Issue 2 - Spring 2006 - The Fight Issue
A STEREOTYPE WITH MUSCLE
Annotations on the idea of the weak Jew
1. The Stereotype
Stereotypes persist not because they are false, but because they have enough truth to sustain themselves. Stereotypes exist or persist not because — or not only because — they satisfy irrational needs or reflect aggressiveness and bigotry, but because they roughly approximate and simplify the otherwise inchoate experience of society.
A distinguishing feature ascribed to one particular minority in the United States is the stereotype of an unathletic or physically weak Jew — a stereotype that comes from both within and without. As Irving Howe has claimed in World of Our Fathers, the “suspicion of the physical, fear of hurt, anxiety over the sheer ‘pointlessness’ of play ... All went deep into the recesses of the Jewish psyche.”
2. Henry Ford
In a sense Howe concurred with the most influential anti-Semite in the nation’s history, Henry Ford, who once announced “Jews are not sportsmen.” Ford was not alone in underestimating or denying the Jews’ athletic achievements, or even their capacity to inhabit their own bodies with any assurance. “Jews are distinctly inferior in stature and physical development ... to any other race,” Harvard president Charles W. Eliot informed the members of the university’s Menorah Society in 1907. Seven years later, the eminent sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross contrasted the westward-bound pioneers with the Jews, who mostly crossed the Atlantic instead of the continent. They were, Ross averred, “undersized and weak-muscled,” and shunned “bodily activity.” (A countermyth can, of course, be summoned within the outline of anti-Semitism itself. It crystallized in the nineteenth century and put forward the idea that Jews are powerful rather than powerless. Jews make others victims, through, among other things, their furtive domination of the world’s finances and media.)
3. Woody Allen
The most important Jewish comedian of the post–World War II era converted his unprepossessing physical traits into self-mockery. The heyday of Woody Allen’s stand-up act (1964–68) is replete with episodes of physical vulnerability: a neighborhood bully was so evil, Allen recalled, that, in the 1944 Roosevelt-Dewey election, “his parents voted for Hitler.” When the local menace taunted the young Allen, who was carrying a cello, Allen foolishly demanded more respectful treatment, asking to be addressed henceforth as “Master Haywood Allen.” He spent that winter in a cast, while a team of doctors removed splinters from his body. In the summertime he was sent away to an interfaith camp, where he recalls having been beaten up by boys of every race, creed, and color. When he was old enough and successful enough to afford a Manhattan apartment, he preferred for security reasons to live in a building that had a doorman — until the doorman beat him up.
Because Jews might expect to be beaten up by bullies or bigots, the ethnic appeal of, say, the boxer Benny Leonard is easy to account for. “To see him climb in the ring sporting the six-pointed Jewish star on his fighting trunks,” the boxing maven Budd Schulberg noted, “was to anticipate the sweet revenge for all the bloody noses, split lips, and mocking laughter at pale little Jewish boys who had run the neighborhood gauntlet.” In every year between 1910 and 1939, as historian Peter Levine has observed in Ellis Island to Ebbets Field, Jews held at least one boxing championship (except in 1913), and in seven of those years, “Jews held three titles simultaneously.... So prominent were Jewish boxers in certain weight divisions that nine times between 1920 and 1934, Jews fought each other in championship bouts.”
Still, a stereotype is not necessarily invalidated because exceptions can be cited. In the case of Jewish boxers, a certain ethos had to be transcended or dismissed. Benny Leonard, born Leiner, changed his last name so that his mother, an immigrant from Russia, would not read about his bouts in the Jewish Daily Forward. Barnet Rasofsky became Barney Ross to spare his immigrant mother from the knowledge of his profession as well (despite the dishonor, no other boxer had ever held three world titles simultaneously). In Robert Rossen’s 1947 film Body and Soul, Charlie Davis, played by John Garfield, is a boxer whose mother sternly criticizes his line of work. He is a creature not of the Jewish past but of the new environment, a student not of the Torah but of “the manly art” of bashing others for pay. His faith is in the superiority of winning. Hollywood makes Charlie Davis a hero. In the light of the pre-American history of the Diaspora, however — the world of mothers Leiner and Rasofsky — he’s an anomaly, who contradicts the verities of decency, piety, family, and tradition.
The ablest literary journalist to cover “the sweet science” of boxing was undoubtedly Adolph Joseph Liebling. He grew up in Far Rockaway, N.Y., and stood out among domineering working-class Irish kids because he was pudgy, bespectacled, uncoordinated, puny, and bookish. He studied at Dartmouth when probably no Ivy League college tried more earnestly to be Judenrein. “Liebling’s enthusiasm for Catholic toughs,” biographer Raymond Sokolov conjectured in Wayward Reporter: The Life of A.J. Leibling, stemmed from a desire “to cut himself off from the emasculating Jewish tradition.” He was hardly unique in spending his life in flight from his ethnic origins.
Like Liebling, Norman Mailer had a fascination with pugilism, an empathy with Irish-American rogues and roustabouts, and an equivocal relationship to the Jewish people. In Mailer’s 1958 short story “The Time of Her Time,” Sergius O’Shaugnessy is a stud who engages in sexual marathons with a young woman named Denise Gondelman. In the preposterous fantasy of 1965’s An American Dream, the author imagines another fictional alter ego: the intellectual Stephen Rojack, who is brave and big enough to beat up a streetwise black man named Shago Martin, stomping him perhaps twenty times before hurling him down the stairs. “I never had an idea,” says Rojack, “I was this strong.... [there is] exhilaration in the fact of the strength itself.”
Similarly, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s 1997 novel American Pastoral personifies a kind of terminus of the unphysical Diaspora experience. Seymour Irving “Swede” Levov is so Americanized, so apparently emancipated from Old World neuroses — from the cringing or alienation which this particular promised land was supposed to extinguish — that narrator Nathan Zuckerman is forced to wonder: “What did he do for subjectivity?” Levov exhibits a self-assured “isomorphism to the WASP world.” He is “a blue-eyed blond” wearing a “Viking mask” for a face. He serves in the U.S. Marines (whom Lenny Bruce had called “heavy goyim”), prepared “to fight as one of the toughest of the tough.” He marries a Roman Catholic who had been Miss New Jersey in 1949. But what had distinguished Swede so sharply from the other kids with which he attended Weequahic High School was his athletic prowess.
“Physical aggression, even camouflaged by athletic uniforms and official rules and intended to do no harm to Jews, was not a traditional source of pleasure in our community,” Zuckerman asserts. The Swede’s feats in football, basketball, and baseball make him a non-Jewish Jew, a rebuke to the stereotype that has burdened so many others in a nation that makes idols out of sportsmen.
Historian David Biale’s 1986 overview of the politics of the Diaspora is significantly entitled Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History. It is as though the natural condition of this Diaspora people was not to dominate but to yield. Franz Kafka neglected to mention the word “Jew” in any of his fiction. But in “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse People,” the most admired Jewish writer of the previous century imagined that his own people were as weak and vulnerable as mice. (This is the anthropomorphic switch also adopted by graphic novelist Art Spiegelman in his book Maus.) A different metaphor emerged after the Holocaust, when the accusation was leveled against the victims that they meekly accepted their own extinction, that they were led to the camps and gas chambers like sheep to the slaughter.
That resistance was very rare among others whom the Third Reich sought to murder is not a decisive rebuttal. There was a history of passivity and accommodation in the Diaspora politics of the mouse nation. Such tactics were indeed a function of weakness, which helps explain the extent of stereotypes of physical enfeeblement in modern Western European culture, as though an entire people were prone to impotence. The Jewish male was sometimes depicted as feminized. Such was the criticism of Western European racialists. The notoriously extreme case of the acceptance of such stereotypes was the Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger, a Jew who was baptized, who associated femininity and weakness with the people from whom he had sprung. The tortured Viennese ideologue committed suicide early in the last century, in, as he put it, “the age which is most Jewish and most feminine.”
This sense of fragility and passivity would be transferred to the New World, where Jewish males were commonly viewed as belonging to an unathletic department. Enjoyment of sport could not easily blend into Yiddishkeit — the culture to which the bulk of American Jewry subscribed a century ago. In the introduction to their 1958 anthology A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg claimed that at the very center of the fiction that they translated and canonized was “the virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness,... the sanctity of the insulted and injured.” These, according to the two editors, “are the great themes of Yiddish literature.”
7. Team Sports
Acentury ago, a father wrote to the Forward, wondering about “the point of this crazy game” of baseball that bewitched his son. “I want my boy to grow up to be a mensch, not a wild American runner.” Forward editor Abraham Cahan judiciously countered that “the really wild game is football ... but baseball is not dangerous.” He advised parents to “let your boys play baseball and play it well, so long as it does not interfere with their education or get them into bad company.” Kids, wrote Cahan, should not “grow up foreigners in their own country.”
Still, there are several ways to get into the game. “Bar mitzvah is the age,” a sports agent once told law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, “when a Jewish boy realizes that his chances of playing on a major league sports team are considerably less than his chances of owning one.” Jewish sports museums bear this out: in the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in the B’nai B’rith National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C, the list of honorees is padded with coaches and sportswriters. Among others, there is a Montreal Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and a Western Pennsylvania Jewish Sports Hall of Fame — perhaps they seek to impress visitors by also including the memorabilia of owners of teams in addition to that of athletes.
8. Dustin Hoffman
9. The Military
The establishment of Israel complicated and upended the picture of Jewish physical passivity. The Christian triumphalism of Western civilization designated Jews as victims who would eventually disappear, and Islamic civilization expected Jews to be stateless rather than agents of their own collective destiny. In 1948 the stereotype of impotence was intact enough for U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall to advise President Truman against recognition of the Jewish commonwealth, since the former general could not foresee how the Haganah might defeat the half-dozen Arab armies bent on strangling the new state in its cradle. The victory of the Israel Defense Forces in the War of Independence as well as all subsequent wars served to contrast with the lingering effects of “the virtue of powerlessness” in the United States, where Jewish indifference to machismo has been connected to distaste for militarism or indeed to the military. (According to Phillip Knightley in 1975’s The First Casualty, the syndrome that would become known as shell shock was to General George S. Patton simple “cowardice.” Any other psychological interpretation was “an invention of the Jews.”)
Emotionally, the Jewish ethos in the United States has been pacifistic. Take Irving Berlin. For all of his forthright patriotism, he did not compose songs that exalted soldiering. During World War I, his “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” (1918) was a high-spirited expression of resentment of the rigor of military life. And in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911) he included the lyric: “They can play a bugle call / Like you never heard before, / So natural / That you want to go to war.” But in the 1960s, Berlin rewrote the last line to become the less reflexive, and arguably more American-Jewish, “That you want to hear some more.” &
A version of this article appears in Jews, Sports and the Rites of Citzenship, edited by Jack Kugelmass and forthcoming from University of Illinois Press (August 2006)