Feminized Jew a potent subject and symbol

Neil Davison

As a product of European focus on female nature, women’s rights, homosexuality, and Jewish political conspiracy theories, both the Jewish and female essence as weak, irrational, egotistical, cowardly, slippery, deceitful, diseased forms of maleness began to extend their cultural currency. -Neil Davison, book-in-progress

Ideas about racial identity, masculinity, and feminism coalesced during the turn of the nineteenth century, notably in the work of certain early twentieth-century authors who wrote about Jewish maleness.

“This study examines the impact of the racial portrait of the feminized Jew on a select group of male writers from both gentile and Jewish backgrounds during the Modernist and Post-modern eras,” Neil Davison wrote in his proposal for a Research Fellowship. Davison is an associate professor of English at OSU. His book in progress is A Different Difference: Jewishness, Masculinity, and Zionism from the Modern to the Postmodern.

The fictional works included in his project “demonstrate how older religious-based prejudices, as well as Judaic concepts, were sustained in the discourse on race and gender surrounding ‘the Jew.’ Through exploring the works in question, the study also confronts how, for the twentieth-century Jewish writer, the racial portrait is complicated by a tension between paradigms of Judaic masculinities and Zionist revisions of these.”

The study begins with racial science of the nineteenth century, in which Jewish masculinity was often seen as its own pathology, and which used Jews as major examples in the discussion of the role of racial difference in the predisposition to or immunity from specific diseases.

“This ‘scientific’ basis lent itself to the dissemination of anti-Semitic myths about the inferiority and perversity of the Jewish mind/body complex. Especially potent here were discussions of ‘the Jew’ as observable male hysteric whose nervous demeanor and dark skin marked him as genetically degenerative.”

Certain aspects of post-modern theory and research “documented for a generation how sociological and medical racial theories on the Jewish male body, in particular, figured it as weak, diseased, and degenerative when compared to an idealized masculinity of European culture.”

The racial Jewish male body became classified in a stereotypical category with a status analogous to that of women.

“My work attempts to engage how this racial/gender essence of ‘the Jew’ gained a new political urgency during the fin de siècle onward. In that surge, uses of the feminized Jew became the occasion for many twentieth-century authors to refigure masculine identity as a project about modernity itself. In the decade’s psychoanalytic revisions of sexuality and renewed feminist arguments, the racial/gender econ-omy affecting ‘the Jew’ altered most dramatically from assumptions of essential inferiority and weakness to one of a threatening feminine power.”

During the era, the Jewish woman, already perceived in part as disordered and ego-driven in her feminine essence, was depicted as the femme fatale, embodying the association between Jewish racial nature and an aberrant sexual energy.

“Yet, as female desire became more and more an established scientific reality, the Jewish woman did not ultimately come to represent the same level of repugnance to European patriarchy as the womanly Jewish male. Rather, the feminized Jew became one of the most politically potent race/gender assumptions of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries as it wended its way toward the eugenics of Nazi National Socialism.”

Another powerful influence on the assimilated Jewish male’s internalized racial identity came from changes in Judaic scholarship, which led to a hybrid Jewish masculinity combining Rabbinic strains with the image of a politically active Western male.

“In addition to ‘the Jew’ as a racial/gendered construct, the study also engages how the nineteenth-century Haskalah or Reform movement altered religious parameters of Judaic historiography, politics, and Jewish masculinity, and how these changes affected a selection of writers as they negotiated male-selfhood during their encounter with modernity.”

The writers include George du Maurier (author of Trilby and originator of the infamous Svengali), Theodor Herzl (Austrian writer who founded modern political Zionism), Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce. The manuscript concludes with an examination of “the feminized Jew’s” continued presence in the postmodern novel through an analysis of certain works by Philip Roth, including The Counterlife and Operation Shylock.

Roth’s work “remains peerless in its investigations of the twentieth-century symposium surrounding Jewish masculinity, the remaking of the Jewish-self, Zionism, and the Diaspora identity crises of second generation American middle-class Jewry.”