Jewishness and Masculinity from the Modern to the Postmodern by Neil R. Davison (review) Academic Article uri icon


  • Neil Davison is not the first or last to foray into the field of Jewish masculinity. He follows a long list of scholars from George Mosse and Sander Gilman to Emmanuel Levinas and the Boyarin brothers, whose various opinions and approaches are presented in the introduction to his ambitious and erudite study, Jewishness and Masculinity from the Modern to the Postmodern. Notably, Todd Pressner’s 2007 study Muscular Judaism: The Jewish Body and the Politics of Regeneration probed the role of the “Muscle Jew” in Zionist history, while Michal Dekel, in The Universal Jew: Masculinity, Modernity and the Zionist Moment (2011), fired a militant feminist riposte at a patriarchal Zionist reading of history and literature. Brother Keepers: New Perspectives on Jewish Masculinity (edited by Harry Brod and Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit, 2010), a sequel to Brod’s edited collection A Mensch among Men (2008), gives a broader view of contemporary American Jewish “men’s studies,” based largely on personal confessions and creative writing, although two chapters (by Israel Bartal and Michael Gluzman) provide a historical account of Jewish masculinity at critical junctures in Jewish history. Jewish masculinities do have a history, one that cannot be understood without examining the nuanced negotiation of Jewish and German identities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and, in particular, hermaphroditism and other gender ambiguity, a story explored in Jewish Masculinities: German Jews, Gender, and History (edited by Benjamin Maria Baader, Sharon Gillerman, and Paul Lerner, 2012). Jewish Masculinities, like Davison’s book under review, is a model of how gender has entered studies of Jewish history and literature; both demonstrate how the feminized “Jew” was perceived in fin-de-siècle Vienna and elsewhere in Europe as a threat to normative sexuality and social stability. While being represented as cowardly and emasculate, in order to enter modernity male Jews had to negotiate their gendered role, one that originated in medieval theological and medical notions of the “Jew” as Other, and which was appropriated by German race theory, not always negatively. The cult of the healthy body in early twentieth-century Germany (later adapted to the Nazi glorification of the Aryan body) attracted Jews who had internalized the figure of the feminized “Jew,” while the Zionist movement promoted the healthy bodies of men and women settling the land of Israel, in contrast to the weak Jews of the ghetto. Why the burgeoning interest in Jewish masculinity? Assimilation in America brought conformity to social practice in sex and marriage, but, as we see in Brother Keepers, the sexual revolution and women’s liberation have brought new challenges to Jewish men who found that the unlimited sexual expectations offered by the permissive society, especially promiscuity and pornography, were not always borne out in reality. While the Jewish family has been eroded as the stable pillar of the Jewish community, the rabbis’ warnings about controlling animalistic desire seem lost on many men enraptured by promotion of hyper-masculinity. Virility has become a concern to men who think this is the sole test of their masculinity, while the Israeli victory in the Six Day War was an epochal event for American Jews who could now be proud of Jewish courage and fighting spirit. There had been tough Jews, not to mention Jewish gangsters, yet the Benia Kriks had not erased the self-image of the emasculate or feminized diaspora Jew, embedded in both Western and early Zionist discourse. Now the so-called “New Jew” is “in the face” about sexual matters and posits post-gender, post-religious, and post-Zionist Jewish masculinity. But the stereotypes are still around to nag at the American Jewish male and provide a butt for comedy in American television sitcoms, as well as in Heeb magazine. The campaign against circumcision has reached the United States, with pseudo-scientific claims that circumcision undermines sexual performance and is at odds with politically correct human-rights discourse. The call for an “intact” body recalls Hellenistic Jews’ attempts to decircumcize themselves in order to fit contemporary models of the male body. At the same time, the postmodern blurring of sexual and gender boundaries throws open all identities and enables UK-based performance artist Oreet Asherry to cross...

publication date

  • January 1, 2014