Masculinity, Anti-Semitism and Early Modern Literature: From the Satanic to the Effeminate Jew

By Tauber, Daveena | Shofar, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Masculinity, Anti-Semitism and Early Modern Literature: From the Satanic to the Effeminate Jew


Tauber, Daveena, Shofar


Masculinity, Anti-Semitism and Early Modern Literature: From the Satanic to the Effeminate Jew, by Michael Biberman. Burlington: Ashgate, 2004. 260pp. $89.95.

Michael Biberman's book Masculinity, Anti-Semitism and Early Modern Literature: From the Satanic to the Effeminate Jew has two primary purposes. The first is to disrupt the idea that Jews are transhistorically feminized by European Christian culture. The second is to advance the thesis that we can better understand the genocidal impulse behind the Nazi project if we understand how what he calls the "Jew-Devil" remains a spectral figure that inspires hostility even as the "Jew-Sissy emerges as the primary representation of Jews. Although I am leery of metanarratives like the one Biberman works to establish, his arguments lead me to wonder whether the pressure to keep our scholarly claims temporally localized blinds us to potentially dangerous transhistorical movements. On the other hand, the transhistorical sweep of Biberman's book reminds us that such studies are rare precisely because they risk omission and oversimplification. In the end I am more persuaded by the arguments he makes in the service of dismantling the metanarrative of Jewish femininity than by his arguments toward a metanarrative explaining aggressive antisemitism.

Biberman importantly challenges the notion that Jews have been feminized since the medieval period. Drawing on queer, gender, and psychoanalytic theory, Biberman argues that the gendering of Jews changes in relationship to the dominant images of masculinity. He posits that in the medieval period, when ideal masculinity is encapsulated in the image of the knight, representations of Jews tend to be hypermasculine, representing a spectrum of male behaviors that are unacceptable for knights, such as sexual violence, unrestrained wrath, and greed. Biberman calls this hypermasculine Jewish trope the Jew-Devil. As the medieval economy gives way to the capitalist economy and the knight gives way to the merchant, the Jew-Sissy emerges to shore up a masculinity insecure about its newly "softened" image. In his first several chapters Biberman skillfully marshals figures like Marlowe's Barabas and Shakespeare's Shylock to illustrate the cultural process by which the Jew-Devil gives way to the Jew-Sissy. He continues to complicate the idea that Jews are transhistorically feminized by arguing that the Jewish woman becomes a kind of logical impossibility in the "one-religion" model-a point he makes through readings of Johnson's Dol Common, Shakespeare's Jessica, and Marlowe's Abigail, among others. These chapters are successful in establishing his thesis through persuasive readings of the texts and relevant literary theory.

As the book progresses, the relationship between Biberman's thesis and his examples of the Jew-Devil and Jew-Sissy grow increasingly attenuated. Part of the problem may be that the terms Biberman uses to encompass his complex and often persuasive ideas about the changing relationship between gender, culture, and Judaism are not complex enough themselves. The terms "Jew-Devil" and "Jew-Sissy" do not intuitively evoke the definitions Biberman gives them. In contemporary parlance "sissy" is a schoolyard taunt used against boys (or men) who are perceived as feminine. It also implicitly insults men who cannot get sex with women and (therefore?) engage in homosexual acts. …

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