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The Jewish Body (Jewish Encounters Series) Hardcover – January 13, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Anthropology professor and author Konner (Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews) exudes passion and knowledge while gamely evaluating the history of the body Judaic, including customs like circumcision and the way outsiders' ignorant or malicious portrayal-in all manner of historical art and propaganda (from Michaelangelo's horned Moses to children's picture book The Poison Mushroom)-have come to impact Jewish identity and physical awareness. Konnor also offers his own interpretations of specific Torah passages alongside their historically evolving meanings, as well as more seemingly modern phenomena like nose jobs and "shiks-appeal" (the "ultimate realization" of which is the "Jewish weakness for blondes"). Konner also looks at the Holocaust, Socialist Zionism (and its promotion of gender equality), and the "Jewry of muscles" credited with the victory of Israel over hostile neighbors. In this comprehensive look into Jewish physcality, Konner discusses the most sensitive topics with curiosity, impartiality and an impressive breadth of knowledge.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
This is the eleventh book in the Jewish Encounters series and 17 more are planned. Konner writes that it is his intent to not only trace the Jewish body through its radical, almost magical transformations but also to try to understand how Jewish bodies and Jewish thoughts about them have shaped the Jewish mind and the Jewish contributions to civilization. We will consider how centuries of relative bodily isolation, inspired for better or worse by ideas about the body, may have shaped Jewish genes, he writes. Konner contends that two great events of the twentieth century—one the worst thing that ever happened to the Jews, and the other the best—turned the tables on Jewish weakness forever. These are the Holocaust and the state of Israel. Konner, an anthropologist, is the author of nine books. His new one helps to shed light on a complicated subject. --George Cohen
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Well written and easily understandable to the non-medical community.
"The Jewish Body" by Melvin Konner is a disappointing book. I am amazed that Schocken Books, a highly prestigious publisher of Judaica-related works, accepted this work for publication.
It is hard to know where to begin with a critique because of the book's many weaknesses. Regrettably, many of the statements in the text are not referenced and so the uninformed reader has no choice but to take the author's word for them. The book's structure and content are a veritable hodge-podge. One of the participants of our synagogue book study group compared Konner's approach to that of a stand-up comedian using word association to jump from one topic to the next. Not a single member of our group found the book worthwhile reading. Much of its content is anecdotal, very little truly scientific. After making a quasi definitive statement, the author often backtracks with "buts, howevers, nevertheless's, etc." canceling out what he previously affirmed. As a theologian and Holocaust survivor who literally owes his life to the fire power of the Allies in WW II and who is grateful for these armies' powerful and violent defeat of Hitler, I am nevertheless appalled by Konner's virtual worship at the throne of power. Rare are the Jews who are not grateful for the creation of the modern State of Israel and who do not support Israel's growth, continued development and security, yet the continued and rather unconditional praise of Israel as a magnificent military power is something that this Jew and Holocaust survivor finds downright repulsive. Konner's racial characterization of Jews in the pre-war diaspora, especially Eastern Europe, is patently unscientific and smacks of stereotyping. Those of us who lived there know better than accepting these generalizations as truth. A statement describing Albert Einstein as a "Luftmensch" (p.141) points to the author's lack of understanding of Yiddish and wrong use of the term. Konner's knowledge of Hebrew is not any better when he uncritically repeats (p.27), the biblical interpretation of the name Abraham as "father of multitudes." Linguistically this is incorrect. When on p.34 the author refers to Spinoza with "apostate as he was" one cannot help but wonder whether Konner has ever read, let alone understood, Spinoza's writings. There is no end to superficiality, biased interpretation of history ancient and modern, excessive occupation with genitalia; a long list of minor and major flaws in Konner's book. Finally: the book jacket's description of "The Jewish Body" as "a work of grand historical and philosophical sweep" strikes me as ludicrous.
A few of the more interesting points:
*Konner suggests that biblical rules about menstruation (which hold that women who menstruate are ritually impure for some days afterwards) might mean that menstruation was viewed as threatening in traditional culture. He reasons that since pregnant women don't menstruate, persistent menstrual cycles might have suggested infertility- not a good thing in an agricultural society where each child was another person who could help work the land. Interesting speculation, though I can't say whether it makes sense. (And of course, Konner's theory doesn't explain why later rabbis broadened those rules).
*Why were Jews often excellent boxers in the 19th and early 20th centuries? Konner suggests that Jews "became superb defensive fighters in order to avoid getting their faces bruised, which would alert their Orthodox parents [who Konner assumes were more hostile to fighting than non-Jewish parents] to what they are doing." But were Jews really better fighters than other immigrant groups trying to make their way up the social ladder?
*Konner's most interesting chapter focuses on Jews' attempts to change their physical appearance; for example, rhinoplasty (which makes noses smaller) was very popular among Jewish women in the mid-20th century. Konner suggests that this fad might have something to do with a Jewish desire to blend in after the Holocaust. But he ties this issue into broader discussions of what men tend to find beautiful; for example, since younger woman tend to be fertile, men who were strongly attracted to young women have had greater reproductive success. As a result, men have evolved to favor women with childlike features, such as lighter hair, lighter skin, and smaller noses.
*To what extent are Jews a race? Konner answers 'somewhat.' He points out that all Jews are genetically similar to non-Jews from the Middle East- but at the same time, Jews in Europe resemble their non-Jewish counterparts more than they resemble Arabs, suggesting a substantial local genetic influence. And Ashkenazic Jews have developed their own gene pool in some ways; for example, some diseases common among Ashkenazim are less common among other Jews.