Sherwin Nuland on Melvin Konner’s “The Jewish Body”

Sherwin Nuland on Melvin Konner’s “The Jewish Body” June 4, 2010

{Melvin Konner. The Jewish Body. Schocken 2009. 304 pp. $22.00}

Reviewed By Sherwin B. Nuland

Melvin Konner of Emory University is one of America’s most distinguished anthropologists, whose talents include the ability to make himself easily and enjoyably understood by readers with no background in his area of expertise. He also teaches in the university’s human biology and Jewish studies programs. When a scholar with such qualifications focuses his attention on a theme as potentially amorphous as The Jewish Body, we can anticipate a perspective that allows him to roam over a wide and rich territory of sociological, biological, and historic turf. At the same time, we can also expect that he will give form to his large subject.

Konner lays out his plan at the outset: “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 Jewish contributions to civilization.” This is precisely what he does and more, enlightening his readers on the matter of that body as seen by non-Jews and the effect on the Jewish self-image.

The Jews, Konner points out, introduced to the ancient world the notion of a God without a body, so different from the conceptions of deities held by the various peoples among whom they lived. With that idea came the belief that their own bodies must be treated in highly specific ways, so as to maintain their purity. How ironic then that so many of their later antagonists, particularly Christians, should see them as ugly contaminants on their own pristine civilizations. Since the dawn of recorded time, the Jewish body has been a target of contempt on which the animosities of other groups have been focused.

Observant Jews have always lived by strict laws dictating what can be put into their bodies, but Konner reminds us that their notions of purity hardly end there: Jews even go so far as to recite a blessing over the contents of what leaves the body. And they have rules about menstrual blood and surprisingly liberal attitudes toward conjugal sexuality, whose underlying purpose is to encourage marital relationships that lead toward a birth rate that will sustain or increase the population. Nevertheless, today, Konner points out, for every 100 Jewish deaths, there are 85 births, causing a “demographic crisis” that should be promptly addressed. The statistics are stark. “Jewish numbers are barely where they were before the Holocaust, and they are not growing,” he warns. Among his suggestions are: “A birth-control buyback program for monogamous married couples? A serious money prize for the third and more for the fourth, fifth, and sixth babies? Free Viagra?”

Jews celebrate the holy covenant with their God by maintaining their personal cleanliness with all manner of ceremonies and rituals, including circumcision, hand-washing, and ritual baths. But no degree of purity could undo the fact of Jewishness that led many gentiles to see them as deformed and contaminated.

After all, did they not have a propensity toward misshapen, frequently hooked noses and other features equally unattractive to their own and gentile eyes? Did their inclination to study the esoterica of sacred texts to the exclusion of physical activity not enervate them and bend their backs? Christian communities made ever more repulsive the Jew of caricature, until the Jew of reality actually began to see himself in that image. Konner draws an image not only of physical but also of moral ugliness, a weak body, and a cowardly, treacherous disposition.

Should the weakness somehow be transcended, in modern times it would often be in the form of the prizefighter whose victories in the ring were celebrated by his co-religionists as proof that even in the midst of accusations and realities, the Jewish body and spirit could rise to acts of heroism that were universally admired. How much more powerful was this brave image when added to it was the figure of a pugilist who was also a war hero, like the celebrated Barney Ross, born Beryl David Rosofsky? Those of us old enough to remember Ross will also remember the avidity with which we followed his many bouts in the ring, the tales of his battlefield exploits and our relief when he overcame the drug habit that had resulted from the treatment of his war wounds. Konner proudly adds his name to those of forty other Jewish men who wore championship belts, more than a few with the Star of David emblazoned on their boxing trunks and robes.

We read about such eminences in a chapter entitled “Tough Jews,” which also includes descriptions of the pimps, gangsters, and murderers who rose from a people who for centuries were taught to eschew sin, violence, and crime. There is no pride to be found in reading names such as Arnold Rothstein, Dutch Schultz, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and the C.E.O. of Murder Incorporated, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. Their toughness hardly made up for the grist they added to the mill of disreputable qualities associated with Jews everywhere.

Jews did what they could to escape physical recognition of their Jewishness, ranging from nose jobs to alterations of other body parts associated in their own and gentile minds with their ethnic inferiority. It was not enough to straighten the kinky hair and dye it blond, or to pin ears back in a surgical operation; the concept of the modern rhinoplasty was introduced at a meeting of the Berlin Medical Society in 1898 — by a Jewish surgeon, no less, though one who had devoted a lifetime of effort to avoid identification with his people. Konner reports the encouraging news that nose jobs “appear to have peaked in the sixties and seventies”; since then “it seems that rhinoplasty among Jews has gone into decline,” though perhaps temporarily. “We don’t know.”

Also in decline are the vile representations with which the Jew has become so familiar during the course of these thousands of years. The virulence of these depictions reached a crescendo in the approximately 100 years between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries, and then receded as the world became acquainted with an image more consistent with that of the dedicated warriors of the Bible and with a new reality as expressed by the existence of the state of Israel.

But before such a desired outcome could take place, the Jewish people, at least those of Europe, would have to live — or die — through a period of unimaginable horror worse than any they had endured in their long history of torment and martyrdom. Germany was the focus of greatest despair, but its manifestations radiated from there to virtually the entire continent.

The process had begun in a familiar way. When the germ theory of disease was promulgated in the 19th century — bolstered, incidentally, by the contributions of more than a few Jewish scientists — it was only a matter of time before the list of derisions against the Chosen People would include comparisons with poisonous bacteria and other vermin of a putrefying nature. Given the will, a nation could turn even the objective truths of science to slanders meant to equate what is Jewish with what is insidious and disgusting.

No culture was more innovative in such distortions of reality than the culture of National Socialism, which taught also that the intermixing of Jewish genes with those of Aryan origin was corrupting the unsullied substance of the master race, sapping its energies and fraying its moral fiber. Concocted racial theory taught of imminent danger to the health of an endangered population already burdened with an infectious slime of alien microbial origin. To expunge the stealthy agents of corruption, Germany embarked upon a herculean ethnic cleansing in the form of an extreme response to what was obviously a public health crisis. The Jews themselves were a disease, as Konner describes in a passage typical of his narrative skill:

German physicians and scientists rose to the occasion. Doctors were among the first, most enthusiastic, and most loyal of Nazis — after, that is, they had purged their ranks of Jewish colleagues. German medical scientists were the most important intellectual pillars of the Nazi war against the Jews. Dr. Josef Mengele, M.D., Ph.D., was not stationed at Auschwitz just to decide who should be murdered by gassing immediately and who looked healthy enough to be worth working to death. He was there as a medical, public health, and racial expert, to certify that every Jew sent to the gas chambers was murdered for health reasons — the health of the pure German race. Nazi mass murder needed a doctor’s signature on what was, in effect, a prescription for German health.

It would be up to the Jews to create a new notion of their bodies, and for this to occur, leaders with imagination were needed. While Theodor Herzl had been imagining a Jewish state around the turn of the 20th century, his stalwart supporter, the physician and journalist Max Nordau, was imagining a Jewish body of the kind that had not been the usual conception since Biblical times. Nordau wrote in 1903 of what he called Muskeljudentum, a Jewry of muscles. By this he meant a vigorous, strong nation of men and women with confidence in their bodies and the will to attain their objectives.

He thought it would take 300 years to erase what had been and replace it with what he believed should rightly be, Konner tells us. In fact, it took less than fifty for his dream to be realized in the form of the state of Israel and the awakening of the new self-perception that Israel’s existence and triumphs instilled in Jews everywhere. The most recent quadrennial Jewish Olympics and Maccabiah Games, held in 2005, drew 7,700 Jewish athletes to Jerusalem from all over the world.

In this wide-ranging and provocative book, Konner discusses such things with a unique and highly literate perspective on Jewish contributions to culture, thought, and the history of civilization. He has gifted his readers with a memorable and often moving experience.

This article was first published at Moment Magazinea Patheos Partner, and is reprinted with permission.

Sherwin B. Nuland is clinical professor of surgery at Yale University and research affiliate in the university’s Program in the History of Science and Medicine and its Institution for Social and Policy Studies.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!