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.