In my previous posts I’ve looked at masculinity (and if you haven’t read these before this one you should) and today I’m going to look at what this meant for Jewish men.
Jews were outsiders. They didn’t quite fit into British (or European) society. As a result, they were portrayed as being the opposite of what a man should be. Instead of being beautiful in the manner of the Greeks, Jewish men were pictured as ugly. The Jewish nose was pictured as opposite to the Greek nose, Jews were pictured as having no neck, big ears and were a ‘swarthy’ colour – picture Fagin from Oliver. This was absolutely the opposite of the ideal. Jewish men were also seen to be against the ideal character. Instead of showing ‘manly’ qualities Jews were studious, timid, quiet and avoided physical exercise (scholarship was encouraged in Jewish religious tradition, unlike in British traditions). Jewish men were seen as prone to hysteria – an affliction of the uterus which affected women. Added to the religious obligation of circumcision, Jewish men were often seen as womanly.
So what did they do about this? In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the idea of muscular Judaism developed. This wasn’t something that was unique to Judaism, the idea of muscular Christianity was also popular at this time. Muscular Christianity promoted the development of muscles at the same time as maintaining religious links. Muscular Judaism was very similar, but had the added purpose of squashing the notion that Jews were the anti-man. Muscular Jews needed to develop the Greek body and to develop true manly characteristics. Muscular Judaism was an antidote to anti-Jewish images and encouraged Jews to develop themselves in line with non-Jewish ideals.