One of the last things I ever thought I’d do is enter a weight-lifting contest. One of the unspoken ‘prohibitions’ we, the sons and grandsons of Eastern Europe, live by is: “Thou shalt not be muscular.” And yet I, one short, small Jew, find myself putting fantastically large weights on my back and squatting, while I deadlift and bench press poundage that would make my forefathers shvitz and tremble just thinking about it. With every exercise I feel I am violating a tenet, a tribal taboo.
For my father’s father, an immigrant housepainter and wallpaper hanger, the injunction went further than being muscular. He told my father: “If you become a painter or do anything with your hands, I will chop them off.”
Though proud of his workmanship, these comments were born of his frustration; he was trapped in the limitations of his skills, his awkward English, the skimpiness of his education. He wanted my father to do something with his brain.
My grandfather also inherited distrust of the physical, the sensual. The Jewish body was weak was the thinking, but the Jewish heart was strong. Muscularity and extreme physical fitness was for Scandinavians, Swedes, Danes, but for a Jew, it was almost an embarrassment to be healthy–something un-Jewish. In fact, to be a proper member of the tribe meant to have at least one chronic ailment.
My mother too, may she rest in peace, was deeply invested in a manly ideal that focused exclusively on soft hands and sharp minds–as though a man’s body did not exist at all. To her, a muscular man was a prosteh, a vokhendick mensch: a man of the week—even as his body might be beautiful, he lacked the qualities that make one truly “beautiful,” and therefore couldn’t possibly be part of the hallowed group, the shabbesdike menschen, of which she considered “us” to be.
When I work out, I can see her watching me, turning her nose up slightly, with a look that say, “But why would you want to do that?”
Indeed, why would anyone enter a weightlifting contest, subjecting themselves to physical training and endurance if they don’t have to? It really is difficult and exhausting. My trainer, Moshe Klyman, a yeshiva-educated Greek god of a man and co-owner of the Underground gym in Tenafly, recites the usual reasons: good health, long life, cardiovascular benefits.
The March 22 Power Meet I’ve entered is a fundraiser to benefit a young New Jersey girl with leukemia, but the real reason people compete, Moshe tells me, is personal. Everyone has a score to settle–could be with a father, a grandfather, maybe the classmate who bullied you in grade school, but someone said you couldn’t, someone said you shouldn’t, and you’re going to prove them wrong.
As a psychologist, that sounded right to me. There is always some kind of score we want to settle, but as far as I get with the training, I sometimes feel as though I can’t settle the score at all.
Moshe adds pounds to my barbell. “I bet you can do 300 pounds today,” he says encouragingly. I have my doubts. There are thresholds that I dare not cross. We pause for discussion. All around us, people are working out, this one on the punching bag, another one doing diamond push-ups, a third one skipping rope.
“It’s not merely the lack of physical strength that stops me.” I explain. “I feel the weight of the generations on my back.” Moshe nods sympathetically. “Most of the power of weight lifting is in the head, not in the body. I am always thinking of how I can best my father,” he said, as he began another round of 500-pound deadlifts. I watch his face redden and every sinew and vein in his neck go taut. He drops the weights to the ground and exhales.
This father thing is not just limited to men. Fellow Tablet contributor Tova Ross, another tiny Jew, by coincidence trains at the same gym and has also joined the competition (which is divided by gender, size and class)
“I’ve got something to prove to my father too,” Tova told me recently. “He thinks a woman’s workout should be a basement step class in Flatbush.”
A burly young man on the other side of the room overhears us. “My father is an A-hole. I haven’t spoken to him in 100 years!” he bellows across the rooms, as he throws down the barbell.
I wipe sweat from my forehead and say to anyone who will listen: “My mother, my grandparents, the whole of the pious Eastern Europe took possession of my brain stem decades ago and I willingly entertain their ghosts right here in the gym.”
Moshe looks at me. “Really?”
“I struggle against their sense of doom,” I explain. “It’s not any one person. It’s the whole lot of them, their sense of fatalism, a conviction that the whole house of Israel, our collective Jewishness, will be crushed under the hands of the gentile bulvan.” I give a glance to the non-Jewish man next to us, hoping he didn’t hear.
(For those unfamiliar with the term, a bulvan is someone who looks like one of Putin’s minions in the Ukraine, a massive man, strong like an ox–a spiritual heir of the Cossacks whose clomping horses’ hooves would send grown Jewish men terrified and shaking into the broom closet.)
We get back to work. Moshe does a set of pull-ups and I do one more deadlift. After I put it down, I return to my reverie: set against a sense of inevitability, my mother and many of my forebears had a very different idea of personal ambition. They saw themselves as on loan to the world, provisional at best. They were part of a generation for whom personal pleasures and personal ambitions–like contests–were a luxury. They were pragmatists for the most part, not dreamers, hungry for things that would bring security, things that could be bought and sold. Physical strength wasn’t worth much on the open market.
“Still thinking about the old world?” Moshe chides me as I stand there glumly.
“Actually, I am. That generation, they had already stretched physically by coming to this country, by working in the trades, the shops. They saw no need to stretch any more. In a sense, they felt that they were doing all the heavy lifting so that we wouldn’t have to.”
I started climbing the rope, lifting myself, one hand over the other. My grandfather’s life was lived as a first generation immigrant with the stoicism that millions of others had; a life of deferred gratification in every sense–physical, intellectual, emotional. He saw himself as a man for whom pleasures would come little or not at all. My Zayde labored long, hard, and silently in the paint shop so that his son’s son could sing songs, write pieces like this one, and… lift weights.
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Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.