The Jewish Body: A Book Review

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 Magazine, a 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.

4/13/2010 4:00:00 AM
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