Does Zelensky's Image Upend Stereotypes about Jewish Masculinity?Roundup
tags: gender, Jewish history, Ukraine, antisemitism, Volodymyr Zelensky
Miriam Eve Mora is author of the forthcoming, Carrying a Big Schtick: American Jewish Acculturation and Masculinity in the Twentieth Century (Wayne State University Press). Her research addresses antisemitism, nationalism, Jewish history, Jewish gender, Holocaust representation, Irish history, migration and masculinity.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has gained the status of modern tough-guy hero since Russia invaded his country. From debates about who will play him in the inevitable war film to comparisons to the heroic Maccabees, Zelensky is being idolized across American media as a masculine sex symbol. One of the most circulated thirst tweets exclaimed: “BREAKING: every woman in your life now has at least a small crush on Volodymyr Zelenskyy and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.”
What’s most surprising is that Americans have celebrated his manliness despite Zelensky’s being Jewish. Traditionally, Americans have seen manliness as uncharacteristic of, if not antithetical to, Jewish identity. While there have been tough Jewish men, the stereotype in popular media has leaned toward a bookish nebbish, embodied by someone like Woody Allen — so much so that the characteristics of a nebbish imply Jewishness, even if it’s unstated. The unprecedented hero worship of a Jewish “stud” heroically leading his people in wartime may upend these emasculated stereotypes that have plagued Jews for so long.
Several stereotypes have dominated popular conceptions of non-Orthodox Jewish men for centuries. The two most prominent are “the Scholar” (bookish, physically frail, meek and often cowardly) and “the Lawyer” (greed-driven, maliciously clever, and corrupt and legalistic). As masculinity became synonymous with nationalism across Europe and the United States in the late 19th century, Jews were routinely excluded from both, branded instead as meek outsiders regardless of their citizenship.
Jewish men fought back against these pervasive stereotypes. Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, for example, repeatedly attempted to engage in fencing duels in the late 19th century to prove that he met the Austrian standard for masculinity, but he couldn’t gain access to dueling societies, which barred Jewish members. Not to be deterred, Herzl formed a Jewish dueling society and eventually his own modern nationalist movement. He argued that Zionism would create and promote a new kind of Jew, “the manly, honorable, dueling, fighting Jacob Samuels,” in the words of scholar Daniel Boyarin, an image that would overcome those Jews whom Herzl called the Mauschel, a group he described as “crooked, ‘low and repugnant,’ frightened, unresponsive to beauty, passive, queer, effeminate.”
In the United States, Jewish men found their masculinity challenged, as well. They served in all branches of the military in disproportionate numbers from the Revolutionary War through World War II, trying to prove their toughness. Yet, military authorities denied Jewish men access to high-ranking positions because of distrust of Jewish loyalties and presumed cowardice. In the early 20th century, middle- and upper-class Jews also attempted to participate in the manliest sporting and social programming — by joining country and athletic clubs, fraternities and men’s social organizations — but they, too, ran into prejudice, which barred them from most of these clubs and organizations.