by Harold Ticktin
There is a long history of thought about the Jew and his/her body, but the part of the Jewish body of most concern to Jews and Gentiles alike has clearly been the nose. In Yiddish, its alleged shape is called hoykedike, hooked — a term that, along with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, just never seems to go away.
In 1996, at the Jewish Museum in New York, the exhibit entitled Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities included Dennis Kardon's "Casts of Noses of Jews in the Art World," with row after row of Jewish noses, with a special showing for Barbara Streisand. Twelve years later, at Berlin's Jewish Museum (in a show called "Typical! Cliches About Jews and Others"), and at the Spertus Museum in Chicago, Kardon's "49 Jewish Noses" were on display.
Long before artists got into the act, however, the anthropologist Maurice Fishberg in 1911 measured some 4,000 Jewish noses in New York — an event that entered Yiddish pedagogy. Sander Gilman, a modern version of Fishberg, described in The Jew’s Body the medical “science” that once held that Jews walked funny, tended toward hysteria, and transmitted syphilis while remaining immune to it (no small trick). Gilman coined the term “nostrility” for the matter of the nose.
Amazingly the subject is also evoked in Uriel Weinreich’s definitive textbook, College Yiddish, specifically chapter 23. Weinreich’s text has stood the test of time since its 1946 publication. Widely used in American colleges, it consists of 30 chapters. I slogged through it to teach myself Yiddish and found in Chapter 23 the most memorable teaching tool ever.
After twenty-two lessons, Weinreich was eager to keep the student’s attention alive. He entitled Chapter 23, “Di Yiddishe Noz,” and opened with this somber note, which I reduce to its essentials (my translation): “It is said that according to the form of the nose one can tell who is a Jew and who is not, by the hoykedike shape. Is this true? What do the anthropologists say? One anthropologist [here enters Fishberg, although unnamed] measured the noses of 4,000 New York Jews. This is what he found.” The results are then tabulated for the student:
Form of the Nose
(Courtesy of YIVO)
Weinreich’s coda is quite predictable: “From this we see that one cannot tell who is a Jew and who is not by the shape of the nose.”
The “antropologist” whom Weinreich cited was far from obscure. Maurice Fishberg sprouted from the same academic tree as the great Franz Boas. Fishberg, in fact, was the first Jewish anthropologist and his magnum opus was a monumental 1911 volume entitled simply The Jews (subtitled, "A Study of Race and Environment"; according to the academic mores of the age, Jews were defined as a race). Fishberg used calipers to measure all those noses, a major feat all by itself, with the exact results, in English, published on page 78 of his book.
A few years ago, my wife and I spent time in Trieste, Italy with the goal of tracing the steps of James Joyce (1904-1924), who had taught English in a Berlitz school there. A permanent exhibition about the author of the 20th century’s most important novel lists the books he kept in his personal library — including The Jews by Fishberg. This titillated me, for obviously Leopold Bloom had not appeared out of thin air, not even in airy Dublin. Nor did Joyce’s interest in Hebraism come solely from books. It was in Trieste that Joyce first encountered Jews in all their sizes and shapes, physical and intellectual, including the student he mentored, Italo Svevo (b. Ettore Schmidt) a leading Italian novelist.
Just recently I also learned that when Sholem Aleichem first came to America, with the promise seeing his plays produced, guess who was his agent? You got it, none other than the ubiquitous (at least in my life) M. Fishberg.
In the forty years since I first laid eyes on Lekstya 23, who could expect that Fishberg’s 4,000-nose survey would keep popping up in my life?
Nonagenerian Harold Ticktin is a retired attorney in Shaker Heights, OH, long involved in the civil rights and labor movements, a self-taught Yiddishist, and a regular contributor to Jewish Currents.