When we think about the Jewish male body, two contrasting images usually come to mind. The first, linked to the Israel Defense Forces, reflects a “tough” individual, both militarised and brawny. The second presents a gentle and delicate Jew, a yielding man hunched over the Torah. This depiction is closely associated with the Eastern European Jewish culture, prevalent especially before World War II. Both operate as extremes.
Another would be the unfavourable likeness of a Jew to a short, rotund man with self-serving interests and a frugal mindset, which has been widespread since before the war, aiding the spread of antisemitism. As Nathan Abrams points out, that same depiction has been rerendered by shows like Seinfeld (1989-1998), which painted the Jewish male body as rather un-erotic. Other portrayals seem to revolve around the position of the Jew in history; he’s either a victim, or a victimiser. Interestingly, the X-Men‘s Magneto (Ian McKellan) adopted both stances.
The Circumcised Penis
Seen as an indicator of Jewish masculinity, the circumcised penis “sets the male Jew apart as Jewishness is literally inscribed on his body”. This function is highlighted in Hostel (2005) and The History Boys (2006). The Jewish penis is also seen as the crux of suffering and hardship, aligning with the bodily depiction of victimhood. That’s why images of male Jewish nudity, with particular reference to the Holocaust, have “exposed” the Jewish penis in all its “passivity”, often regarded as “femininity”.
Max Nordau, the co-founder of the Zionist Organisation, delivered a famous speech at the Zionist Congress held in Basel in 1897. In it, he honed in on “Jewish wretchedness“, seemingly drawing every point he made back to the body. The anxiety he referenced was presented as the cause of the body’s “daily distress”, meshing together the corporal and spiritual planes of one’s existence.
Matters of the Body
The Big Lebowski‘s (1998) Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) presents an interesting take on the image of the male Jew. In many way, his character forces a turnaround of the previously established stereotypes. He’s a convert to Judaism, which in itself is quite rare. Not only is he not presented as a muscular Jew, but he’s far from submissive. Instead, he navigates the world as a somewhat deranged Vietnam veteran with anger management issues. Single-handedly, he both adds humour to the plot, and shatters the audience’s preconceptions regarding his person.
Walter’s medial Jewishness, as seen through the link between the “inscribed body” and one’s identity, also ties into Nordau’s speech. That’s because by bringing into existence the image of the frail, suffering Jew, Nordau formed the ideal of the “muscle Jew”. Adhering to zionism’s extreme views, he expressed the need to,
What he meant, as Amraoui explains, is not a sudden submersion in the world of bodybuilding. What Nordau was referring to was a sowing of certain moral ideals in the minds of the future generations, particularly discipline, alertness and vigour. By fusing the mental aspect of the Jewish existence with the physical one, he hoped to nurture “physically fit, nationally minded and militarily strong Jews”.
Of course, his views inevitably inspired the creation of the aforementioned Israel Defense Forces. The mentality of those in the Israeli army is outlined in a bit more detail here.