You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Who’s a Real Jewish Man? Some Historical Learnin’

Alyssa Goldstein
December 21, 2011

by Alyssa Goldstein

So my semester’s done, which means I can get back to blogging here a lot more regularly, rather than having my senior thesis eat my life. Or I could write about my thesis here, too! There are a lot of interesting and hilaritragic things I’ve learned in the course of researching it, like the fact that Avigdor Lieberman once punched a twelve year old boy in the face. The more you know!

My thesis is on the Israeli anti-miscegenation movement: the non-profit organizations like Yad L’Achim and Lehava, as well as the municipal programs in places like Petach Tikva and Tel Aviv, that have the noble goal of preventing sexy times between Jewish women and Palestinian men. I’m trying to contextualize this movement in a number of ways: by looking at how the actors in this movement construct Jewish-Palestinian relationships as a social problem, but also by looking at how this movement presupposes a certain kind of relationship between the personal romantic choices of the individual and the status of the collective. I’m arguing — to put a long story very briefly and simply — that this is a kind of echo of the early Zionist idea that appears most strongly in Max Nordau’s muscle Judaism. In Nordau’s ideology, the strengthening and masculinizing of individual Jewish bodies, and the building of the national collective, are inextricably linked. Of course, the idea that Jewish bodies need to be strengthened and “regenerated” only makes sense if you think that there was something wrong with them in the first place.

Now, before I started this research, I’d always thought that Western European Zionists like Nordau were just internalizing all the European Christian negative stereotypes about Jews, but actually it was a lot more complicated than that. Some of it was a reaction to Eastern European Jewish ideas about masculinity and the body, which were arguably quite different (in an awesome way) than Western European ideas. As I write in my thesis:

According to Daniel Boyarin, the traditional Eastern European Jewish construction of masculinity was based around the notion of edelkayt, which instructed men to be gentle, shy, and studious. Conversely, women were encouraged cultivate “activity and even aggressivity in dealing with the outside world.” As a consequence, European Christians developed a stereotype of Jews as improperly gendered, “as queer, as sexually predatory, or as entirely sexless.” This is not to say that traditional Eastern European Jewish society was not deeply patriarchal, or that woman were regarded as equals to men, or that all members of the society had the same practices and beliefs about masculinity. However, it does mean that Eastern European Jews could celebrate and construct a masculinity around characteristics that non-Jewish Europeans may have derided as “feminine,” without seeing themselves as asexual, disembodied, or undesirable because of it. On the contrary, Boyarin argues that “Rabbis [of the Talmud] had — and indeed were — bodies” but that “it is also this very insistence on embodiedness that marks the male Jew as being female, for maleness in European culture has frequently carried a sense of not-being-a-body, while the body has been inscribed as feminine.” It is important to note that early Zionist ideology was not just a reaction to European Christian prejudices about Jews. It was also an effort on the part of Western European Jews to supposedly improve and “civilize” Eastern European Jews, whose bodies and ways of life were seen as deviant, inferior, embarrassing, or pitiful.

To be continued . . .