On Wednesday, Dr. Sarah Imhoff, of Indiana University’s Religious Studies and Borns Jewish Studies Programs, came to UNCG to present her lecture, “Jewish Men Past and Present: Sexuality and Stereotypes,” on Judaism and how it relates to masculinity.
She began by bringing attention to the controversial Tablet article, “The Specifically Jewy Perviness of Harvey Weinstein.” Imhoff dismissed the article’s claim that Harvey Weinstein is a “deeply Jewish kind of pervert,” saying, “[it’s] not Jewish men’s behavior but men’s behavior.”
Throughout the past year, discussions about men and their sexual behavior towards women and the people around them has skyrocketed in terms of media coverage, as seen through a stream of emerging allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against famous men.
Imhoff opened the lecture with the statement: “[This is a] cultural moment of reckoning about masculinity,” implying that the role of masculinity in our culture has come into question. She said it makes us ask questions about “what men do? And what we expect socially of men?”
Just as gentile men have social expectations, so do Jewish men. The “assumptions of Jewish men…. [have] a history,” said Imhoff.
She explained that it was “assumed Jewish men didn’t drink too much, hit their wives and aren’t violent.” She then put up photos of two well-known Jewish figures in media, Howard Wolowitz, from “The Big Bang Theory” and Woody Allen, a Jewish comedian, actor, director and producer.
The stereotypical Jewish man that society thought of, Imhoff said, was similar to these two men; lanky, nerdy looking, not tough or intimidating and not thought to be particularly strong. She then discussed several historical events which discussed this stereotype in newsprint.
In news articles written as early as the 20th century, it was discussed that Jewish men didn’t commit what was described in the Bingham Affair as “courageous crimes.” The Bingham Affair continued to argue, “even Jewish men who are criminals aren’t violent, aren’t aggressive, aren’t drunkards.”
Looking at modern times, it does not seem like being Jewish has anything to do with these types of behavior. A resonant example is the prevalent violent behavior by men in the Jewish Orthodox Hasidic communities.
In these communities, women frequently don’t come forward about abuse, and in Halakha, Jewish religious law, it does not say that abuse is a reason that a woman can be released from a marriage with her husband.
In modern times, this practice would seem odd, however, in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, it is an accepted practice. “Domestic abuse,” Imhoff said, “was incorrectly thought to not be nonexistent in the Jewish community. Jewish women are abused at the same 1:4 ratio as non-Jewish women.”
The issue of masculinity, it seems, is being discussed now more than ever, and throughout her presentation, Imhoff raised many interesting points about the various manifestations of perceived and real Jewish masculinity.
After her lecture, I reflected on my own childhood and interactions with Jewish men in my family. Unlike the stereotype of Jewish men as weak and scrawny, my father and grandfather are both tall and robust men.
Of the stereotypes of Jewish masculinity, Skyler Portnoy, said, “Stereotypes are in every group and it’s really interesting to learn about how that applies to Jews. It really makes you think about the origins of the expectations and stereotypes for any group.”
Imhoff’s lecture was an eye-opening experience. It definitely inspired me to further investigate the origins of stereotypes and how they affect what we do now and in the future.