Brawn Vs Brains: The Golem & Jewish Masculinity

I’ve been holding off on this post because I didn’t think it was fully fledged yet, but I’ve decided to just accept it as it is. A note: I am not Israeli. This post doesn’t comment on modern Israeli culture.

I’ve noted before that the stereotypes of Jewish men and women line up uncannily with the stereotypes of effeminate men and mannish women: think slight, nebbish men, and loud, overbearing women. Jewish genders are stereotyped as nonconforming (failed?) genders. As a genderqueer Jew, this has had many affects on my sense of self.

These ideas are both antisemitic and heterosexist. I find them offensive primarily on the later count: the idea that, to whatever extent Jewish cultural gender norms or Jews themselves don’t conform to the dominant gender ideal, this is a bad thing. With that in mind, I’ve been thinking — as a queer Jew who performs masculinity — about the ways in which Jewish masculinity in particular is, indeed, very contrary to the prototype that dominates my habitat: the masculine ideal of 21st Century, culturally Christian white US-America.

In the dominant culture, normative masculinity is, in my observation, typified by big, strong, heroic athletes: firemen, lumberjacks, football players, soldiers. This masculinity emphasizes physical skill, brute strength, and physical protection of the weak. It is taught by fathers, coaches, drill sergeants.

Stereotypical Jewish masculinity is typified by educated, successful scholars: rabbis, doctors and lawyers. It emphasizes knowledge and intelligence and protecting the weak with one’s financial means or social connections instead of one’s body. It is is enforced by the nagging mother (think “My son the doctor”).

This has me thinking about the golem story. The myth goes like this: a rabbi needs to protect his people from pogroms. What to do? He doesn’t procure weapons or form a militia. He uses his knowledge of Torah to make a monster out of a mud, a big, strong brute who will act as a guard. The masculine hero of this Jewish folktale is not, himself, a knight in shining armor. He is a nerd so nerdy he can actually apply his knowledge to create a thug to fight for him.

The emotional content of this story cuts both ways. On the one hand, his knowledge and skill are impressive, and the golem comes to life, follows orders, protects the people. On the other hand, I think there is anguish in the rabbi’s knowledge that he can’t protect his community himself. And because we know that golems are mythological, but pogroms very, very real, we know that the rabbi wasn’t really able to defend his people.

And at the end of the story, the plan backfires. The golem — all brawn and no brains — inevitably begins to kill innocent gentiles, or, in some versions, even turns against the Jews themselves. The rabbi must kill his creation, usually using his knowledge of language, for example by changing the inscription on his body from “emet” (truth) to “met” (dead).

This inescapable ending further reinforces a rejection of violent masculinity. It insists that, for all the utility of such a guard, his violence can never be permanently contained.

Cross-posted at Dear Diaspora.

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35 comments for “Brawn Vs Brains: The Golem & Jewish Masculinity

  1. July 23, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    I’m not sure how many Jewish dudes are active here at Feministe, nor do I know how many dudes, period, actively comment around here. But, as a resident Jewish dude, I gotta say, this post is spot on. The stereotypes of Jewish masculinity are things i’ve had to deal with my entire life. Combine those with being an ardent liberal, and, well, I get painted as less of a man in most every conversation I enter. Or, more accurately, I FEEL like i’m being painted as less of a man. To be sure, this kind of prejudice is by no means comparable to other forms of sexism, racism, or ableism…but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it still hurts. For most of my life, I’ve been running away from the effeminate, liberal Jew image. Sure, I fit the “smart” Jew, model minority-ish stereotype, but I’ve always sought out sports to counterbalance this stereotype–most notably through powerlifting and football (I almost even played football in college). My mom used to tell me the only Jews that played football were the kickers; they kicked the ball then the got the fuck off the field. Well, I was the first Jew to start at linebacker at my high school, smashing stereotypes as I smashed my body into guys three times my size. I didn’t love the game so much as I loved the way I felt about myself as a result. Now, I’m in graduate school at Harvard, constantly going through internal struggles and guilt as I continue to conform to this stereotype. I know, woe is me right? Yeah, i’m conforming to a stereotype that predicts i’ll be smart and privileged; but still, struggling with my masculinity really has been a daily battle as a result. This post was great.

  2. Marlene
    July 23, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Am I wrong in remembering it as shit rather than mud?

    Something about this reminds me of when I told my grandmother I was transitioning (mtf). She said “You might stop being a man, but you should still be a mensch.” I’m loathe to say that my grandmother’s notion of masculinity was something she thought perfectly reasonable for a woman to do, but maybe there is something in the Jewish construction of masculinity you describe that made it possible for her to go there to some extent.

  3. Daisy Bond
    July 23, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Jeremy — I’m glad to hear the post resonated with you! Everything in your comment is right on. That struggle isn’t as desperate as some others, but it’s real and valid nonetheless. I don’t want to claim to understand your experience — the butch experience is not the male experience — but having gotten a little taste of those stereotypes, I know how powerful they are.

    Marlene — I’ve never heard it as shit, though with number of variants floating around, that certainly might be one of them. That sort of adds a whole new dimension, both in terms of the comment on violent masculinity and in terms of the comment on humanity vs divinity (God makes people from mud, people make monsters from shit?).

    And I love that story about your grandmother.

  4. eibhear
    July 23, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    Pardon my ignorance, but are you sure these aren’t just modern(as in the last 40 or 50 years), North American stereotypes? I remember reading that in the 20’s and 30’s many jews succeeded in pulling themselves out of the ghetto through athletics, just as many of the impoverished and immigrants still do. I recall they were particularly prevalent in basketball, and it was popularly said that “those people” had an affinity for the sport, just as was said about Afro-Americans in modern times. And don’t forget Zische Breitbart. As I said, I haven’t made a study of the subject, so please correct me if I am mistaken.

  5. Bruce from Missouri
    July 23, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    I am very familiar with the nebbishy stereotype for Jewish men, but I have to admit I am not familiar with the stereotype of Jewish women being mannish. Do you have anyone in mind, example-wise? I like to think I am pretty good at recognizing stereotypes, and if that one has got by me, I would like to correct that.

  6. July 23, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Marlene, as I understand it, the word mentsh can refer to either a man or a woman – it just means “a good person.” I won’t deny that it has a masculine connotation, though.

  7. Daisy Bond
    July 23, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Hi eibhear!

    I don’t really know how old the stereotypes are. I’m sure it’s more than 40 years and more than just North American, because I’m I know they impacted the psychology of my grandparents and their parents, so that puts them at 100 years or so, at least. The idea that there is something wrong with Jewish genders is like a pretty old antisemitic tactic, I think — the golem story is an old one, and before our current, masculinized stereotypes of Jewish women was the stereotype of irresistible, hypersexual Jewess. None of which should be read as disagreing with your point about the relationships betweem antisemitic and racist stereotypes. Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz says a lot of really interesting stuff about that in The Colors of Jews.

    Anyone else know anything about the age and history of these stereotypes?

  8. Daisy Bond
    July 23, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Bruce, I don’t have a character in mind off the top of my head. I do think that Jewish women are stereotyped as loud and controlling/domineering — think nagging mother, JAP — qualities we tend to loathe in women and respect in men (i.e., masculine qualities).

  9. July 23, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    I think it’s interesting that you choose to do a post on Jewish men. Noticeably, I haven’t observed Jewish women giving Jewish men considerable grief when they live up to the nebbish man stereotype and become intellectuals and eschew physical and aggressive indicators of masculinity. What is noteworthy, however, is the incredible enmity between Jewish men—and all men of any sort really—towards the JAP. I recall that the teenage boys in my Jewish youth group were very proud to show off their Christian girlfriends, particularly if they were the complete opposite of the JAP: timid, blond, tall, and thin. Likewise, the Jewish girls who were least Jewish looking were always quite popular. JAP was a very serious insult on the social worthiness of a Jewish girl among her peers. Especially amongst boys.

    Perhaps this is just the circle I was involved in as a teenager. I had just recently abandoned my Orthodox congregation (more like refused to go anymore) and appeased my mother by joining a conservative youth group and helping at the younger children’s summer camp in North Scottsdale. For those unfamiliar with that city, it has the distinction of being the whitest city in America with a population over 100K, and North Scottsdale especially is populated almost solely by those who make at least 6 figures. Privilege was everywhere. It was here that I was introduced to the stink of the JAP, and how much everyone hated her. The boys had their pecking order, but intellectualism wasn’t heavily frowned upon like it might have been elsewhere or perhaps in less Jewish circles. But there was a curious dynamic between the nebbish boys and those they labeled as JAPs. The more nebbish boys, who were typically subpar at sports and prefered reading to any other activity, had a sort of hero worship for less nebbish boys. Those boys still retained the smarts of their peers, but accompanied it with suitable charisma, a wide circle of influence, parents with lots of money, and an interest in sports—probably received through tutors bought by the parents. Those boys, in turn, either mocked or condescendingly made small attempts to include the nebbish boys in return for their hero worship.

    On other side, the girls who displayed the exact same qualities as the popular boys—rich parents, an air of entitlement, good looks, intellectual ability, and some physical interests—were JAPs. The boys would have nothing to do with them, and the adults treated them with a special kind of distaste when they bullied other girls. Their male counterparts, however, were praised and their victims were told to suck it up. Typically, the JAPs would habor intense crushes for the less nebbish boys, who would brag that they had the attention of one girl or another, then scorn their advances, claiming that the JAP was “too high maintenance” or “bitchy”. Eager to please the popular boys, the nebbish boys would step up the insults on the JAPs, and all girls that could even remotely be a JAP (basically, all of the girls who weren’t painfully shy) for peer approval. The status of these boys—who were unable to compete with the others in money, looks, or physical ability—was purchased on the self esteem of any girl that dared to exist around them.

    So while the threatened masculinity of nebbish men, who met a stupid stereotype that haunted Jewish males for years, is noteworthy, it needs to be said that often their crisis in masculinity—not unlike other men’s—was assuaged at the expense of Jewish girls.

  10. roro
    July 23, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Bruce from Missouri: think Mrs. Browflowski from South Park.

  11. July 23, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Eibhear, in the 1920s and 1030s, there were several very successful Jewish boxers.

    Harry Greb was the Middleweight champion, the prototype “pressure fighter” who just keeps coming, and (to my mind most impressive) the only fighter ever to beat Gene Tunney in a professional match. Ring Magazine listed him, at the height of Roy Jones’ career, as a fighter who could beat Roy Jones, calling him “tough, crazy and dirty as hell.” Greb’s more than 300 professional fights are a record for prolific competition.

    I still call Benny Leonard the greatest Lightweight of all time. In his prime, he cleaned out the division with blinding handspeed, great fundamentals and ring sense. He retired rich, lost all his money in the Depression, and mounted a comeback that ended when he was stopped by Jimmy McLarnin. McLarnin went on to contest the Welterweight belt with:

    Barney Ross. His father was a rabbi, he was a rabbinical student, and he became a fighter after his father was shot and killed. Ross fought three great fights for the Welterweight title with McLarnin, winning the first and last. Ross didn’t have great power, but he was a dauntless opponent. In a career of over 70 professional fights, he lost only four and was never knocked out. He was the first three-weight-class champion. He also went on to serve as a Marine on Guadalcanal, and earned a Silver Star.

    I’m leaving a lot out, but these must be the highest-profile Jewish boxers of the Pre-WWII era.

    BTW, when people say “Jewish Boxers” lots of folks think of Max Baer, the Billy Zane character from Cinderella Man who was actually nothing like the Zane character. He was only partly of Jewish decent and not a practicing Jew. But he did wear a Star of David on his trunks when he fought Max Schmeling, in what some folks variously call a political statement or a marketing effort.

  12. July 23, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    BTW, it bears noting that two of the three fighters I mentioned in my comment (which will eventually make it out of moderation) fought under Anglicized names. Benny Leonard was born Benjamin Leiner, while Barney Ross was born Dov-Ber Rasofsky.

  13. Daisy Bond
    July 23, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Jenn — those are good points. Thanks for saying all of that. I didn’t mean to neglect or silence those experiences at all; I’m really glad your perspective is in the thread.

    I want to clarify that this post is about Jewish masculinity. Masculinity is not synonymous with maleness or with men. My experience as a butch woman is a masculine Jewish experience.

  14. Daisy Bond
    July 23, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Thomas — very interesting! Thanks for sharing those examples; I’ll have to think more about them.

  15. Ruchama
    July 23, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    The historical questions reminded me a bit of this booklet, about the Jewish community in a small city in Poland where some of my relatives lived. It was written by an old man in the late 1980s, and it seems like the focus in mostly on the 1930s.

    A few of the relevant bits:

    Some crafts did not seem attractive to Jews – there were no Jewish smiths, bricklayers, stonecutters and carpenters. Nor there were any Jewish railwaymen. It is difficult to establish why, perhaps Jews considered working in these professions as too hard or entailing some health risks or dangers.

    Jews were a separate group in Jaslo. They were distinguishable by their Semitic physical features. Almost without exception they had black hair, long faces with pale skin and abundant facial hair, with prominent, frequently bent, noses and black intense eyes. There were also some redheads. They didn’t shave, as their religion dictated. They cultivated their peyos, long and spiralling down their faces from their temples. Men, in terms of their posture and physical features, were not very attractive. Jewish women, also mainly brunettes, were frequently of fascinating beauty, with well-proportioned, shapely figures. When blondes, though rarely, they were real stunners.

    Jaslo’s Jewish community had very high and strictly adhered to moral standards. There were no drunks, troublemakers or thieves. Beggars or wanderers were a rarity. Family ties were very strong. The old were respected and had high authority. No discords ever filtered outside. It was unthinkable that a man would abuse his wife or children.

    The only place sports are mentioned at all is way at the end, when an athletic club of “progressive” Jews is mentioned. I’ve seen that same thing in several other town around that period and a little earlier — pretty much the only mention of sports would be teams run by socialist or Zionist groups.

  16. Bruce from Missouri
    July 23, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Oh, OK… the “Jewish Mother” thing. I had never thought of that as masculine, just negative. That’s certainly a super-common stereotype, though.

  17. Kai
    July 23, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    Following up on eibhear’s comment, I do think there’s been a change in mainstream stereotypes in the US in recent generations. Jewish men used to be associated with cops, gangsters, and boxers, as Thomas illustrates. Take Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”, written in 1926, in which the narrator’s nemesis is a Jewish man who was a college boxing champion and who, in the novel’s climactic scene, brutally beats up a bullfighter who represents Hemingway’s idealized man. And now I must go take a shower after having written the phrase “Hemingway’s idealized man”.

    See also the main character in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” played by Robert DeNiro, a Jewish prototypical mobster alpha male (played by an Italian American actor, oh Hollywood, Hollywood…).

    Of course, none of this contradicts what you’re saying in this post, Daisy. Racist and sexist stereotypes are tricky and incongruous things, full of illogic, dark corners, quantum wormholes, twists and turns. You can make out certain identifiable threads, but in the end they’re really about a feeling and an energy of contempt and fear and dehumanization, and the rest kinda forms fluidly around that essence. Or that’s how I see it, anyway.

  18. Floozy Clay-Jar
    July 23, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    I feel like you should specify that these are stereotypes that pertain to the Ashkenazi Jewish community/ies in the U.S. and Europe. Just as a lot of these observations don’t pertain to modern Israeli culture, they don’t pertain to a lot of Sephardim either.

    One example, which admittedly has no direct connection to stereotypes, is this: if you look at traditional Sephardic poetry, a lot of it is based on Medieval conceptions about masculinity and femininity which contrast sharply with the ideals set forth by Ashkenazi cultures. Courtly love is often made a metaphor for the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. It is a different model for ideal Jewish masculinity.

    Oh, and I’d love to hear your take on the Song of Solomon!

  19. Tlönista
    July 23, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    Regarding how far this goes back—in Yiddish literature class we briefly learned about the “muscular Jew”, a post-Haskalah, late 19th/early 20th-century reimagining of Jewish masculinity. (I think it was when we were reading the short stories of Sholem Asch.) While these stereotypes may be associated particularly with twentieth-century North America, they’re rooted in Ashkenazic history and culture in Europe.

    (More resources: there’s the first chapter of a book on the birth of “muscular Judaism” available here. Also compare with the roughly contemporary Muscular Christianity.)

  20. July 23, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    (cross-posting my comment):

    Have you ever read Eli Weisel’s version of the Golem? There’s versions wherein the Golem is simply put to sleep.

    One story I remember hearing from my Rabbi growing up was about a righteous man who would go into the woods, light a sacred fire, make libations, say the sacred words, and ask God to protect his village. As years wore on, successors forgot the steps one by one, until all they remembered was to ask God for help, and that was enough. The point being that it was one’s attitude towards God and innate holiness that was important, not ritual. (Some interesting variations on this theme float around in other stories).

    I always thought the same thing was at play with the Golem. It was the desire to protect coupled with a holy nature that brought about the power to effect that change. That’s how I read the Golem anyway.

    In terms of Masculine Jewish heros, one need only look at the story of Channukah and Judah Maccabee. Dude took on elephants with a SPEAR. In fact many tales of Jewish heroism involve warriors. Look at David. After defeating Goliath, he became essentially a warrior king.

    It is in stories about the occult that one finds exceptions, but not always that much. There’s golem stories (with variations to be sure). There are also stories about Rabbis who could knock down walls with a prayer, read minds, and do other rather curious things.

    Then there’s stories about wisdom and wits (like the Prince who thought he was a rooster, the Chicken Farmer vs the King, or the many stories about Rabbi’s giving advice so insightful it seems to be predictive).

    The unifying theme is that truly unique courage, strength (inner and outer), mystical power and wisdom comes from piety. All of these stories serve to put value in the practice and continuation of the Jewish religion and Jewish values. Stories like the Golem provide just part of that picture.

    In my family masculinity, on both sides of the family (which were quite different in both religion and politics, though both Jewish), was always expressed as a combination of courage, determination, and the compassion to help others. Being a man, being a mensch, was about having inner strength and using that to help people. That has had a huge impact on my own development as a man. Jewish culture is pretty varied, and any culture that could think up something like the Talmud is bound to have variations in expressions and analysis of identity and values.

    Great post! I really enjoyed responding to this.

  21. sophonisba
    July 23, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    I’ve read some older Jewish women writing about how alienating or just beside the point it is/was to see the rebellious gender-transgressing woman always described and framed according to generic mainstream non-Jewish norms: the tomboy, the “strong” woman who excels at sports and fighting and other jockish pursuits is held up as the brave feminist exemplar, in children’s lit and beyond. But for them, the forbidden, desirable masculine realm was the intellect, and when the intellectual is the masculine ideal, being a brilliant student is pretty transgressive for a girl. A lot of this is generational, I suppose, but the residue lingers, the idea that the life of the mind belongs to the boys.

  22. Nentuaby
    July 23, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    I’m pretty certain the poster who remembered ‘shit’ has fallen victim to reverse-euphemism. ‘Mud’ is a common scriptural euphemism- lots of people getting gut-stabbed and then the ‘mud’ comes out. Guess what ‘tail’ means. As far as I’m aware, though, the more contemporary tale of the golem just meant what it says.

  23. bellareve
    July 23, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    Daisy, I really enjoyed this post! There are indeed, different versions of idealized masculinity, and I definitely recognize this particular duality within Jewish culture.

    Perhaps it can also be a social class thing…I think working-class masculinity is generally constructed as more “physical” vs. middle and upper class masculinity which is more “refined” and intellectual.

    And, sophonisba, I love what you said too. The implications are interesting; I’m a queer woman, and I have always identified as “femme” because I’m not physically large, strong, or athletic. But I am intellectually aggressive so perhaps in a way that fits well with Jewish masculinity.

  24. chingona
    July 24, 2009 at 2:20 am

    Nice post. I had never thought of it quite that way.

    About basketball, I had also heard that Jews dominated basketball in the early part of the century and that it was thought of as a sport for “those people.” What I recall was that Jews were supposedly good at basketball because they were wily and tricky and clever, though I don’t have a cite handy.

    About Jews not working in the trades, in medieval Europe, Jews could not join the trade guilds that dominated the various manufacturing professions and controlled access to apprenticeships. They were literally banned from productive work. They also were not allowed to own land in many places and so could not farm. And because professions tended to run in families, even after the bans ended, you did not see a lot of Jews in the trades in Europe.

    I guess what I take from that is that once people have their stereotypes and prejudices, they can twist any set of facts to fit them. Jews aren’t good at basketball because they’re athletic but because they’re tricky. Jews don’t work in the trades not because they were denied access but because they don’t care for manual labor.

  25. chingona
    July 24, 2009 at 2:25 am

    In my family masculinity, on both sides of the family (which were quite different in both religion and politics, though both Jewish), was always expressed as a combination of courage, determination, and the compassion to help others. Being a man, being a mensch, was about having inner strength and using that to help people.

    Though I obviously recognize the stereotypes described in the post, I would say the model of Jewish masculinity I got from my father is this one.

  26. July 24, 2009 at 2:34 am

    These are academic articles, but you may find the following interesting from the journal I edit, Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality:
    “Queer is the New Pink: How Queer Jews Moved to the Forefront of Jewish Culture”:
    “Haredi Male Bodies in the Public Sphere: Negotiating with the Religious Text and Secular Israeli Men”:

  27. Darcy
    July 24, 2009 at 3:18 am

    Re: more masculine older stereotypes.

    I don’t know what the outside view of Jews was in the twenties and thirties, but as part of the Zionist movement that time there was a big push to reinvent their image: the “New Jew,” and the “muscular Jew” that someone else mentioned. The idea was that after so much persecution in Europe, they needed to be a group that could stand up for themselves, and that there was virtue in good hard labor (this latter idea was common to lots of nationalist movements at the time). So I think that, at least among Zionists, they tried very hard to refute those nebbish stereotypes by proving a tougher masculinity.

    Like I said–did that catch on with outsiders, or Jews outside the movement? I have no idea.

  28. Floozy Clay-Jar
    July 24, 2009 at 5:59 am

    Darcy, I think Daisy was specifically trying to stay away from that Zionist ideal.

  29. July 24, 2009 at 6:09 am

    Regarding how old the idea that Jewish men are “inappropriately masculine” is, I am going to quote from a post I wrote on my blog called What We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) When We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) Antisemitism and Israel. I apologize for the length of the quote, but I think it’s important to keep in mind how deeply woven into the Christian world view this idea was and how deeply, therefore, it is embedded in Western intellectual history, even if it is now (for whatever reason: because it has been discredited or because it has been pushed underground because it is “unfashionable” or whatever) openly expressed. I will also say that the series (five parts) of which this post is a part was motivated by the discussion surrounding David Schraub’s guest posts here on Feministe about Israel and antisemitism here and here. I bring this up not to reopen any of that discussion, but rather to point out that, while I understand what I think Daisy’s reasons are for implicitly (by asserting that she is not Israeli) excluding discussions of how Jewish masculinity is constructed in Israel, I think it is impossible to talk about Jewish masculinity in the 20th and 21st centuries without accounting for the Zionist’s very conscious attempts to reframe Jewish masculinity in terms of the muscular Jew, which Tlonista mentioned in comment 20.

    In his book Jewish Self-Hatred, Sander Gilman argues that, for the medieval Christian world, Jewish difference was defined largely by the Jewish language, Hebrew (23). Understood by the Church to be that which prevented Jews from acknowledging Jesus as the messiah–because reading biblical texts in, and perceiving the world through the limited and limiting framework of their own language made it impossible for Jews to perceive Christ’s presence in the world–this linguistic difference was understood to be not cultural, but natural. As speakers of Hebrew, in other words, the Jews were slaves to the world view implicit in Hebrew, which obviously did not include the notion of Jesus as the messiah, and so they were incapable of commanding any other language or of seeing the world in any other way. Moreover, since their way of seeing the world was inherently false–Jesus, after all, really was the messiah–the Jews were congenital liars. This essential dishonesty placed the Jews in the same category as women, who were also believed to be liars by nature.

    Perhaps the most explicit connection between the essential dishonesty of women and the Jews’ polluted essence was in the myth of Jewish male menstruation, the belief that Jewish men were marked by the same sign that in women signified Eve’s fall from grace. In the thirteenth century, Thomas de Cantimpré, citing St. Augustine as his source, offered the first ostensibly scientific discussion of this aspect of Jewish male anatomy, explaining as well how these men attempted to cure themselves. According to de Cantimpré, the Jews were told by one of their prophets that the cure lay in drinking “Christiano sanguine,” the blood of a Christian, an assertion that proved the Jews’ linguistic handicap, since, in fact, the curse could only be lifted when the Jews converted and accepted the sacrament of “Christi sanguine,” the blood of Christ. It was, in other words, the Jews’ inability to hear the truth, represented by this prophet’s inability to get the Latin right–presumably he would not have made the same mistake if the language had been Hebrew-that gave rise in the Christian imagination to the blood libel, the charge that Jews ritually murdered Christian children to obtain Christian blood. In turn, the blood libel was linked to the Jews’ original and ultimately emasculating, Eve-like denial of Christ (Gilman 74-5), thus forging a connection between Jewish and female psychology that would continue to be deployed in antisemitic rhetoric even when the religious basis for that connection was no longer considered so important.

    Even a casual overview of nineteenth century philosophy, for example, will unearth in the thinking of our most revered philosophers a misogyny directly descended from the medieval Church’s view of women. The authors of The Malleus Maleficarum, for example–which was first published in 1486 as the Inquisition’s legal, procedural and informational reference on witchcraft and witches–answered the question why “Women are chiefly addicted to Evil Superstitions” by explaining that women are, among other things, intellectually undisciplined, devious, vengeful and fundamentally carnal (41-7, these page numbers refer to this published edition of the book; a new translation is also available). Immanuel Kant echoed those views in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime when he wrote that women “do something only because it pleases them […] I hardly believe the fair sex is capable of principles” (qtd. in Rosemary Agonito, ed. History of Ideas on Women: A Source Book 133). Georg Hegel asserted that while women could, “of course, be educated,” the female intellect was not “adapted to the higher sciences, philosophy, or certain of the arts” (ibid. 167). In “On Women,” Schopenhauer wrote that women existed solely for the purpose of reproduction, and since neither intellect, a sense of justice, honesty nor aesthetic awareness were in his view required for having babies, he believed that women either did not possess these qualities or possessed them in only the most limited fashion.

    Compare those images of women with antisemitic images of the Jews and some striking parallels emerge. Where, for example, Kant saw women as motivated entirely by self-indulgence, Bruno Bauer, in his 1843 work “The Capacity of Present-Day Jews and Christians to Become Free,” characterized the essence of Judaism as “the mere cunning of sensual egoism” (qtd. in Gilman 192). Similarly, Hegel’s definition of female intellectual inferiority finds a parallel in Ludiwg Wittgensteins’s pronouncement that the “Jewish mind does not have the power to produce even the tiniest flower or blade of grass that has grown in the soil of another’s mind and to put it into a comprehensive picture” (qtd. in Gilman 128). In 1903, Otto Weininger, a baptized Jew, published Sex and Character, a highly influential book in which he rendered the conceptual parallels I have just outlined in concrete biological and psychopathological terms. Human psychology, Weininger argued, existed along a continuum running from the Jewish mind on one end to the Aryan mind on the other, and this continuum, he asserted, runs parallel to another one, defined by masculinity and femininity. The connections Weininger makes between these two continuums are many. Neither Jews nor women, he says, possess true creativity; both are congenitally dishonest, lack a genuine sense of humor, and each exists without fully believing in the authenticity of that existence.

    Women, however–and of course he means Gentile women–have one advantage over Jews, for while neither Jews nor women believe “in themselves[,] the woman believes in others, in her husband, her lover, or her children, or in love itself; she has a center of gravity, although it is outside of her own being. The Jew believes in nothing, within or without him” (qtd in Gilman, 246).

    According to Weininger, this inability to believe in anything meant that, for the Jews, the world is reduced to the merely material. Transcendence, the ability to perceive the mystery beneath and beyond the commonplace, is impossible. Women, of course, were also materialistic in Weininger’s view, but they were at least partially able to transcend this flaw by believing in others, and if all else failed, (Christian) women could always fall back on faith in Jesus.The Jews lacked even that basic belief, making them, in Weininger’s schema, an even more fully realized version of female inferiority than any actual woman could ever be.

    (I need to pause here to acknowledge an awkwardness in what I am writing: To the degree that I have to accept Weininger’s discourse, or any of the antisemitic discourse I am talking about, in order to explain it, Jewish women are rendered doubly invisible, since they are subsumed under the category Jew, which was understood to refer to Jewish men, Jewish women being more or less beneath notice anyway. Maybe there is a way to write this without falling into that trap and without having constantly to twist around to remind the reader of the presence of Jewish women–a rhetorical strategy that, I think, would make it difficult to write about this material clearly–but I haven’t found it. It is an example of the double bind that antisemitism, that any oppression puts the oppressed in: how to talk about the terms of our own oppression without accepting–even if only to argue against them–the rhetorical and discursive, if not semantic, boundaries set by those terms. I will talk a little bit about this phenomenon below. Here I want simply to acknowledge that I am caught in it with regards to Jewish women.)

    Jewish materialism, Weininger believed, contaminated every aspect of life in which Jews were involved. Medicine, for example, had once been “closely allied with religion,” which meant with questions of morality and the spiritual significance of human existence. As more and more Jews began to enter the profession, however, they turned healing into a matter of drugs, a mere administration of chemicals, which Weininger saw as evidence of the Jew’s lack of creativity: “The chemical interpretation of organisms sets [those organisms] on a level with [the Jews] own dead ashes.” In response to this contamination, Weininger understood the time in which he lived to be a time of choice “between Judaism and Christianity […] between male and female” (qtd in Gilman’s The Jew’s Body 137-7). It is in the context of this choice–which Weininger may have articulated for his generation, but which has been implicit in antisemitic rhetoric since at least as far back as Thomas de Cantimpre’s “explanation” of Jewish male menstruation–that the significance of Zionism for the Jews needs to be understood. For Jewish nationalism was not motivated simply by the long-held desire to return to the Jewish homeland in Palestine. Zionism was also, or at least also became, an explicit refutation of the notion of Jewish male effeminacy; and the apotheosis of that refutation, Zionists believed, lay in realizing Jewish claims to the land of Palestine.

    The irony, of course, is that in order to refute the notion of Jewish male effeminacy, Zionists almost had no choice but to accept its basic premise as valid. As Gilman points out “[…] Jewish scientists […] needed to accept the basic ‘truth’ of the statistical arguments of medical science during this period. They could not dismiss published statistical ‘facts’ out of hand and thus operated within [the] categories [those facts established]” (ibid. 47). Among those facts was statistical evidence showing a higher incidence of mental illness among Jews in Germany than among German Catholics or Protestants. Gilman suggests that this difference probably reflected a higher rate of hospitalization of Jews for mental illness, but the data were used at the time to argue that Jews were innately prone to psychopathology, specifically neurasthenia and hysteria, quintessentially feminine (and feminizing) mental disorders. Why the Jews were subject to these diseases was a matter of some debate. Members of the Parisian Anthropological Society offered explanations ranging from the Jewish practice of endogamous marriage, which resulted in the marriage of first cousins–defined in 19th century Europe as incest–to the Jews’ ostensible preoccupation with mysticism and the supernatural (Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred 286-88). In either case, however, the cause was understood to be innate. Incest, of course, was thought to weaken a people genetically, and the idea of Jewish superstition stood in the long tradition of the Jews’ inherently deficient way of seeing the world. (Recall, as well, The Malleus Maleficarum had to say about women and superstition.)

  30. AnneThropologist
    July 24, 2009 at 8:54 am

    Hi Daisy,

    Have you ever read Marge Piercy’s “He, She, and It?” It’s a sci-fi/fantasy utopian novel that explores the construction of gender and humanity. The story of a golem from the past is interwoven with the story of an android from the future. It’s fascinating, and I think you’d probably enjoy it.

  31. freddybak
    July 24, 2009 at 9:23 am

    Stereotypes often, of course not always, appear because there is a grain of truth to them when it comes to at least a statistically significant portion of the stereotyped population. Many of us Jewish men tended to behave this way is because there was no other option. The same situation was present when choosing a profession. Jews were kept in their place and any masculine and confident (i realize many here will say the latter has nothing to do with the former, but humor me) display was threatening to the majority. To survive was to remain meek. Woody Allen existed because he was raised with all of those nervous insecurities. I immigrated from from the Soviet Union with my family when I was 6 and I can see the stark difference in behavior between immigrant Jewish families and wealthier ones who have been here for generations. Much of the lack of masculinity in men has withered away as the generations get more and more assimilated. Having said that, the easter european Jews of today are not the same ones escaping the pogroms. PLENTY of anti- semitism in the USSR and as well as today’s Eastern Europea, but it was nothing compared to late 18th/early 19th century.

    One of the reasons WASPS often exhibited such calm and confident demeanor while Jews were nervous meek wrecks is from experience. One group knew they were entitled so walked around as such whereas another group was nervous lest everything be taken from them at moments notice. Hard to be a badass masculine dude with this going through your mind all the time. But of course, we have Liev Shriver!

  32. July 24, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Kai, not to sidetrack, but Scorsese’s Ace Rothstein is a very lightly fictionalized Lefty Rosenthal, a skinny, cerebral bookie who lived by his wits, and Joe Pesci’s character is a lightly fictionalized Tony “the Ant” Spilotro, the thug who lived by violence. Just sayin’.

    Mob genre trivia: Pesci was physically similar to Spilotro, but his Tommy character in Goodfellas was actually modeled on Tommy DeSimone, who was in real life about 6’4″ tall and physically imposing.

  33. Jelperman
    July 27, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Ron Mix was a Hall of Fame offensive tackle. Jews can do sports, and not just as kickers.

  34. Elianah
    October 15, 2009 at 3:33 am

    An example of the mannish Jewish woman stereotype: In the movie “Keeping the Faith”, Ben Stiller, a Rabbi, is always being set up for dates with Jewish women, who are always power hungry, loud, and obnoxious (and brunette). Then the gentile girl comes in, with her kindness and shiny straight blond hair. Ben Stiller falls in love with gentile-girl, of course.

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