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Exemplary Bodies: Constructing the Jew in Russian Culture since the 1880s, by Henrietta Mondry. Borderlines: Russian and East-European Jewish Studies. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2009. 301 pp. $58.00.
Henrietta Mondry explores the ongoing construction of the Jewish physical and psychological body in the works of Jewish and Russian writers, and how this construct was created by anthropologists and doctors, from the 1880s to the present. By analyzing fiction, movies, and scientific anthropological works, she examines “internalized” constructs of the Jewish body that were absorbed by Russian-Jewish and Russian writers (p. 19). At the turn of the century, the pseudo-scientific discourse on biological determinism and the theory of degeneration was at its apogee. Thus, Mondry states, the construct of the Jew as a biological and racial “Other” was immensely popular. Her main argument is that the Jewish body remains the site for Jewish writers to define their Jewishness, while for Russian writers it is the body of the “Other” and the “body where culture inscribes the meaning” (p. 20).
Mondry employs a vast range of theorists on the body such as Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, and Elizabeth Grosz. She grounds her arguments in Sander Gilman’s and Daniel Boyarin’s works, who stated that the construct of a physical Jew was indebted to the racial degeneration theories of the late nineteenth century. But the twist is that the stereotypes of the physical Jew were also appropriated by Jewish writers, Zionists, artists, and scholars.
She convincingly argues that the Jewish “stereotype has become one of the most enduring discursive formations” of Russian culture, especially during the rise of Russian nationalism (p. 18). In addition, Mondry examines the mechanisms of defining what constitutes the Jewish type. She starts her introduction by looking at Afanasy Fet, a Russian German who was believed to be Jewish by his contemporaries. Ivan Turgenev, Nikolay Chernyshevsky, and Ilya Ehrenburg believed that Fet was Jewish, not only because of his “Jewish look” but also because of his presumably inherited madness. Mondry explores the physical stereotypes associated with Jewish appearance and the racial discourse that caused some intellectuals to assume that Fet was Jewish. She states that, for some, Fet’s inclination to madness and his allegedly Jewish physical appearance served as scientific proof for their speculations (p. 15). These assumptions were believed in part because of Cesare Lombroso’s theories.
Her book consists of eleven chapters and begins with a brief overview of the anthropological discourse in the Russian Empire at the turn of the century. In Chapter Two, “Stereotypes of Pathology” she turns to Anton Chekhov’s short stories (“Tina,” “Tumbleweed,” and his play Ivanov). She shows that Chekhov used folkloric stereotypes as well as anthropological and medical discourses when depicting his Jewish characters, with very little allusion to the antisemitic Russian literary tradition. Chekhov represented the sick Jewish character by conflating physiology and psychology, which constituted for him the markers of Jewish otherness.
In Chapter Four, Mondry addresses Vasily Rozanov’s interpretation of the carnal Jewish body. In Chapter Five, she provides a close reading of Ehrenburg’s two novels, The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and his Disciples and The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitschwantz. She shows that Ehrenburg was familiar with Rozanov’s “body politics” and assigned Jurenito and Lasik some of the “internalized” Jewish stereotypical features regarding Jewish “bodily aromas and bodily secretions” (pp. 90, 91). He parodied the stereotypical depiction of a Jew in Jurenito and Lasik by assigning Jurenito physical features that would be recognized by antisemites and Jews “who had internalized these features” (p. 92). She reveals that Russian Jewish writers “internalized” stereotypical Jewish features dictated by the dominant Russian culture and that the culture “projected onto the Jew’s physical body its own insecurities and prejudices” (p. 117).
Mondry then analyzes the Soviet period, including its attempt to “reforge” the male Jewish character by transforming him into a productive one for the new Soviet country as shown in Vladimir Korsh’s movie Seekers of Happiness (1936) and in Valentin Ivanov’s antisemitic novel The Yellow Metal, which was later prohibited. In the movie Pinya fails to be “productive” for the new society, and he is physically and psychologically unsuitable. In Ivanov’s novel the Jew is represented “as a race physically marked as a biological entity” (p. 133). He depicts the Jewish body as a distinct racial body. During the antisemitic campaign of the sixties and seventies, the representation of a pathological Jewish body was even stronger. Though some studies argued that Jewish types in Soviet literature did not possess any explicit ethnic qualities, Mondry claims that the Jewish body was represented within the canon of a pathological and a bloodthirsty Jew, as in Ivan Shevtsov’s antisemitic novel Love and Hatred.
Despite the political changes in Russia during Perestroika and the post-Yeltsin period, the construct of a malicious, carnal, and as a racial “Other” Jew remained unchanged. Therefore, there was a continuity of representing a Jewish body within a particular set of stereotypical features, as in Vasily Belov’s The Best Is Yet To Come. She analyzes Leonid Gorovetz’s movie Ladies’ Taylor where a Russian Jewish director explores the construct of a Jewish body that, according to Mondry, “confirms the construction of Jews . . . with the distinctive attitude toward the sexed body” (p. 171).
In Chapter Nine, Mondry turns to the Russian Jewish writer Dina Rubina, who lives in Israel, and to the constructs of her Jewish body, “ambivalent and hesitation about her Jewish Self as her fantasies incorporate a wish for Spanish rather than Jewish genetic origins” (p. 22). In Chapter Ten, she examines “Jewish body” in the works by Alexander Goldstein, whose own depiction of the Jewish body is informed by racial theories, though his Jewish body is “gendered and sexed” (p. 22). Present-day Russian literature constructs Jewish oligarchs such as Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky as villains in such works as Alexander Prohanov’s novel Mr. Hexogen. In Chapter Eleven, she turns to the non-fiction of Grigory Klimov and Vladimir Avdeev, who perpetuate the racial discourse targeted against Jews.
Throughout these texts and movies, Mondry demonstrates the change and continuity in representations of the Jewish body. She argues that the depiction of the Jewish body in Russian contemporary literature was influenced by the emergence of Russian nationalism—therefore, the revival of racial theories that the Jewish type possesses unique and distinguishable physiological and physical traits that are inherently dangerous for Russians. By bringing together previously unexamined Russian Jewish and Russian antisemitic texts, the book makes an important contribution to Russian Jewish cultural studies. Furthermore, Mondry expands the frame of deciphering the mechanism of “othering” the Jew by examining the construct of the Jewish body in the works of Jewish and Russian writers. For some this book might make disturbing reading because it reveals the enduring representations of the Jewish body as a racial “Other.” However, Mondry’s work is a must read for those seeking to understand the perpetual existence of a racializing and mythological vilification of the Jewish body.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign