There is no such thing as a Jewish nose. There are Jews, and they have noses, just like almost everyone else. Those noses are in no way remarkable or significantly different from the noses of the general population. The big (often hooked, frequently grotesque, generally repulsive, and highly caricatured) Jewish nose is a myth.
I don’t say this as an act of self-hatred or a distancing from an important cultural or ethnic feature that I dislike and want to abandon. I’m not a nose-job seeking young woman (or her parent), and it’s not 1988. I have nothing against big noses, on whomever they may be found. Which is pretty much everyone, everywhere, in roughly equal proportion. I say this, instead, as someone who has researched the history of physiognomy, the imagined connection between facial features and internal character, and how our commitment to that connection affects how we judge people. I’m a historian and theorist of the face and body, and I think a lot about what our faces mean … and what they don’t.
Attractive or not, big noses are hardly unique to Jews—or even particularly concentrated among them. And yet we as a community have fundamentally internalized this invented narrative, imagining it to be a defining characteristic of our physical features and incorporating it into our broader cultural identity. But (and let me say this again, clearly and without ambiguity): There is no such thing as a Jewish nose.
Someone actually measured. Back in 1911, anthropologist Maurice Fishberg measured 4,000 Jewish noses in New York (with calipers!) and found no significant difference in size or size frequency with the general population. While no one has exactly reproduced Fishberg’s much cited study, more recent research on noses shows that while there are genes that control the shape and pointedness of the nose, they are affected largely by geographic origin and not at all, it turns out, by religion. University College London’s Dr. Kaustubh Adhikari and his team showed that the appearance of the nose is an evolutionary adaptation: Europeans tend to have narrower noses to deal with the air of a cold, dry climate, while Africans have broader noses that help them regulate a more humid and warm environment. Which is to say: Jews from different regions historically have different kinds of noses, and different size noses, and different shape noses. Just like everyone else.
But when it comes to the Jewish nose, perhaps actual size doesn’t matter. Myths are powerful. And they do a lot of different kinds of work. Many Jews have embraced the myth of the Jewish nose with pride as a way to claim a particular identity and make their minority status public and visible. There’s something deeply comforting about being able to identify someone as Jewish through this quick and highly visible shorthand. The embrace of the Jewish nose is, for many, a way to reclaim a feature that has been caricatured, pilloried, and manipulated in images from the 12th century through Shakespeare’s Shylock, Dickens’ Fagin, Nazi propaganda, and beyond. Claiming the Jewish nose is a way to reject the use of this feature for oppression, anti-Semitism, and even in the justification of genocide.
The big nose has long served as a visible way to mark this otherwise invisible group of others. As historian Sara Lipton recounts in Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography, there is absolutely no visual evidence of Jews in images being depicted with bigger noses prior to the 12th century. Jews were marked through context and other visual clues, which was necessary because generally speaking, their faces looked like everyone else’s. They still do. We still do. But around the 12th century Jews began to be marked—by hats, which were not something they regularly wore at that time, except in those paintings.
It is only later in that century that the distinctively large and hooked Jewish nose began to appear, as a way to mark Jews as ugly, grotesque, and recognizable. Most of the time. There is also evidence, as scholar Sander Gilman chronicles in Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery, of Jews having smaller noses as a way to associate Jews with nose-cartilage-attacking syphilis, once thought of as a disease of bad morals that Jews were thought to transmit while remaining largely immune to it. However, it was the large Jewish nose that took hold then and still holds us now. From the very beginning of that invented stereotype, the intention was to create a visible Jewish appearance. A visibly bad Jewish appearance. The hooked Jewish nose remained an identifiable touchpoint for the next several centuries, finding its way into portraiture texts, physiognomical literature, and medical writing. Portraiture technique guided artists on how to create the Jewish nose paying special attention to the hook. Physiognomical literature outlined the supposed link between appearance and character, with heavy emphasis on the Platonic principle of kalokagathia: “The morally best, the most beautiful. The morally worst, the most deformed.” By these standards, ugly Jewish noses marked ugly Jewish character. As intended.
It wasn’t just about size: Late 18th- and 19th-century physiognomical texts go into great detail about noses, given how prominent and visible they are on the face. Roman and aquiline noses, both large, were Good. Jewish large noses, however, with their large downward hooks and convex nasal bridges, were Bad. Because of course, Jews were Bad, so the traits associated with their associated noses were likewise problematic.
Medical literature got in on the act, offering greater legitimacy to physiognomic claims by pathologizing the Jewish nose. According to plastic surgeon Beth Preminger in a 2001 JAMA article, the Jewish nose became an actual category in the medical literature, alongside explanations as to how to fix it, thereby further fixing the myth in our collective imaginations. As late as 1996, medical textbooks outline the exact nature of the Jewish nose and the surgical steps that should be taken to cure this problem. A simply ugly nose doesn’t require medical treatment, and any such intervention would be a mark of frivolity and excess. But a diagnosably Jewish nose has a cure—one that many people turned to over the 20th century: As much as big noses were and are associated with Jews, so, too, is rhinoplasty.
Taste in noses, however, is both a function of fashion and politics. In the 19th century, the pug nose, associated at that time with the much-pilloried Irish immigrating to the U.S. as a way to escape the potato famine, was considered at least as bad as the Jewish nose. Such a nose indicated, according the physiognomists and those who followed them as a way to denigrate Hibernia and its people, stupidity, baseness, and general commonality. In the first half of the 20th century, nose jobs were done not just to reduce their size but to enhance them: No Americans of Irish descent at the time wanted a small, pug nose.
But styles changed, and the association between the Irish and those negative traits declined. So, too, did the association between pug noses and the Irish, and pug noses and stupidity. The idea of the large Jewish nose proved more enduring. The Nazis helped: Their grotesque anti-Semitic imagery reliably featured hook-nosed Jews whose villainy and sub-human character was as clear as their protruding proboscises. It didn’t matter that those images had no correlation with reality; the message they communicated was still clear, effective, and ultimately genocidal. And all it took was one big-nosed Jew for viewers to think the depictions were accurate. Or maybe not even one: In the face of the overwhelming will to see and do the worst, what does the nature of an actual face matter?
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t large noses among the Jewish population. We can all think of examples of famous celebrities and famous (in our families) relatives who (proudly or otherwise) sport these prominent features. And given their prominence, it is perhaps no surprise that outsize noses occupy an outsize place in our minds and collective identities. One big nose comes to stand in for all the Jewish noses out there.
It is great to claim a big nose with pride. It’s great to push against the messages that associated big noses with small characters, insisting on a positive Jewish identity in the face of centuries of images sending the opposite message. But it’s also accepting a narrative that is not our own. It’s affirming a belief system that situates Jewishness in the body and blood, a common trope of the scientific racism of the 19th century that also, as it happens, offers one very specific way of determining who is and isn’t authentically Jewish. The myth of the Jewish nose is the myth about very specific kinds of big Jewish noses: Ashkenazi, European, and white. By adopting this feature as our own, we are drawing lines around who “looks Jewish,” and, indeed, who is, at the level of the body and blood, most Jewish. Which means we leave out Jews of color, Jews by choice, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, and, of course, everyone who doesn’t have a big hooked nose, if we accept the fundamental lie that there is a way for our faces to look Jewish. It’s true that there are broad geographical features that Jews from some historical geographies share. But they are only a tiny part of our large and diverse Jewish community. When we accept that there is a way that Jews look, when we accept that there is a kind of nose that Jews have, we must stop and think: Who are we then not accepting as Jewish?
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Sharrona Pearl teaches medical ethics at Drexel University. Her most recent book is Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other. Her work is at sharronapearl.com and she is on Twitter @sharronapearl.