Manly Missions: Jews, Christians, and American Religious Masculinity, 1900-1920

By Imhoff, Sarah | American Jewish History, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Manly Missions: Jews, Christians, and American Religious Masculinity, 1900-1920


Imhoff, Sarah, American Jewish History


In 1912, the Protestant missionary journal Our Hope sought an explanation for the origin and meaning of Jewish "nervous disorders." Like other American periodicals of the Progressive Era, it suggested that hysteria and neurasthenia constituted a significant issue for many Americans, and Jews in particular. But this journal did not, like others, posit a neo-Freudian explanation about repression. Nor did it offer a Lamarckian explanation of the inherited effects of persecution. Instead, as the organ of the largest American mission to the Jews, Our Hope provided theological reasons for the presence of "nervousness" in Jewish bodies. Even though the widespread diagnosis of nervous disorders had only begun after George Beard's 1881 American Nervousness, the journal saw the "divine prediction" of these ailments in Deuteronomy 28:64-67. (1) According to Arno Gaebelein, longtime editor of Our Hope and later contributor to The Fundamentals pamphlet series, Deuteronomy explained that Jews should expect "a trembling heart, and failing of eyes and sorrow of mind" and "fear day and night." (2) He then provided a contemporary exegesis for the verses: "This prediction has found its fulfillment, as well as many others, among the Jews for many generations. A leading Jewish specialist on nervous diseases declares that Jews are more subject to diseases of the nervous system than the other races among whom they dwell. Hysteria and neurasthenia appear to be the most frequent." (3) Using a complex definition of Jewishness that relied on both religion and race, Gaebelein suggested that Jews suffered for both hereditary and theological reasons. He went on to cite another scientist's work indicating that Jews were "almost exclusively the inexhaustible source for the supply of hysterical males for the whole [European] Continent. This liability to nervous disorders is the result of the curse which rests upon the race, 'the trembling heart and the sorrow of mind' as mentioned in the above passage of Deuteronomy." (4) Popular medical discourse had linked these diseases to women or to a failure of proper masculinity. It also recommended that they should be prevented by strenuous physical activity or combated with fresh air. Confounding any essentially biological notion of nervousness, Arno Gaebelein and the readers of Our Hope proposed a different solution to the plight of these nervous Jews: conversion.

Gaebelein's interests point to a larger missionary attention to the relationship between Jewishness and masculinity. Other missionaries, in particular Jews who converted and subsequently became missionaries to other Jews, grappled with ways to understand Jewish difference in the context of both religion and gender. On the one hand, they painted Christian masculinity with the broad strokes of physical prowess, might, and willingness to fight. On the other, they associated Jewish masculinity with gentleness and quietness in the face of suffering. These missionary sources suggest that this difference in masculinity represented an instance of Joan Wallach Scott's now axiomatic proposition of gender as a "primary way of signifying relationships of power." (5) In the context of American Protestant missions to the Jews, the available signifiers were not simply masculine versus feminine, but rather different kinds of masculinity. For instance, instead of a situation in which one might feminize the enemy or masculinize the victor, Christian missionaries perceived a situation in which two religions each espoused a different version of manhood.

As Jews who had converted and then become Christian missionaries to other Jews, "Hebrew-Christian" missionaries, as they were called, occupied a liminal space in the religious landscape. As such, missionaries Samuel Freuder, Joseph Goldman, Leopold Cohn, and others on the missionary margins associated a physically powerful and intimidating masculinity with Protestants and a gentle, non-violent masculinity with Jews. …

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