The Nebbish and the Muscle Jew
Archetypes of Jewish Masculinity
Meet the Nebbish; he wheezes, he aches, he slouches, he wrings his hands.
He is a nervous creature lacking in social graces. Haunted by all manner of complexes and phobias. He is instantly recognizable if not by his inability to face life’s daily hiccups, than by his physical form. The Nebbish is often hunched, as if folding in on himself. His arms either timidly and defensively stay close to his body, or writhe in the air in some spastic display of discontent.
Whether the Nebbish is knock-kneed or asthmatic, his physical shortcomings serve to stand in direct opposition to health, capability, and manhood. And as for his Jewishness, it is not a fitment of the character, but rather a parameter of the archetype itself.
In direct contrast to the Nebbish is the ‘New Jew’ or ‘The Muscle Jew’, broad shouldered and perpetually upright. He is void of the bookishness and introspection associated with Ashkenazi culture. The Muscle Jew does not live inside himself as the Nebbish does. His life instead is defined by acts of reproducing, providing, and colonizing.
The disparities between the two prominent archetypes of Jewish masculinity is sizable. And considering how small this intersection of ethnicity and gender is, the divide is chasmic. A large fissure through a grain of rice.
When considering which narrative grants Jewish men emancipation from a predetermined “Jewish form”, the answer is quite clearly; neither. Both the creation of Muscle Jews and the embrace of The Nebbish have, at some point, mirrored anti-Semitic depictions of Jewish masculinity. In the case of The Nebbish character Jewish entertainers take-on a persona with striking resemblance to the Jew of Nazi propaganda. Perhaps even serving as a testament to its success; so insidious that it is perpetuated today by Jews themselves. While, in attempts to create an oppositional identity to the feeble and victimized Jews of the Diaspora, the Muscle Jew movement further caricatured European Jewish men. And yet, both archetypes hold historical, Talmudic claim to Jewish identity.
The Case for the Nebbish
Consumers of popular culture enjoy a media diet overrun with Jewish entertainers proudly playing to this convention. The combined efforts of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David have created a kind of Nebbish Cinematic Universe, in which wobbly chairs and improper greetings warrant entire story arcs, and complaints are always presented with that signature groaning cadence (“He’s nice…bit of a close talker”).
The traits of The Nebbish cannot be divorced from his Jewishness, as American playwright Rachel Shukert puts it “The Nebbish is always Jewish, even if he’s not actually a Jew, to the point where he’s become synonymous with Jewish manhood itself, embedded, if you will, in his DNA.”
When the cannon of a character rubs up against their perceived Jewishness, an almost feverish confusion is kicked up among fans and scholars alike. The neurosis of George Costanza (Jason Alexander) mixed with the absence of a direct mention to his Judaism, qualifies him as what Jeffrey Shandler would call a “Crypto Jew”; a characters who “while nominally identified as having some other ethnicity or religion, are nonetheless regarded [by some viewers and even some creators] as Jews in disguise.” Inversely, the stated Jewishness of Brooklyn 99’s boyish and dangerous detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) is met with suspicion. Some viewers even show dismay that Sandberg, an actor who proclaims his appearance cannot be identified with anything but Jewishness, fails to brandish a character with more Nebbish traits.
Though, just as often as you can spot this caricature in prime-time TV, can you see it in WWII era anti-Semitic propaganda. In the German children’s book “Trust No Fox on his Green Heath and No Jew on his Oath”, the image of a broad-chested German stands alongside round, lumbering Jew.
However, to conclude that Jews who proudly wield their Nebbish-ness are suffering from internalized anti-Semitism is a misstep in the eyes of some Jewish scholars. In his book Unheroic Conduct:The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Male, historian Daniel Boyarin argues the Jewish men have historically seen themselves as gentle and unimposing. Asserting that the “feminized” male is the “Jewish ideal going back to the Babylonian Talmud.” And of the inflammatory images seen throughout history of the impotent Jew, Boyarin argues that it is “more than just an anti-Semitic stereotype” but an “assertive historical product of Jewish culture.”
In this view, the idiosyncrasies of our most prominent pop-culture Nebbishes are an expression of essentially Jewish sensibilities. While the thoughtful and bookish Jewish man has been caricatured and weaponized by the Nazi state, the archetype is now back in the control of Jewish creators themselves where it can be characteristically challenged, prodded and fussed over.
The Case for the Muscle Jew
By the turn of the 20th century, the growing Zionist movement began to promote an alternative form of Jewish manhood, known as “Muscular Judaism”. The movement looked eastward, to a land where the diasporic Jew could step into the sun; feet planted, arms akimbo. In a seemingly inevitable crossing of nationalist aesthetics, this rebranding of the Jewish body produced imagery uncannily similar to the German Aryan/anti-Jew ( insert figure 2, as compared to figure 1)
So was the Muscle Jew just an internalization of the Aryan ideal? Max Nordau, credited with establishing the archetype in his 1903 “Muskeljudentum” (Muscular Judaism) article, would give a resounding Nein. Muskeljudentum is laden with references to a once mighty Jewish form, famously stating “History is our witness that such a Jewry had once existed…“Let us take up our oldest traditions; let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”
When considered in the greater context of the Zionist movement, it is clear why adhering to such a narrative was crucial. Zionism is built on the idea of the return. The entire validity of the movement is based on a kind of homecoming to the original Jewish self-identity, an identity that can come to fruition by a mass ‘return’ to Israel, and to the Hebrew language. To suggest that the “Muscle Jew” is an imposition on original and familiar ideas of Jewishness, is to question the basis of Zionism itself. Yet, even when divorced from the political urgency of the early 1900s, there are those that still argue the traditional self-concept of the Jewish body is one of power and sensuality.
“We read of the Jews who attempted to rebuild the Temple using the trowel with one hand, while with the other they warded off the blows of the molesting enemy. Where are the warrior-mechanics today equal to either feat… Let our first care to-day be the re-establishment of our physical strength, the reconstruction of our national organism…” -An Epistle to the Hebrews
In his book, The Jewish Body, anthropologist Melvin Konner writes “Long before their enemies described the Jewish body, Jews themselves defined it …Some writers such as Philip Roth have depicted Jews as being anti-sex, but that is a complete myth. Celibacy has never been a Jewish ideal, and some Talmudic sages are depicted as lusty, handsome fellows with large sexual organs.” Thus, the self-effacement of shtetl dwellers was never an expression of traditionally Jewish sensibilities, but rather of oppression. The Jewish masculinity presented by the likes of Woody Allen and Phillip Roth is a sad endorsement of anti-Semitic tropes, and a failure to acknowledge the strength and fortitude that must be present in a people to have survived such persecution.
Furthermore, the Muscle Jew is not some discarded concept, left to history. While the Nebbish wins out in the Western cultural zeitgeist, the Muscle Jew holds sizable space in the Israeli consciousness, expressed through attitudes toward fertility, military service.
Evolving the Conversation
The original self-concept of Jewish masculinity will, in all likelihood, continue to be debated. What is left out of this conversation however, is the notion that men don’t have to be tied to the gender conventions of their ethnicity. Whether the Nebbish or Muscle Jew is the one of the Talmud, it hardly defines what Jewish men ought to be.
It is a marker of our time that individuals can craft their own gender identity (or at least, are beginning to). Jewish men must not be tied to rigid gender conventions, while the world around him does away with such boundaries. When the origin of Jewish masculinity is no longer relevant in our discourse of today’s Jewish men, and when the Jewish form is recognized as too varied to be described by a set of archetypes; then the Jewish body may finally be liberated.
Almog, Shmuel. 1991. “JUDAISM AS ILLNESS’: ANTISEMITIC STEREOTYPE AND SELF-IMAGE’”. In History Of European Ideas, 793. Great Britain: Pergamon Press. https://www.sciencedirect.com/sdfe/pdf/download/eid/1-s2.0-019165999190142L/first-page-pdf.
Boyarin, Daniel. 1997. Unheroic Conduct: The Rise Of Heterosexuality And The Invention Of The Jewish Man.
University of California Press.
& Figure 1 Bytwerk, Randall. 2003. “Trust No Fox On His Green Heath And No Jew On His Oath”. Research.Calvin.Edu. http://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/fuchs.htm.
(original work by Elvira Bauer, 1936).
Conforti, Yitzhak. 2011. “‘The New Jew’ In The Zionist Movement: Ideology And Historiography”. Academia.Edu. http://www.academia.edu/2218726/The_New_Jew_in_the_Zionist_Movement_Ideology_and_Historiography
Konner, Melvin. 2014. “The Jewish Body? What Is That?”. Melvinkonner.Com. http://www.melvinkonner.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Konner-Jewish-Body-Jewish-Museum-of-Berlin-2014.pdf.
Lazarus, Emma. 1882. “An Epistle to the Hebrews”. American Hebrew
Figure 2 Mechner, Ernst, and Otte Wallisch. A Nation Reborn. 1940. Yanker Collection, Library of Congress. Jewish National Fund. https://www.palestineposterproject.org/poster/a-nation-reborn.
Nordau, Max. 1903. “Muskeljudentum”. Jiidische Turnzeitung issue 2
Shukert, Rachel. 2012. “Where Did The Figure Of The Nebbish Come From?”. Tablet Magazine. http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/90124/helpless.\Conclusion
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