The Maccabees and other Jewish jocks

The Maccabees and other Jewish jocks

I never really got the “tough Jews” thing, probably because I never had to. I’m talking about the glorification of Jews — men mostly — who seem to defy the usual stereotypes: neither meek, brainy, indoorsy, athletically challenged, nor frequently picked on. The cult of the “tough Jew” tells tall tales about Jewish boxers and other shtarkers, and worships at the bloody altar of Jewish gangsters like Bugsy Siegel and Newark’s own “Longy” Zwillman. Tough Jew acolytes consider Israel not just an epic return to Jewish political and spiritual sovereignty after centuries of exile, but revenge on the blonde kid who tossed pennies in the third grade.

Adoration of the muskel-Judenthum is a theme of many of the essays in the new book Jewish Jocks, edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy. Essays on the boxer Barney Ross, the quarterback Sid Luckman, and even the gangster Arnold Rothstein — the alleged fixer of the 1919 World Series — relate what their athletic fame or notoriety meant to Jews growing up amidst rampant anti-Semitism. “We love tough Jews, the way they counter the neurasthenic Woody Allen image for us Woody Allen types,” writes Ron Rosenbaum in his chapter on Rothstein. On the other hand, he writes, there’s something hypocritical about making heroes out of louts like Rothstein, and something wrong about internalizing the anti-Semitic narratives about Jewish weakness or slyness.

Growing up in a comfortable middle-class suburb that barely distinguished between Jews and Italians, I didn’t long for a redemptive figure who would teach the gentiles a lesson. If anything, I admired the meek, brainy, indoorsy, athletically challenged, and frequently picked on types. Later on I’d study with the literary critic Daniel Boyarin, a defender of the “feminized Jew” who stood in stark contrast to the aggressive male archetypes of Western civilization. We are, after all, called the children of “Israel” (Jacob) and not his coarse brother Esau.

I also grew up at a moment when the Jewish stereotype was being turned on its head. Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War buried the notion that Jews don’t, or can’t, fight. The traits that got Jews beaten up on the streets of Crown Heights were exactly the ones needed to flourish in the information economy. Anti-Semitism became, like model trains, a vocation for obsessives on the margins of the mainstream.

But if I don’t get “tough Jews,” I also don’t get those who can’t accept that the old stereotypes are just that. A few years back, the British novelist Howard Jacobson wrote a satiric essay suggesting the Hanukka story feels “a touch suspicious.” Unlike the Exodus triumph or the Purim comeuppance, for which the Jews relied on “magic and smart talk,” the Maccabees’ “trouncing” of the Syrian-Greeks “sounds worryingly like wish fulfillment,” Jacobson wrote.

The Hanukka narrative is surprising, maybe, but suspicious? Beyond the myth-making of the Apocrypha, the historicity of the basic Hanukka story (excepting the oil miracle) is well established: The successful Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy in 165 BCE is documented, along with the liberation and rededication of the Temple by the Hasmoneans. The Hasmoneans would be in effective (and at times corrupt) control of the Second Jewish Commonwealth until 63 BCE, when the Romans exploited an inter-Jewish rivalry to seize Jerusalem and annex Judea.

(If you want suspicious, try to find a historical source for the Purim story.)

Jacobson may well know this history, but still regards as “inauthentic” the idea that a Jewish holiday would celebrate military prowess rather than cunning, which might be funny if it didn’t echo a creepy stereotype. “Trouncing the Syrian-Greeks sounds worryingly like wish fulfillment” only if it weren’t true, and only if we hadn’t witnessed, in our lifetimes, an epic Jewish victory (or two, or three) against a foe determined to wipe us out.

Unfortunately, some Jews are wedded to the idea of the Jew as underdog or victim. (This is true on the Right and Left, by the way.) And, in truth, there are plenty of holidays that mark and even revel in Jewish victimhood. Jacobson suggests that we add yet another, proposing that we “dedicate each [Hanukka] candle to one of the more recent narrow escapes of Jewish history. The Spanish Inquisition candle. The Russian pogroms candle.”

Because, you know, the Jewish calendar is way too cheery.

(I’m reminded of the title of a book by Simon Wiesenthal, Every Day Remembrance Day: A Chronicle of Jewish Martyrdom. I can’t imagine a more tragic worldview.)

Not to get all Ecclesiastical, but there is a time for mourning, and a time for celebrating; a time for remembering our martyrs, and a time for recalling our defenders. On Hanukka I am going to celebrate by recalling our defenders. And I might say a prayer for Jewish leaders here and in Israel. It seems we’re always going to need our tough Jews. But we also need flexible Jews who understand that circumstances call on different aspects of the Jewish mind and body, and that we often need the brains, skill, and imagination to tell one from the other.

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