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The Jewish Body, Part 4: The Muscle-Jews

In the 1800s, Jews in Europe became a bit obsessed with Jewish "softness" and developed theories about how to change the Jewish body through physical labor, activity, and sports. One call for change came from a young Sephardic Jewish woman … Read More

By / February 26, 2009

In the 1800s, Jews in Europe became a bit obsessed with Jewish "softness" and developed theories about how to change the Jewish body through physical labor, activity, and sports. One call for change came from a young Sephardic Jewish woman in New York:

 What we need to-day, second only to the necessity of closer union and warmer patriotism, is the building up of our national, physical force…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 to-day equal to either feat…For nineteen hundred years we have been living on an idea; our spirit has been abundantly fed, but our body has been starved…

 

Let our first care to-day be the re-establishment of our physical strength, the reconstruction of our national organism, so that in future, where the respect due to us cannot be won by entreaty, it may be commanded, and where it cannot be commanded, it may be enforced.

 

This is from a series in American Hebrew, a magazine widely read by American Jews, in 1882. It was a year before she wrote the poem that made her famous, now carved in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty. She was Emma Lazarus.

Fifteen or twenty years later, Max Nordau, a Zionist physician, thought he had an answer to the general ill-health and even the racial status of the Jews. He called it Muskeljudentum – "muscle-Jewry" – and it became one of the most debated ideas about the Jews. He first proposed it at the Second Zionist Congress of 1898: "We must think of creating once again a Jewry of muscles." He went on to write an article in 1903, reminding readers that "history is our witness that such a Jewry had once existed.

In Nordau’s view the physical conditions of the Jews, the very elements they lived in, had conspired against their bodies for centuries:

In the narrow Jewish street our poor limbs soon forgot their gay movements; in the dimness of sunless houses our eyes began to blink shyly; the fear of constant persecution turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers, which rose in crescendo only when our martyrs on the stakes cried out their dying prayers in the face of their executioners. But now… at least we are allowed space enough for our bodies to live again. Let us take up or oldest traditions; let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.

 

Dr. Nordau intended literally to remake the Jewish body, and it was a message many Jews were ready for. At the Basle conference, he proposed a network of gymnastics clubs to enhance the physical fitness of Jewish youth. These were called Bar Kochba clubs, after the hero of the second revolt against Rome, or Maccabi clubs, recalling other warrior-champions. Within a few years these clubs had spread throughout the European Jewish world, and Nordau’s writing would spread them further:

 

For no other people will gymnastics fulfill a more educational purpose than for us Jews. It shall straighten us in body and in character. It shall give us self-confidence, although our enemies maintain that we already have too much self-confidence as it is. But who knows better than we do that their imputations are wrong. We completely lack a sober confidence in our physical prowess.

 

Our new muscle-Jews have not yet regained the heroism of our forefathers who in large numbers eagerly entered the sport arenas in order to take part in competition and to pit themselves against the highly trained Hellenistic athletes and the powerful Nordic barbarians. But morally, even now the new muscle-Jews surpass their ancestors, for the ancient Jewish circus fighters were ashamed of their Judaism and tried to conceal the sign of the Covenant by means of a surgical operation…while the members of the "Bar Kochba" club loudly and proudly affirm their national loyalty.

 

Interestingly, this was a century after a Jewish bare-fisted prizefighter named Daniel Mendoza thoroughly dominated the London boxing ring (he later wrote a book on scientific boxing) and just as the great Jewish-American boxers were about to do the same on our side of the puddle. Kid Berg, "Corporal" Izzy Schwartz, Al Singer "The Bronx Beauty," Louis Wallach "The Fighting Dentist", Solly Krieger, and Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom were just a few, culminating in two of the greatest fighters of all time: Benny Leonard (Benjamin Leiner) and Barney Ross (Beryl Rosofsky), later a World War II hero. There were forty Jewish world championships. But as we’ll see tomorrow, the greatest muscle-jews were just beginning to emerge in their own people’s ancient, sacred land.

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

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