rear view.
Figure 2 is a classic side view of the Jewish nose, Figure 4 displays the rat’s teeth between fleshy lips, Figure 7 looks more like a claw than a hand, and Figure 9, a rear view of the subject, shows just huge ears and a hairy neck. The Nazi view of Jewish anatomy would actually be much more subtle and scientific, but after all, it was half a century later and in the world’s most civilized nation, not that primitive backwater America. Still, although the Germans could build on work done in America and Europe throughout the nineteenth century, the foundations go much deeper, and it is part of this book’s purpose to trace them.
But it will do much more than depict the Jewish body from the viewpoint of its enemies. Since ancient times, Jews have had very clear ideas about their own bodies, and these ideas—and the practices that went along with them— changed dramatically over the three millennia since the Jews became an identifiable people. Some had to do with regulating sex, some involved internalizing contemptuous images drawn by others, some were deliberate reactions against those images, and some involved what might be called a centuries-long compare-and-contrast exercise between the Jewish body and the body (if any) of the Jewish God. Jews are known as the people of the book, but they have also been called the people of the body, and some of their most revered books through the ages have dealt extensively with the body—how and how not to change it, care for it, reproduce it, satisfy its insistent demands, bless and thank God for its myriad functions, and dispose of it after all those functions cease. The Hebrew Bible is full of messages about the body and twenty centuries of rabbinical interpretations of them have parsed them to the nth degree. The Jewish body during those centuries went from strong and warlike to weak and submissive and back to strong and warlike again, with momentous consequences for Jewish destiny.
As for God’s body, Jewish destiny was shaped by the Jews’ insistence that God didn’t have one, yet their refusal to embody God was inextricably tied up with their views about their own bodies. The medieval mystic books of the Kabbalah tried to give God a body after all and scholars have argued over its meaning ever since. Jacob, who is Israel, “wrestled with gods and men and won,” although he limped away, so the people of the book are also called Godwrestlers. In the last century or so, some Jewish writers have shown less interest in wrestling with God than with the world and with themselves, and their ideas about the Jewish body, some ironic and funny, some rude and bawdy, some tragic and grotesque, have shaped the consciousness of countless readers, Jewish and non.

It is my goal in this book not only to trace the Jewish body through its radical, almost magical transformations, but to try to understand how Jewish bodies and Jewish thoughts about them have shaped the Jewish mind and the Jewish contribution to civilization. Finally, very tentatively and carefully, we will consider how centuries of relative bodily isolation, inspired for better or worse by ideas about the body, may have shaped Jewish genes. If there is a thread that organizes all these themes, it is this: The world made the Jews weak, so weak for so long that even they became convinced that the only strength they would ever have would be mental. That sort of strength they had in ample measure, and they used it to refine their approaches to God and human, male and female, sex and love, tragedy and comedy into an exquisite array of comforting distractions. They came, however, to mistrust the physical, so much so that their bodies seemed both polluting and comical to themselves and others. The comedy offered relief, as did the comfort of sexuality, and we will see how. So did the Torah, for the many who embraced it.

But two great events of the twentieth century—one the worst thing that ever happened to the Jews, and the other the best—turned the tables on Jewish weakness forever. Strength prevailed, because the very best powers of the Jewish mind became allied to a new physical strength, rising out of the ashes and blood of six million murders. This synergy produced the state and the army of Israel. It has won, and will continue to win, great victories against great odds. As I was growing up, my beloved rabbi, Bernard L. Berzon, delivered passionate sermons about Torah, ethics, and observance, but also about Israel. One of them, collected in his book Good Beginnings, was on the Torah passage in which Moses, in his first act of solidarity with his people, kills an Egyptian who is brutally beating a Hebrew slave. The rabbi referred to the galut, the exile, which followed centuries later and lasted for millennia.
“Through the centuries of dispersion and exile, the Jew developed a galut psychology of fear and, like his ancestors in Egypt, yielded to the onslaughts and insults of vicious men in a degrading and humiliating manner. He bent to receive the kicks and blows of every murderous charlatan without fighting back. He practiced the policy of nonresistance long before Ghandi and Nehru. He became spineless and frail—afraid to strike back. Those who spent their early youth in Europe will bear me out that this was generally the case. When an anti-Semitic scoundrel threatened one of our people, the Jew would either run for his life, beg for mercy, or cover his face with his hands to ward off the blows.”

There were many in our synagogue to bear him out, and I often heard their stories. But on that Saturday morning, this is what they and I heard next: “We in our generation have lived to witness the rebirth of Jewish courage. Thank God that our sons and daughters in Israel have learned to use their fists against their foes . . . Blessed be the fist of each one of our heroes! May they continue to use their hands against the would-be annihilators of Israel.”
The Jews tried mind alone for eighteen hundred years; that led to defenselessness, contempt, isolation, pogroms, and finally mass murder on a scale unknown in human history. The traditional balms of God, law, ritual, learning, love, sex, family, narrative, and comedy passed through the gates of Auschwitz and were all found wanting. God did not answer the prayers of the victims, the Torah did not explain their plight, their sense of humor slammed into a burning wall. Enforced starvation and pestilence abolished sexuality, and married women were shot for the crime of pregnancy. One and a half million children were murdered; the love of their mothers and fathers did not save them. Survival on this planet depends not on mind alone, but on mind and body, argument and physical force, learning and fighting, genius and, yes, violence judiciously construed. The world has been, is, and will be a very dangerous place for Jews. They tried weakness—oh, how they tried; indeed, they were better versed in it than anyone else on earth. Strength is better.

Table of Contents

Preface • ix
Prologue • 3
1. God’s Body • 13
2. “The Fruitful Cut” • 20
3. Greeks and Jews • 35
4. Adam’s Rib? • 48
5. Dangerous Bodies • 61
6. God’s Beard • 71
7. “Hath Not a Jew Eyes?” • 81
8. Race and Destiny • 89
9. Surviving • 109
10. The Body Returns • 117
11. Tough Jews • 144
12. The Trowel and the Sword • 154
13. The Eye of the Beholder • 164
14. Bodily Fictions • 185
15. Jewish Power • 207
16. Deborah’s Daughters • 217
17. Jewish Genes? • 225
Epilogue • 244
For Further Reading • 257
Notes • 259
Acknowledgments • 271
Chronology • 274

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