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.

And yet, in the blink of an eye, these physically weak but mentally strong Jewish bodies were destroyed by what Konner calls the Nazis' "public health project." The great experiment of Jewish "mind" culminated in Jewish bodies being burned, gassed, tortured, shot, smashed against walls, thrown into pits, rotted, and sickened to death.

On the heels of that catastrophe, though, and even before the Shoah had begun, Konner says the tide turned and Jews began to realize that mind alone was not working. Early advocates for the Jewish body included Max Nordau, who argued for Jewish club gymnastics, A.D. Gordon for "brawny grappling with the soil," and, of course, Theodore Herzl, who developed the whole idea of a Jewish state as a means of normalizing the Jewish condition.

Jews had to go back to Zion to "perform redemptive physical labor," Konner writes, "build up their strength, and raise their hands in their own defense." The reason? As Konner quotes Emma Lazarus, another early "body" Jew, so that "where the respect due to us cannot be won by entreaty, it may be commanded, and where it cannot be commanded, it may be enforced." These early Zionists, as Konner puts it, "called the Jewish people back to the life of the body and saved them."

Konner's argument in favor of Jews' using their bodies as well as their minds made me want to cheer: "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." His love and passion for Israel--for its reality as well as its conception--are especially worth savoring. He writes about how he opposed the war in Vietnam but loves Israeli military victories. You can practically see the joy on his face as he describes an Israeli young woman walking with him through Jerusalem listing the different characteristics of the automatic weapons they see slung over the shoulders of the Jewish men and women (Israeli Army soldiers) they pass on the street.

Konner adores the kick-their-asses Jewish body, and he says so. And then he goes and destroys his carefully crafted argument by insisting there must be a Palestinian state. Konner seems to be saying to the reader: Yes, Jews will be killed if they don't defend themselves; this is what happened over and over and over again. Yes, Israel is the only solution for Jews because, as he writes, "survival on this planet depends not on mind alone, but on mind and body, argument and physical force, learning and fighting." But don't think that just because I'm saying all this lovely stuff about Jewish strength that I'm not a good liberal. Yes, there must be a Jewish state, but the Palestinians are deserving, too. They are also victims and they must have their justice, too.

How else to explain including any mention of the Palestinians when justifying Israel's existence. What, after all, does one thing have to do with the other? It is the Arab argument against Israel's existence that has shackled the Jewish body politic to the fate of the Palestinians. Konner is mistaken to connect the two, and worse, he weakens his case for the Jewish state by suggesting that Israel's legitimacy is tied to whether or not another Arab state is established in order to satisfy the claims of Israel's enemies. Konner is most comfortable with Jewish strength so long as it is a response to Jewish victimhood.

The Jewish Body would have been that much more successful had Konner chosen, instead, to emphasize an understanding of the Jewish body that he mentions but doesn't dwell on: Jewish peoplehood. "DNA technology traces history in the genes and confirms much, but not all, of what the Jews have thought about themselves," he writes. "Jewish peoplehood is a reality, and it traces to an origin in roughly the place and time, if not the exact manner, that Jews have always believed in."

That is, we were formed into a group millennia ago, in roughly the area where Jewish sovereignty was reestablished in 1948. Jews need Israel not because of the Nazis, and not because of generations of anti-Semitism or persecution. Jews need Israel, and we need our strong Jewish bodies, because we are a people: the Jewish people, the people of Israel.

Abby Wisse Schachter is an editor at the New York Post.

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