Arts & Culture

The Jewish Body, Part 3: The Nose Jobs

So, we know that Gentile men have long been drawn to exotic Jewish beauty, the lure of the other. But what about the reverse? From Samson’s fatal attraction to Delilah to Seinfeld and his (all Jewish) buddies nattering on about … Read More

By / February 25, 2009

So, we know that Gentile men have long been drawn to exotic Jewish beauty, the lure of the other. But what about the reverse?

From Samson’s fatal attraction to Delilah to Seinfeld and his (all Jewish) buddies nattering on about some new fox’s “shiksappeal,”Jewish men’s gaze has often strayed outside the fold. A T-shirt currently available on the web has a reclining nude silhouette that’s classic but could be any woman; yet the legend shouts, “I LOVE SHIKSAS.”

Forget for a moment the insult this levels against every Jewish woman who sees it. Even if the jerks who wear this thing burned it, it wouldn’t change what happens in their hearts, minds, and other parts. For many Jewish men, shiksa-hunger is real. And it’s nothing new. Joseph had it, Moses had it, Solomon had it, and so did lots of others in between and since. Why?

First, it’s the lure of the other that applies to all ethnic groups, and we’ve seen it go the other way. But when a group is down and out, it tends to look up for beauty. And the dominant ethnic group for the last couple of centuries has be northern Europeans–tall, slim, healthy-looking folks with light skin, blue eyes, blond hair, and straight, narrow noses.

Michael Jackson’s cosmetic adventures tell us that Jews and women have no monopoly on this, but they have certainly felt the pull. So lots of Jews have become bottle blondes, ironed their hair, and spent half their lives in the gym in a quest for Aryan beauty. But these moves are easy compared to surgery, and it’s very useful to trace the rise and partial fall of rhinoplasty, aka the nose job.

It was invented by Jacques (born Jakob) Joseph, a German-Jewish surgeon in the late 1890s. On his own face he proudly wore the dueling scars from his college days that men of that era needed to move in the highest circles, so he knew that changing a face could make a career.

He did the first one on a young Jewish man who, as Dr.Joseph told the Berlin Medical Society, was happy to move around unnoticed, recovered from his depression, and wanted to party. His sister, sixteen-year-old Adolphine Schwartz, came under the same knife. They were poor, and as she later said, he often fixed the noses of poor Jews for free.

As time went on medical journals and textbooks linked the op with Jewish noses, even though other people also had it. When famed Jewish comedienne Fanny Brice had hers, Dorothy Parker (half Jewish herself) quipped in a column that Brice had “cut off her nose to spite her race.”

In the ‘50s and ‘60s it was a fad among Jewish girls. As Dr.Thomas Rees, who trained many Park Avenue plastic surgeons, said, “Everybody wanted to look like a shiksa.”

But Barbra Streisand didn’t, and she set a new standard of beauty that helped cause a nosedive in Jewish nose jobs. Yet in the ‘90s some textbooks were still talking Jewish noses. And an Orthodox plastic surgeon said, “I come from a family where four out of five kids wanted rhinoplasty. I don’t think they wanted to look Swedish. I think they all had beaks.”

Beaks? It’s a fine line between wanting your beak bobbed and wanting to look less Jewish, and where you draw it depends on whether you think there’s an abstract standard of beauty independent of culture. I also don’t blame anyone for wanting to do it. And it’s not going away.

It’s subtler these days, but it happens, and there’s a lively buzz on the web about whether Natalie Portman (born Herschlag), Winona Ryder (Horowitz), Gwyneth Paltrow (of the Paltrowitzes), Sarah Jessica Parker (of the Bar-Kahns), Rachel Weisz, Tori Spelling, Roseanne Barr, and Kate Hudson have or have not had one, complete with earlier and later photos. I’m not saying, and I’m certainly not judging–they should live and be well and keep being famous.

Meanwhile, back in the Middle East where the “Jewish” nose comes from, there’s pretty intense irony: a huge surge in nose jobs among our Muslim cousins in–can you guess?–Iran.

Melvin Konner’s website is www.jewsandothers.com. You can watch the video trailer for his new book, The Jewish Body, here: http://www.nextbook.org/bookseries/title.html?bookid=25 and listen to a podcast here: http://www.nextbook.org/cultural/feature.html?id=3175

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