- Legacy of Rage: Jewish Masculinity, Violence, and Culture
The first and most famous proclamation of a masculinity deficit among Jewish males can be dated to Max Nordau's speech at the 1898 Zionist Congress in Basel, in which he proclaimed the need for a "muscular Jewry" that would rehabilitate the image of the timid and sickly European Jews of that era. From the medieval period on, he declared, the ghettoized Jews of Europe had been forced to practice an unnatural mortification of the flesh, and the result was an entire repertory of daily humiliations that could be remedied only by a physical rehabilitation that would reclaim Jewish personalities as well as Jewish bodies from their inferior status vis-à-vis other European males. Nordau described in painful detail the contemporary image of the Jew as physically out of control—pathetically clumsy, tripping over his own feet, unable to stand up straight, etc. The caricatures of "Jewish soldiers as ridiculous scarecrows" that appeared in boulevard magazines, he wrote, provided amusement to Jewish and Christian antisemites alike.
A full century after Nordau's call for Jewish men "with a bold look in their eyes," popular and scholarly writing on Jewish masculinity is thriving. On the popular side, there are books that celebrate culturally anomalous types like Jewish sports figures and Jewish gangsters. This genre emphasizes cultural "pride" in Jewish male performances while displaying less interest in what might be culturally anomalous about Jewish athletes and criminals in the first place. Understanding such cultural anomalies requires a familiarity with centuries of Jewish social history, so it is hardly surprising that reader-friendly treatments of Jewish he-men do not include such historical excursions. These treatments of Jewish male heroes rather conform to Nordau's view that Jewish male dignity is to be achieved by adopting the predominant Western masculine norms—the familiar emphasis on force of character and the physical abilities that allow a man to conquer both his women and his enemies.
Warren Rosenberg's book is a recent and important addition to a more scholarly literature on Jews and masculinity that dates from the publication of Paul Breines' Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of Modern Jewry (1990). Daniel Boyarin's Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (1997) is another example of this subgenre. The distinguishing feature of these books is their combination of cultural history and redemptive ambition, for while the essays collected in Sander Gilman's The Jew's Body (1991) present straightforward cultural history concerning racial folklore about Jews, Breines, Boyarin, and Rosenberg [End Page 175] apply cultural and literary history to the daunting task of persuading their fellow Jews that what Breines calls "the historically dominant (if presently eroding) ideal of Jewish gentleness" is the true foundation of a genuinely Jewish masculinity.
The subgenre to which Legacy of Rage belongs is thus unabashedly confessional in useful ways. The author's formative experiences around masculinity issues serve as points of departure for the exploration of Jewish male experience in a more general sense. Rosenberg's claim that his experiences "participate in a common cultural script for Jewish men" (p. 15) can be confirmed in most of the American literary texts he examines as well as in countless other sources beyond the purview of his book that document the nature of Jewish male experience throughout the American twentieth century.
The thematic center of Rosenberg's book is what he calls "the contemporary Jewish male's dilemma. We have absorbed the stereotype that we tend to be more verbal and smarter than other men," he writes, "but we frantically resist the implication that we are therefore somehow less than fully masculine, that we are 'all talk'" (p. 1). The Jewish male, in short, is caught in "the continuing tension in Judaism between passivity and action, acceptance and resistance, earthly physical force and cerebral evasion, Esau and Jacob" (p. 71). One might respond to this portrait of the Jewish male predicament by pointing out that every man in...