There is no shortage of literature on the Jewish body. The Jewish body as a tool, a stereotype, a victim, a caricature. What is our fascination with the corporal body when we write Jewish stories and characters?
In eighth grade, while I was visiting family in Los Angeles, my aunt took one look at my face and dragged me to a salon in the Valley. Eyebrows and upper lip, she told the beautician, all of it, she waved toward my face and laughed while I turned crimson.
I was aware that much has been written about Jews and their bodies – both by Jews and by others. But it wasn’t until an interviewer recently asked me about my continual return to the body in the short stories in my collection, As If She Had a Say, that I realized that I too was writing about the subject. My Jewish characters all wrestle with God and their bodies, usually concurrently. They often debate internally about the halachic laws of Judaism and bodies.
Thirty years later, I still remember sitting in that salon chair as the woman applied the wax, gummy and hot on my young broken-out skin. I distinctly recall looking in the mirror at those paper slivers adhered to my face, with my aunt behind me surveying the scene, judgment spilling from her eyes and lips like acid. Am I so ugly that parts of me must be torn away? I don’t actually recall the painful ripping away of my facial hair. I assume the darker hair is courtesy of my Jewish roots – Sephardi and Ashkenazi, I have them both. Erase them, my aunt said, the greater American media said. Erase them; erase yourself.
In “Hineni,” my unnamed protagonist tweezes her eyebrow hairs obsessively while sitting shiva. One might assume this is solely an act of vanity, but in fact my character has obsessive behaviors and can’t help herself as she tweezes and plucks and pops. I have chosen to display these character tendencies while she is sitting shiva for her beloved grandmother. Her grandmother didn’t have the luxury of tweezing unwanted hairs; she lived for years in a concentration camp. My protagonist falls into vivid dreams that the reader can assume are her grandmother’s experiences. The dreams take her to the camps and show her relationship with hair lice. The grandmother had told her that “…the parasites had been the only thing in the camp that let her know she was alive.” I wrote this, but I think about it like it’s real. We hear a lot about lice in the camps. We also hear about how the first thing the Nazis did was shave off the prisoners’ hair. Can lice survive on a lonely planet of a head with only stubble? The parasitic relationship between lice and humans is almost beautiful in this instance, or that’s how I imagined it while writing “Hineni” — when the adjective “parasitic” is often used hatefully in relation to Jews.
The juxtaposition between my protagonist’s experience with her body and that of her grandmother is critical to this story. The difference in choices that many Jews have now that we did not have in the past is vast. My life as a Jew in the US is relatively safe compared to those of so many of my ancestors. I recognize how hard they fought and how few options they had. Jews are still considered vermin in many circles. But, as my protagonist eventually realizes, the most important thing is that she – we – are here; hineni.
As my protagonist eventually realizes, the most important thing is that she – we – are here; hineni.
The Jewish law that forbids desecration to the body is one that teenagers the world over roll their eyes at every time they even think about getting a tattoo. Many of us shrug off the responsibilities of upholding those traditional, and to many, outdated, laws. We’re modern now, many of us say, and we tattoo, we pierce, and we cremate.
In my story “The Ink That Doesn’t Dry,” the narrator gets a tattoo of a Venus flytrap after being raped. The tattoo is as much about taking ownership of her own body as it is a reaction to its desecration. As she walks up the New York City streets to her father’s house to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the ink is still wet, days and weeks later. She is processing not only her assault, but also how her father will react to her breaking Jewish law.
“You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” So it says in Leviticus. Compounding that with the Nazis’ horrific practice of tattooing numbers on the arms of Jewish prisoners, it seems sacrilegious even if we are atheists.
While it is not discussed outright, her father – a good and observant parent – notices that something is wrong. He understands that saving a life is important and that includes protecting his daughter in her fraught mental state. He will accept her in whatever package she wraps herself in. I am writing about a Jewish body in this story as a canvas on which to paint the narrative.
When I think of the word “bodies,” I hate to say it, but I think of Jewish bodies lying in a ravine, naked, emaciated, in a pile. Try as I might to evoke something more positive, I can’t. Our heads were shaved, our teeth pulled. How do we write about Jewish bodies in ways that don’t evoke the Holocaust? What are Jewish bodies exclusive of that genocide? However, the singular — body— doesn’t call forth such gruesome imagery. That is where I start when trying to write the Jewish body, to reclaim any theft of ourselves, our images, and our stories. When we write about our bodies, we are turning the three-dimensional into the one-dimensional — our bodies and stories siphoned into ink. As a Jew, I believe writing about bodies is a way of giving ourselves agency and taking control of what has so often been taken from us.
Can we write a Jewish story and not focus on the body? When I am told, for the hundredth time, that I don’t look Jewish, do I get to actually define what that looks like? Why the insistence to focus immediately on my body when someone learns I am Jewish? Tell me I don’t look Jewish and I will write a million stories about what a Jew looks like.
I write the body because that is my important tool. My body is a utensil to write upon the world. What is the story I, a Jew, will leave behind?
Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose work has appeared in F®iction, The Rumpus, No Tokens, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, including two of the Best Short Fiction anthologies. She is the author of the story collection The Predatory Animal Ball.