Pho­to by Mason Kim­barovsky on Unsplash

There is no short­age of lit­er­a­ture on the Jew­ish body. The Jew­ish body as a tool, a stereo­type, a vic­tim, a car­i­ca­ture. What is our fas­ci­na­tion with the cor­po­ral body when we write Jew­ish sto­ries and characters? 

In eighth grade, while I was vis­it­ing fam­i­ly in Los Ange­les, my aunt took one look at my face and dragged me to a salon in the Val­ley. Eye­brows and upper lip, she told the beau­ti­cian, all of it, she waved toward my face and laughed while I turned crimson.

I was aware that much has been writ­ten about Jews and their bod­ies – both by Jews and by oth­ers. But it was­n’t until an inter­view­er recent­ly asked me about my con­tin­u­al return to the body in the short sto­ries in my col­lec­tion, As If She Had a Say, that I real­ized that I too was writ­ing about the sub­ject. My Jew­ish char­ac­ters all wres­tle with God and their bod­ies, usu­al­ly con­cur­rent­ly. They often debate inter­nal­ly about the halachic laws of Judaism and bodies.

Thir­ty years lat­er, I still remem­ber sit­ting in that salon chair as the woman applied the wax, gum­my and hot on my young bro­ken-out skin. I dis­tinct­ly recall look­ing in the mir­ror at those paper sliv­ers adhered to my face, with my aunt behind me sur­vey­ing the scene, judg­ment spilling from her eyes and lips like acid. Am I so ugly that parts of me must be torn away? I don’t actu­al­ly recall the painful rip­ping away of my facial hair. I assume the dark­er hair is cour­tesy of my Jew­ish roots – Sephar­di and Ashke­nazi, I have them both. Erase them, my aunt said, the greater Amer­i­can media said. Erase them; erase yourself.

In Hineni,” my unnamed pro­tag­o­nist tweezes her eye­brow hairs obses­sive­ly while sit­ting shi­va. One might assume this is sole­ly an act of van­i­ty, but in fact my char­ac­ter has obses­sive behav­iors and can’t help her­self as she tweezes and plucks and pops. I have cho­sen to dis­play these char­ac­ter ten­den­cies while she is sit­ting shi­va for her beloved grand­moth­er. Her grand­moth­er didn’t have the lux­u­ry of tweez­ing unwant­ed hairs; she lived for years in a con­cen­tra­tion camp. My pro­tag­o­nist falls into vivid dreams that the read­er can assume are her grandmother’s expe­ri­ences. The dreams take her to the camps and show her rela­tion­ship with hair lice. The grand­moth­er had told her that “…the par­a­sites had been the only thing in the camp that let her know she was alive.” I wrote this, but I think about it like it’s real. We hear a lot about lice in the camps. We also hear about how the first thing the Nazis did was shave off the pris­on­ers’ hair. Can lice sur­vive on a lone­ly plan­et of a head with only stub­ble? The par­a­sitic rela­tion­ship between lice and humans is almost beau­ti­ful in this instance, or that’s how I imag­ined it while writ­ing Hineni” — when the adjec­tive par­a­sitic” is often used hate­ful­ly in rela­tion to Jews. 

The jux­ta­po­si­tion between my protagonist’s expe­ri­ence with her body and that of her grand­moth­er is crit­i­cal to this sto­ry. The dif­fer­ence in choic­es that many Jews have now that we did not have in the past is vast. My life as a Jew in the US is rel­a­tive­ly safe com­pared to those of so many of my ances­tors. I rec­og­nize how hard they fought and how few options they had. Jews are still con­sid­ered ver­min in many cir­cles. But, as my pro­tag­o­nist even­tu­al­ly real­izes, the most impor­tant thing is that she – we – are here; hineni.

As my pro­tag­o­nist even­tu­al­ly real­izes, the most impor­tant thing is that she – we – are here; hineni.

The Jew­ish law that for­bids des­e­cra­tion to the body is one that teenagers the world over roll their eyes at every time they even think about get­ting a tat­too. Many of us shrug off the respon­si­bil­i­ties of uphold­ing those tra­di­tion­al, and to many, out­dat­ed, laws. We’re mod­ern now, many of us say, and we tat­too, we pierce, and we cremate.

In my sto­ry The Ink That Doesn’t Dry,” the nar­ra­tor gets a tat­too of a Venus fly­trap after being raped. The tat­too is as much about tak­ing own­er­ship of her own body as it is a reac­tion to its des­e­cra­tion. As she walks up the New York City streets to her father’s house to cel­e­brate Rosh Hashanah, the ink is still wet, days and weeks lat­er. She is pro­cess­ing not only her assault, but also how her father will react to her break­ing Jew­ish law.

You shall not make gash­es in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on your­selves: I am the Lord.” So it says in Leviti­cus. Com­pound­ing that with the Nazis’ hor­rif­ic prac­tice of tat­too­ing num­bers on the arms of Jew­ish pris­on­ers, it seems sac­ri­le­gious even if we are atheists.

While it is not dis­cussed out­right, her father – a good and obser­vant par­ent – notices that some­thing is wrong. He under­stands that sav­ing a life is impor­tant and that includes pro­tect­ing his daugh­ter in her fraught men­tal state. He will accept her in what­ev­er pack­age she wraps her­self in. I am writ­ing about a Jew­ish body in this sto­ry as a can­vas on which to paint the narrative. 

When I think of the word bod­ies,” I hate to say it, but I think of Jew­ish bod­ies lying in a ravine, naked, ema­ci­at­ed, in a pile. Try as I might to evoke some­thing more pos­i­tive, I can’t. Our heads were shaved, our teeth pulled. How do we write about Jew­ish bod­ies in ways that don’t evoke the Holo­caust? What are Jew­ish bod­ies exclu­sive of that geno­cide? How­ev­er, the sin­gu­lar — body— doesn’t call forth such grue­some imagery. That is where I start when try­ing to write the Jew­ish body, to reclaim any theft of our­selves, our images, and our sto­ries. When we write about our bod­ies, we are turn­ing the three-dimen­sion­al into the one-dimen­sion­al — our bod­ies and sto­ries siphoned into ink. As a Jew, I believe writ­ing about bod­ies is a way of giv­ing our­selves agency and tak­ing con­trol of what has so often been tak­en from us.

Can we write a Jew­ish sto­ry and not focus on the body? When I am told, for the hun­dredth time, that I don’t look Jew­ish, do I get to actu­al­ly define what that looks like? Why the insis­tence to focus imme­di­ate­ly on my body when some­one learns I am Jew­ish? Tell me I don’t look Jew­ish and I will write a mil­lion sto­ries about what a Jew looks like.

I write the body because that is my impor­tant tool. My body is a uten­sil to write upon the world. What is the sto­ry I, a Jew, will leave behind? 

Jen­nifer Fliss (she/​her) is a Seat­tle-based writer whose work has appeared in F®ictionThe Rum­pusNo Tokens, the Wash­ing­ton Post, and else­where, includ­ing two of the Best Short Fic­tion antholo­gies. She is the author of the sto­ry col­lec­tion The Preda­to­ry Ani­mal Ball.