“A God without a body. From the beginning, this peculiar, even crazy notion anchored the faith of the Jews and made them objects of ridicule and suspicion among their neighbors“. So are the opening words of The Jewish Body, by Melvin Konner. The book is an intriguing book, detailing so many events and issues that are relevant to the Jewish body. By body, I mean the body of an individual, and the body of a people, all-encompassing.
From Jewish holidays and celebrations to birth and circumcision, menstruation, death and burial, Jewish boxers, and Jews obsessed with the idea of changing their physical appearance, The Jewish Body holds a wealth of theories and thought-provoking content. Some of it isn’t necessarily what readers might want to see, such as how Konner includes those Jews who were thugs, street smart Jews, those who ran prostitution rings. “Networks of thieves, pickpockets, fences, pimps, enforcers, and arsonists staked out the Lower East Side, a lot of them Jews”.
Physical appearance and strength are major issues within the pages. Konner addresses the holidays and celebrations, the drinking and festivities. Konner gives the reader a lot to ponder, as they read the pages. He touches on genetics (similarities between Jews and non-Jews in certain areas of the world), habits, fertility, and sex.
He writes in depth about fertility and man’s perception of women. He elaborates as to why men prefer women who don’t necessarily look Jewish. Those women have smaller noses, might have blond hair, might look more youthful, etc. Konner sees this as being intertwined with the issue of fertility. The younger the woman, the more she is able to conceive and bear children. Many women had nose surgery in order to alter their appearance, and because smaller noses were more appealing to men. The way others view Jews has had an affect on the way they want to present themselves to the world, in Konner’s view.
Konner believes that the Holocaust did a lot for the resulting identity crisis and the physical assimilation of Jews. From his perspective, Jews wanted to change their physical appearance in order to blend in and fit better with their environment. This is especially true of Jews who emigrated to America.
There is a chronology at the back of the book that is informative. The book is infused with illustrations and pen and ink examples. Much of the text is written from a philosophical perspective, with scientific examples included. From head to toe, the external Jewish body is verbally examined. The internal body is examined as far as the organs go. The soul is illuminated, and the contrasts of the physical Jewish body with the spiritual body is compared.
I like Konner’s biblical references to the Jewish body, and the pride they have in their bodies and faith. He compares the respect they had for “physical prowess” to that of the Greeks. From Abraham to David, etc., he infuses the strength of the Jews within the book, but also the pitfalls of strength and power. According to Konner: “So even ignoring persecution, being “chosen” isn’t always good”. He references that statement to the individuals who are handicapped by genetic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs.
The Jewish Body is a fantastic in glimpse into the physical aspect of Jews. The Jewish body of one individual, and the Jewish body of a group of people is written about with extreme clarity. The book delves into the relationship between strength and the people (both as individuals and as a historical group of people) and the fortitude and ideals that were necessary in order to create a homeland for Jewish people.
Konner is an anthropologist, and it shows in his writing, and in the word imagery he presents the reader in order to support his theories. His thoughts on genetics are fascinating, although he doesn’t necessarily have definitive or affirmative answers to the subject discussed. He is articulate, precise and vivid in his details. The Jewish Body is an extremely intriguing book, giving the reader a look at Jewish individuals from a unique perspective. The book enthralled me, held me from the first page. I could go on and on with my thoughts, but I will stop here, other than to say this: I highly recommend The Jewish Body, by Melvin Konner to everyone.
I personally own and have read this book. I have read similar books, before, and each one offers a different perspective regarding the physical body and religion.
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June 4, 2012 – 14 Sivan, 5772