Car­ry­ing a Big Schtick: Jew­ish Accul­tur­a­tion and Mas­culin­i­ty in the Twen­ti­eth Century

  • Review
By – July 1, 2024

Miri­am Eve Mora’s debut book details how Jew­ish accul­tur­a­tion to Amer­i­ca was shaped by ideas about gen­der. For twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish men who sought to inte­grate into Amer­i­can cul­ture, becom­ing a part of Amer­i­can soci­ety involved nego­ti­at­ing what it meant to be a) Amer­i­can, b) Jew­ish, and c) a man. Mora explains that the ideals for each of these inter­re­lat­ed cat­e­gories, which were influ­enced by var­i­ous polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al forces, are con­stant­ly being nego­ti­at­ed and renegotiated.

Amer­i­can Jew­ish men did not mere­ly absorb nor­ma­tive ideas about mas­culin­i­ty, or what schol­ars term hege­mon­ic mas­culin­i­ty,” but devel­oped their own con­cep­tions in rela­tion to both hege­mon­ic mas­culin­i­ty and reg­nant ideas about Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty. Immi­gra­tion to Amer­i­ca, anti­semitism, Amer­i­can mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions, the Holo­caust, Zion­ism, and the found­ing of the State of Israel all shaped how dif­fer­ent con­cep­tions of Amer­i­can Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty developed.

At the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Jew­ish men were com­mon­ly under­stood as phys­i­cal­ly weak or effem­i­nate. The promi­nence of the image of the Jew­ish male as a schol­ar con­tributed to this depic­tion. More­over, almost half of Amer­i­can Jews were immi­grants, many of whom lived in impov­er­ished urban centers.

As Mora explains in chap­ter three, sev­er­al arche­types of Amer­i­can Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty emerged in the ear­ly decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry: 1) the schol­ar who embraced intel­lec­tu­al­ism, there­by reject­ing hege­mon­ic mas­culin­i­ty; 2) the Jew­ish crim­i­nal; and 3) the Jew­ish phil­an­thropist. Phil­an­thropists sup­port­ed agri­cul­tur­al and fra­ter­nal orga­ni­za­tions that, in their efforts to improve eco­nom­ic con­di­tions for Jew­ish immi­grants, also com­bat­ed neg­a­tive images of the unruly immi­grant or weak schol­ar. They were par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned about urban Jew­ish juve­nile delin­quen­cy and cre­at­ed rur­al and agri­cul­tur­al pro­grams to rem­e­dy it.

Zion­ism also informed Amer­i­can Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty. Although some Jews feared that embrac­ing Zion­ism would threat­en their ongo­ing accul­tur­a­tion by implic­it­ly reject­ing Amer­i­can nation­al­ism, it also pro­vid­ed a vision of Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty that was agri­cul­tur­al­ly indus­tri­ous and phys­i­cal­ly strong. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, Jew­ish Amer­i­cans thought of them­selves as more Amer­i­can because they had a place that was not their cur­rent home­land against which to define them­selves. This put them more in line with non-Jew­ish Amer­i­cans who could also iden­ti­fy a home­land to which they traced their ancestry.

The sol­dier was per­haps the Amer­i­can mas­cu­line ide­al par excel­lence. In both world wars, Jew­ish men enlist­ed in the mil­i­tary in con­sid­er­able num­bers. Some Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions sought to pub­li­cize Jew­ish mil­i­tary brav­ery to counter the stereo­types of the unman­ly Jew. Mora argues that all this actu­al­ly did was counter the per­cep­tion that Jews were averse to mil­i­tary com­bat in prin­ci­ple; many treat­ed Jew­ish sol­diers as out­liers. Tra­di­tion­al­ist Jews gen­er­al­ly reject­ed mil­i­tarism as un-Jew­ish, in favor of the ide­al of the gen­tle scholar. 

The link between Amer­i­can man­li­ness and mil­i­tarism waned when the US got involved in the Viet­nam War, par­tic­u­lar­ly as news of atroc­i­ties such as the My Lai mas­sacre emerged. Left­ist Jews sup­port­ed civ­il rights and anti­war move­ments, while con­ser­v­a­tive Jews learned toward mil­i­tant move­ments such as the Jew­ish Defense League. The post­war eco­nom­ic boom cre­at­ed the ide­al of the bread-win­ning father, some­thing to which Jews aspired. 

But before that, the Holo­caust gave rise to anoth­er image of the weak Jew­ish man: the ema­ci­at­ed vic­tim. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, the emer­gent Sabra — the vir­ile, native-born Israeli Jew, dis­tinct from the book­ish dias­po­ra Jew — pro­vid­ed a new rubric by which Amer­i­can Jews could assess their mas­culin­i­ty, even as they chose not to immigrate. 

Metic­u­lous­ly researched and wide-rang­ing, Car­ry­ing a Big Schtick deft­ly describes twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry through the lens of masculinity.

Bri­an Hill­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gious Stud­ies at Tow­son University.

Discussion Questions