By Jordy Silverstein
We’re all pretty familiar, I think, with the stereotype of the Ashkenazi Jewish man who doesn’t play sport. Living in Melbourne, that Ashkenazi stereotype gets placed upon the whole community, resulting in us seeing Jewish sportspeople as the exception. The idea is that we’re bookish, introverted, given to being studious and sitting around talking and studying rather than exerting ourselves physically. In both German and Yiddish this is the luftmensch, the ‘air person’, who exists in the world of ideas, rather than the physical world. In his vital book Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, US-based Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin has described this as ‘a widespread sensibility that being Jewish in our culture renders a boy effeminate.’ This effeminacy is part of an idea of the gender order, wherein Ashkenazi Jewish men have been seen as inadequate (and Jewish women, or Jews who have not fit into the gender binary, or Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Jews of Colour, or non-Ashkenazi Jews in general, are erased or subsumed in the imagination into this stereotype).
So whether one plays sport, what activities one does with one’s body and brain, have implications for how a person is seen. That’s hardly surprising – most of us understand this to be the case. Australian masculinity is saturated with ideas of sportsmanship, and one’s place in society often sits in relationship to this.
But for Jews, and particularly Ashkenazi Jews, this relationship has long and complicated histories, which should be understood through a history of antisemitism and the ways that it has been scripted onto the imagined Jewish body.
Sander Gilman, one of the foremost scholars of the European Jewish body, has written about the ways different parts of the body were given antisemitic meaning in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One part he looks at is the so-called Jewish foot. In the nineteenth century, particularly in Germany and Austria, Jews were imagined to have a flat foot and to walk with a faulty gait. In Austria in 1804 the Jews’ ‘weak feet’ were given as ‘the reason that the majority of Jews called into military service were released, because the majority of Jewish soldiers spent more time in the military hospitals than in military service.’ Nazi caricaturists drew Jews’ deformed bodies, and showed Jews as having flat or ruined feet. Over these couple of hundred years, Gilman shows, Jews were seen as having feet which disrupted their ability to properly participate in social institutions such as the army, or the gymnasium, both of which were central to European society. Jews were not seen as having fit bodies, and thus as not being a proper part of the body politic. Because they could not participate in the army, they were not contributing to society. Jewish bodies were seen as lacking, and so Jews were seen as lacking. They could not be considered full members of the citizenry.
When antisemitism clings to the biological body like this – when it’s seen as inevitable – it’s hard to shake. And its thinking moves around, getting into everything.
Indeed, Herzl – the founder of modern political Zionism, whose memory is regularly invoked in celebratory fashion within the Melbourne Jewish community – wrote in the 1890s that he believed the Jewish people ‘must train the youth to be soldiers. But only a professional army… However I must educate one and all to be free and strong men, ready to serve as volunteers if necessary. Education by means of patriotic songs, the Maccabean tradition, religion, heroic stage-plays, honor, etc.’ In designing a Jewish nationalism, Herzl was profoundly influenced by the ways in which nineteenth century German nationalism was being shaped. According to Tamar Mayer, Herzl admired the way in which Germans had been mobilised around the nationalist cause and believed that ‘a similar future for the Jewish nation’ was possible. He thought that this could be the cure for the ‘problems caused by 2,000 years of living in exile.’ These problems materialised, Herzl believed, in the lacking masculinity of Jewish men in Europe. As such, the reform of the Jews needed to take place primarily at the level of the physical—with a changing of the body. Mayer writes that ‘[t]he New Jew’s characteristics were to mimic those of the gentiles: tall, virile, close to nature and physically productive.’ The New Jew was to be embodied by those Jews who would live in the Jewish nation-state, in Israel. They would reform their bodies to be substantially different to the bodies of those of us who would live outside Israel. This is the difference between “Israel Man” and “diaspora boy” that Eli Valley depicts. And this was, some historians have come to agree, an ironically assimilationist move in the face of an experience of being persecuted on the grounds that Jews were not a robust national group. As in the antisemitic idea that Jews naturally have flat feet, in this formulation, the problems (and resolutions) of individual bodies were being mapped onto a national group identity.
So how does that continue today? And what can we do about it? Well firstly, I think it’s useful to know the histories we’re engaging with. When we celebrate strong Israeli Jewish bodies, the IDF, or the building of a Jewish nation-state in the mold of European nation-states, we’re working to reform a Jewish body – both body politic and physical body – which has been seen by antisemites as lacking. When we participate in furthering these materialities and these ideas, we are rejecting some historically valuable notions of Jewishness in favour of others. Antisemitism is potent, and it’s useful for us to remember that. Bookishness, and a rejection of an alignment of a nation with a state and an army, and a rejection of hard physical bodies, can be useful. Indeed, there is a long history of celebratory Jewish bookishness, study and learning. But antisemitism also has a long history, and there are lots of ways in which we need to reckon with its impact. To understand current formations of Australian Jewishness, and the futures that we’re seeking to produce for ourselves, we need to understand where our ideas of what it means to be Jewish come from.
This article has been published in our magazine Just Voices, Issue 14, Nov. 2017.