The Magazine

Flex Time

When survival's at stake, are sound minds enough?

Feb 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 22 • By ABBY WISSE SCHACHTER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Jewish Body

by Melvin Konner

Schocken, 304 pp., $25

What would you expect of a book entitled The Jewish Body? Before the copy arrived at my door, I tried to predict its contents. What is a Jewish body? Are Jews even interested in bodies? Maybe this is a really short book.

Short it is. The text for this latest offering from the Jewish Encounters series runs no more than 250 pages. And yet, Emory anthropologist Melvin Konner manages to fill those pages with a stunning array of material.
How can you go wrong with a book that discusses circumcision of the penis by including multiple attractive drawings? Then, as part of a serious discussion of the history of this religious rite, Konner explains why a Jewish penis is "perfected" by "the fruitful cut." Good news for those of us married to circumcised men.

Konner has a fun section on "tough Jews"--all about boxers and gangsters. Did you know, for example, that Jewish boxers in America became superb defensive fighters "to avoid getting their faces bruised which would alert their Orthodox parents to what they were doing"? And speaking of Jewish faces, Konner provides a short history of rhinoplasty and reveals that we have a Jew to thank for the creation of what he dubs a "Jewish bodily fiction"--the nose job.

It turns out, the impact Jacques (nee Jakob) Joseph had on Jewish life, when he developed the surgery in the late 19th century, is terrifically serious. As Konner explains, for centuries the Jew had been defined by the Christian European world for his differences. He was defined by those physical attributes that made him other, ugly, weak, despised. The nose was one of the most obvious of those negative attributes.

"Medical and 'scientific' references to the Jewish nose go back at least to 1850," Konner writes, "when Robert Knox .  .  . described it as 'a large, massive, club-shaped, hooked nose, three or four times larger than suits the face. .  .  . Thus it is that the Jewish face can never [be], and never is, perfectly beautiful."

At first, Konner tells us, rhinoplasty wasn't considered an acceptable surgery because, unlike, say, correcting club feet, altering a nose was cosmetic. But over time the argument put forth was that a nose job made such a difference psychologically that it could be considered healing: "Disabled people were being helped," Konner explains. Jewish bodies were being made to look less Jewish, allowing the Jew in the body to blend more fully into the surrounding society. For some Jews, the nose job was freedom.

Konner also has a spirited section on Jewish sex where he argues that, while there is no prohibition about this most basic bodily function, the religious authorities made themselves perfectly clear about the rules.

"Get it, yes, but for God's sake, get it under control," Konner says. "You don't do it outside of marriage, with a child or a relation, by yourself, with a same sex partner, or during menstruation, but that's just for starters." He also includes a long section on Jewish literature about Jewish bodies from Franz Kafka to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick.

Late in the book he discusses "Jewish genes," and from that vantage point makes a passionate--if short and somewhat out of place--plea for Jewish reproduction. He points out that the Jewish birthrate is lower than replacement levels. In response he recommends that the official Jewish community in America provide funds to help families pay for having more children.

A serious money prize for the third, and more for the fourth, fifth, and sixth babies? Free Viagra? Jews should consider whatever it takes to put more Jewish bodies on the planet.

These subjects are certainly interesting, but the book isn't really about any of them. The title actually refers to the two extremes of the 20th century for Jewish bodies: the worst that was ever done to Jewish bodies, the Holocaust, and the best metamorphosis Jews have ever performed, turning themselves into robust bodies and giving birth to the state of Israel. Konner is interested in the nadir of the Jewish body vs. its apex.

The author repeats the same point throughout the book: Jews did weak for 18 centuries; they did weak better than anyone else. Jews built up their minds and built up the importance, even the necessity, of the mind over the body for generations and generations. They learned Talmud, they learned medicine, they learned law. They read, they wrote, they argued. The Jewish mind is vast, nimble, and replete with knowledge--knowledge that has had an impact on the world far beyond the planet's Jewish population.