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  • The Healthy Jew: The Symbiosis of Judaism and Modern Medicine
  • Frank Heynick
The Healthy Jew: The Symbiosis of Judaism and Modern Medicine, by Mitchell B. Hart. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 264 pp. $29.00.

We're all familiar nowadays with health foods and wellness practices of exotic (usually Indian and Far Eastern) cultures which gain some fad status in the Western World. Well, it seems that a century or so ago kosher food was on the verge of becoming the macrobiotic cuisine among Christians in Europe and America. It didn't quite catch on. But the Jewish practice of circumcision did, at least in much of the U.S. [End Page 203]

Also a century or so ago many gentile physicians and academics attributed the wildly disproportionate number of intellectuals and geniuses among the modern Jews to millennia-old Jewish eugenic practices (subtle and humane) which encouraged the procreation of the best and the brightest as well as "racial" exclusivity. Quite a few gentile medical men of the time deemed this worthy of emulation among their own populations. But eventually a totally perverted version of eugenics would arise to wreak horrific consequences on the Jews themselves, who came to be viewed as mortal parasitic genetic rivals of the "Aryans."

These are some of the topics dealt with in this book by Mitchell B. Hart, associate professor of history at the University of Florida.

The period under discussion, roughly the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, was a time of breathtakingly rapid advances in medicine and biology, especially with the triumph of the germ theory of communicable disease, the rise of Darwinian evolutionary theory and genetics, the development of microbiological models of immunity, and the application of scientifically based public health measures. However, religion (Christianity and Judaism), although on the wane in much of the Western World, remained a potent force.

It was also an era of industrialization and rapid urbanization—bringing in its wake epidemics of tuberculosis, cholera, syphilis, typhus and more to the city dwellers. Yet the Jewish population seemed to suffer proportionately far less from these scourges than did their neighbors.

The era was furthermore a time of Jewish emancipation in much of Europe. The explosive achievements of Jews in the sciences (especially medicine), the arts, literature, philosophy, technology, and the industrialization process were utterly out of proportion to their tiny population.

Contemporary medical scientists and clergymen in Continental Europe (notably Germany and France), Britain, and the United States were asking: Where were the reasons for such particularities of modern Jews to be found? In their age-old religious (Mosaic and Talmudic) practices? Their cultural traditions? Their long history as town-dwellers and persecuted minority?

In his study of contemporary opinions on these issues, Prof. Hart mines a particular kind of primary source material, namely academic journals and books, professional magazines, and even popular magazines and newspapers of the era. The physicians, scientists, and clergy who authored these texts were sometimes Jews, but often (and most interestingly) gentiles.

Thus we read how quite a few Christian clergymen, seeing as truly divine the Mosaic health-related practices (anti-contagion measures, dietary prohibitions, circumcision, and marriage and sexual rules), came to bemoan their having been discarded by Christianity. Less religious gentile medical men, although [End Page 204] more inclined to see Moses and his colleagues as incredibly advanced scientific thinkers, were no less regretful of the loss of Torah health practices to Christians, and all the more so in view of how the Diaspora rabbis had further developed such practices into the intricate halakha and kashrut system.

The Healthy Jew is a valuable contribution to the field of Jewish medical and cultural studies. But stylistically the book suffers from a certain repetitiveness and redundancy. This obstacle to general readers may be somewhat trying even for academics.

Of course, any paring and tightening of the text would have reduced the book's already modest length. On the other hand, however, there are several topics which Prof. Hart treats either not at all or at most in a passing sentence, which, I believe, would have deserved consideration in the historical context.

With virtually no exception, all the authors...


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