Turning Schwartzes Into Schwarzeneggers

Jews are commonly seen as cerebral types, but over the years extravagant attention has been paid to their limbs and sinews, their blood and semen, their noses, the shape of their feet and, recently, the map of their genes

The Jewish Bodyby Melvin KonnerNextbook / Schocken, 286 pages, $22

Jews' bodies are a Rorschach test. Throughout history, they have meant different things to different people, always revealing more about the observer than about the observed. The rabbis of the Talmud saw in circumcised Jews a superior species, literally a cut above the rest. Greek aesthetes saw the same Jews as maimed and deformed. Shakespeare saw in Jews the shriveled product of usury, a people twisted by their mammonist bent. The church fathers saw in Jews a physical wretchedness born of their denial of God's son. In time, Zionist ideologue and physician Max Nordau would see on Jews' physiques the imprint of generations of ghetto degradation. Look at a Jew's anatomy, they were all essentially saying, and you can see his character.

Melvin Konner's "The Jewish Body," the latest title in Schocken's quirky, enchanting Jewish Encounters series, leaves no doubt about all this. Jews are commonly seen as cerebral types, but as Konner shows, over the years extravagant attention has been paid, by Jew and Gentile alike, to their limbs and sinews, their blood and semen, their noses, the curve of their spines, the shape of their feet and, recently, the map of their genes. Confronting this plentitude in 17 short chapters, Konner stitches together a quilt-work panorama: In this panel, the rabbis of ancient Babylon; in that, St. Augustine; and in others, Theodor Herzl and Joseph Goebbels. Konner, an anthropologist who spent years with hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert, approaches much of his material - circumcision, for instance - with both the distance of a scholar and the familiarity of an insider, finding in it a primal act of self-definition, of making communal identity not just a state of mind but a matter of flesh.

Surveying the Talmud, Konner describes the rabbis' complex attitudes toward their own bodies and the pleasures and distractions they offered. Sex, the rabbis held, is an obligation - celibacy offers no special merit - but only within a regime ordered by religious commandments. Menstruation is a sort of pollution, a danger domesticated by rules that contain women, keeping them apart from their husbands and other men.

Konner ranges far, and the map of his explorations isn't always clear, but they take him in several directions at once: how Jews' bodies are portrayed in canonical Jewish books, how ritual practices (concerning sex, menstruation, circumcision, kashrut, death and more) codify attitudes toward human flesh and bones, how these attitudes leave their imprint on Jewish images of God, and most of all, how others (pagans, Christians, Muslims and, more recently, scientists) see Jewish bodies. It's a lot of ground to cover, and Konner - a man who has doubtless spent late nights reading journals of history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, Judaics, genetics and medicine, and yet sports his scholarship lightly - is an able and companionable guide.

At the same time, "The Jewish Body" is a book with a moral, and Konner states his message at the start:

If there is a thread that organizes all these themes, it is this: The world made the Jews weak, so weak for so long that even they became convinced that the only strength they would ever have would be mental. ... They came to mistrust the physical. ... But two great events of the twentieth century - one the worst thing that ever happened to the Jews and the other the best - turned the tables on Jewish weakness forever. Strength prevailed, because the very best powers of the Jewish mind became allied to a new physical strength, rising out of the ashes and blood of six million murders.

"The Jews tried mind alone for eighteen hundred years; that led to defenselessness, contempt, isolation, pogroms and finally mass murder.... The world has been, is, and will be a very dangerous place for Jews. They tried weakness - oh, how they tried; indeed, they were better versed in it than anyone else on earth. Strength is better."

It is this message - after 1,800 years of weakness, thank God we've toughened up - that drives "The Jewish Body" forward, explaining much of its emphasis on how generations of anti-Semites construed the physiology of Jews.

But there are problems with telling the history of Jewish bodies as a wretches-to-rugged, hapless-to-hardy, flaccid-to-fierce story. For one thing, it conflates attitudes toward the Jewish body with attitudes toward the Jewish body politic. To be sure, the two were at times related. The hunched, wan, twisted Jew of 19th-century European imagination (think Fagin, Dickens' "very old shriveled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair") was the product of circumstances in which "society" had little use and no place for Jews as a group. But the correlation between how Jews as individuals were viewed and how Jews as a group were viewed was never as straightforward as Konner seems to assume. The pallid ghetto Jew of European lore could be feeble and at the same time an unvanquishable menace. The Jew imagined to be draining Christians of their blood was feared precisely because he was strong, even at a moment that the Jews, as a group, were by all accounts pathetically weak.

Konner's account is too simple twice over. It slides too easily between its consideration of the physical stature of Jews - especially their strength or weakness - and its consideration of the political stature of the Jews - especially their power or powerlessness. And in so doing, it overlooks some of the complications of each stature, and the exquisite complexity of their relationship. In a way, Konner has compressed two books into his small volume: one about Jews' bodies, and the other about Jewish power and powerlessness. The second subject has been treated twice before in the Jewish Encounters series, once by Ruth Wisse in "Jews and Power" and then again, after a fashion, by Douglas Century in his brilliant account of American Jewish boxer Barney Ross.

At a time such as ours, when one may find in a Dizengoff cafe survivors of Auschwitz and veterans of Israel's War of Independence worriedly discussing Iran's uranium-enrichment program, the issue of Jewish weakness and strength is, as we say here, of "existential" importance, and one can hardly blame Konner for turning his wise attention to it as well.

But it is precisely at this point - not in his account of the Jewish body per se but in his account of Jewish power and the lack thereof - that Konner's account is most troubling. For one thing, it takes liberties with the Jewish past, which was not always as hapless as Konner makes out. The 1,800 years that Konner canvases included the proud centuries in Spain now called the "Golden Age" and long periods in such varied locales as Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Provence, North Africa, Ethiopia, Yemen, Persia and Syria (to name just some), in which Jews, while not autonomous, were neither abject nor enfeebled. ("The Jewish Body" ignores Sephardi Jewish culture altogether, a disheartening oversight.) Konner's narrative of the Jewish fall and rise also takes liberties with the present, in which Jews are hardly as Herculean as he makes us out to be.

The remarkable alchemy of early Zionism was not that it turned mice into lions or made Schwartzes into Schwarzeneggers; rather, the birth of the state served as evidence that a nation without Schwarzeneggers could still prevail. And it did this, largely, through the yiddisher kop, by placing an emphasis on brains over brawn. For a kid like me, raised in America, the biggest surprise upon enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces was not the powerful build of my fellow soldiers, but the way their puny stature disappointingly resembled my own. The average reserve company brings together pot-bellied, bad-backed chain-smokers into a deft fighting unit. The IDF is a brains-over-brawn outfit, and much the same can be said about all of Israel and its high-tech driven economy.On a 1968 family trip to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, my sister bought a poster of a pale-faced Hasid in a phone booth, ripping open his long black coat to reveal Superman's red and yellow diamond-shaped pentagon on a blue spandex background, the letter "S" replaced by the Hebrew letter "Shin." Leaving aside the bitter politics surrounding ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the military, the poster got something that Konner has missed: that the heroics of the Six-Day War were achieved not by Goliaths but by Davids. What was new about the new Jew was not so much his body as what he was prepared to do with it.

It may be that Konner sees the Jewish body in ascent because for himself, no less than for Augustine and Aquinas, the Jewish body remains a Rorschach test. In fact, although his book is full of fascinating tidbits, what gripped me most was the spectacle of Konner himself. Already by page 6, we've met him as a pudgy boy, lousy at sports, mooning over Bonnie Gitlin, "a seventh-grade goddess with a cloud of blond curls and (already!) actual breasts," finding relief in "late-night reveries" and fretting that "God was reading [his] filthy mind." We've seen him in his Brooklyn shul regarding with fascination a beefy survivor "said to have gone to the gas chambers three times, each time breathing the air in a space between the falling bodies," and a refugee from Russia who was missing the index finger he chopped off to escape service in the czar's army. We've seen him skip out on high school, at 16, and make his way to Washington, D.C., to see Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his "I have a dream" speech.

Konner's account is that of an American Jew who was born as the scale of the Holocaust was first becoming clear and who came of age with the 1967 Six-Day War. His is an identity hardened by the worst and best things to happen to the Jews, as well as by America's awkward struggle to shake its own prejudices. We follow Konner on his journey from New York to Chicago via the Kalahari, aware of how large a role Treblinka, Memphis and Entebbe play along the way. We observe him making sense of nose jobs and boob jobs, of Philip Roth and Betty Friedan, of his deaf parents and the wife he lost to breast cancer, of eugenics and the purported genetics of Jewish intelligence. By the end, it's hard not to register first what a mensch Konner is, and then just how strange and remarkable his times, and our own, have been.

While he was a young boy in the boroughs of New York, Konner tells us, a teenaged, locked-and-loaded Ruth Westheimer was a soldier escorting convoys through stretches of newly declared Israel, keeping an eye out for an ambush. Now, as Dr. Ruth, she is a wise and kindly oracle of sexual pleasure, whose celebrity endorsement one finds on the Eroscillator ("the only vibrator ever recommended by Dr. Ruth").Konner's point is this: In our day, it is not by their books alone that one may come to understand Jews, but also by their firearms and vibrators. Jewish bodies may not have changed as much as Konner seems to think since he was a kid. What has changed is some of what Jews do with their bodies. Following him as he makes sense of these changes is awkwardly affecting, and makes "The Jewish Body" in part a study of at least one Jew's spirit: that of Konner himself.

Noah Efron chairs the graduate program on Science, Technology & Society at Bar-Ilan University, and is a representative on the Tel Aviv city council.