Navigate to Arts & Letters section

On the Bookshelf

New books on bodies visible and invisible

Josh Lambert
October 19, 2009
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

During Jewish Body Week, no one should forget that one of the things Jews have persistently done with their bodies, much to their loving mothers’ dismay, is to hunch over texts, wearing out their eyes while squinting to make out tiny typefaces. In other words, Jews read with their bodies, too. In Maggid: Jewish Bodies: The Word Made Flesh (Toby, November), the third issue of an annual ”journal of Jewish literature“ edited by Bar-Ilan University literary scholar Michael P. Kramer, a range of excellent novelists and poets—Steve Stern, Alicia Ostriker, Daniel Mendelsohn, Sophie Judah, and Melvin Jules Bukiet, as well as Etgar Keret and Melvin Konner—reflect, obliquely or directly, on what it means to have a Jewish body and to represent that body in writing.

* * *

In recent decades, many American Jews have embraced an entirely different type of corporeal contortion: yoga. (As early as 1952, Norman Mailer wrote “The Man Who Studied Yoga,” but that’s really more about suburban malaise and pornography than the practice of ashtanga.) And wherever there is a booming market, a “small-format gift hardcover” suffused with hackneyed Yinglish is never far behind. Thus, Yiddish Yoga: Ruthie’s Adventures in Love, Loss, and the Lotus Position (Newmarket, September), by Lisa Grunberger, a yoga instructor and doctor of divinity. Told in the voice of a 72-year-old grandmother who has received a year’s worth of yoga lessons, the book caroms from shtick to casual metaphysics, and includes, of course, a loopy Yinglish glossary.

Anthropologist Tsipy Ivry offers a more substantial examination of the differences between Jewish and Asian approaches to physicality in Embodying Culture: Pregnancy in Japan and Israel (Rutgers, December). Japanese ob-gyns tend not to discuss prenatal diagnostic tests like amniocentesis with patients, for one example, while in Israel, thanks to vigorous government encouragement, such tests are so commonly performed that they unnerve fathers-to-be. (As an Israeli man put it in one of Ivry’s studies, “You come and they give you a printed form with statistics: one in 4,000 that your child can be this and one in 2,000 that your child can be that, and they tell you what the normal is. If you are slightly above the normal then start panicking.”) While Ivry grounds her work in ethnography, she draws on personal experience, too: according to her impressive C.V., not only has she published widely in her field and taught many courses, but she is also “married + 4.”

* * *

In Israel, Japan, and the rest of the world, avoiding pregnancy has most often involved Julius Fromm’s little invention, the rubber condom. A Russian Jew who studied chemistry in Berlin, Fromm patented his prophylactic in 1916 and, after World War I, he built Act Fromms into a ubiquitous brand. The Third Reich wasn’t uniformly opposed to birth control—Dagmar Herzog notes in her excellent Sex After Fascism (2005) that Nazi soldiers received 12 condoms each month from the military—but Jews profiting from it? Nein! To learn about the forced “dejudaization” of Fromm’s business, and how restitution was denied to his heirs decades after the war, consult Gotz Aly and Michael Sontheimer’s Fromms: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis (Other, October).

* * *

Two of the great American Jewish novelists, both of them profound thinkers about Jewish bodies, are releasing new books this fall. Philip Roth has written the great American masturbation novel—not to mention a pretty good menstrual-blood-fetish novella and an excellent phone-sex-and-emotionally-rich-urination novel—and somehow still hasn’t received the Nobel Prize. He continues to plumb his characters’ libidinal depths in The Humbling (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, November), revisiting the ménage a trois (which proved so disastrous for Alex Portnoy) in this tale of a washed-up actor and his younger lover. Meanwhile, Michael Chabon, whose fiction has routinely subverted readers’ expectations about gender and sexuality, does so again, nonfictionally this time around, in Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son (HarperCollins, October). In his incomparable prose, Chabon opines about modern masculinity, frets about the “fundamental brutality” of circumcising his sons, and recalls the teenage glory of spending “forty-three minutes . . . conducting a detailed and glorious survey” of a “young woman’s vagina”—and later feeling, in a echo of John Donne, like “a traveler returned from a fabled land.”

Both Roth and Chabon, like many Jewish novelists and filmmakers, have at one time or another explored the embodied nature of Jewish Orthodoxy. Take Roth’s “Eli the Fanatic” and Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: both question to what degree payes, an unchecked beard, and a black suit constitute piety. Nora Rubel notes the uptick in fictional representations of haredim since the 1980s, and focuses particularly on the work of Anne Roiphe, Naomi Ragen, Erich Segal, and Tova Mirvis in her study Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination (Columbia, October).

* * *

Having a body is confusing enough, but what if someone else had the exact same one that you do? That’s the issue, more or less, that Abigail Pogrebin tackles in One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular (Doubleday, October). A former television producer and a daughter of Letty Cottin Pogrebin—not to mention the force behind Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk about Being Jewish—Pogrebin also happens to have an identical twin sister, a New York Times reporter. Gathering twins’ stories and memories, and studying up on the science behind their relationships, Pogrebin offers insights into a strange, familiar phenomenon.

And what about folks without bodies? Hope Edelman found herself perturbed when her three-year-old daughter, Maya, suddenly acquired a bossy imaginary friend, Dodo, who’d command Maya to hit her mother or to starve herself. Edelman respects Jewish traditions, while her Israeli husband has New Age-y tendencies; why not travel to Belize, then, to consult a shaman about exorcising Dodo? Edelman relates their adventures with Maya among the Maya in The Possibility of Everything: A Memoir (Ballantine, October).

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.