December 9, 2010
The Shtetl Strongman
— Sarah Imhoff
Nothing telegraphs nostalgia quite like sepia tones. The new children’s book Zishe the Strongman paints the life of an early twentieth-century Jewish entertainer with equal parts longing and joy. Based on the real life strongman Siegmund Breitbart, Zishe grows from a child who can snap chains and bend iron bars with his bare hands into an internationally-renowned circus performer who pulls a cart of ten men down Broadway using his teeth. “But,” the tale goes, “Zishe was also quite gentle.” As a child, “he loved small animals. He would hold tiny mice in his hands.” (The accompanying illustration shows a smiling mouse proudly flexing his biceps for Zishe.) It is no surprise that Zishe appears on many lists of the best gifts for Hanukkah—the celebration of the Maccabees, those other historical paragons of Jewish strength.
What is it about Zishe that appeals to American Jewish parents? Is it nostalgia for the shtetl? The kippah-adorned blacksmith and joyous countenances of the children of Lodz indicate that the shtetl’s prominent place in the American Jewish imagination remains intact. But the tale also suggests the romanticization of a simpler time of uncomplicated masculinity. Zishe embodies a strength utterly devoid of ties to violence, or even competition. He “used his strength to haul and carry things for others,” and then used the money for cello lessons. As an entertainer, he tossed children in the air and used his chest to support boards that elephants would plod across.
In real life, Siegmund Breitbart was an ardent Zionist. He looked up not only to the biblical Samson, but also to the militant Bar Kochba, who led a heroic and bloody revolt against Roman rule in 135 CE. Before his death in 1925, Breitbart planned an international sports league for Jews, but one that had much broader political implications: he imagined that it would incorporate military training and ultimately facilitate the creation of a Jewish army which could conquer Palestine. He was outspoken in his admiration for Vladimir Jabotinsky, the militant Zionist and former British officer who famously advocated “Jewish youth, learn to shoot!”
But the only traces of this Zishe are relegated to a text-filled informational back page of the book; it emphasizes a 1924 New York Times article that claimed he wouldn’t hurt a worm, but nowhere mentions Bar Kochba, Jabotinsky, or the goal of seizing Palestine by force. The story and illustrations prefer the gentle mouse-holding, cello-playing specimen of manhood.
Hanukkah toys and gifts have not always shied away from celebrating military victory and physical dominance. Our Zishe is not the Hanukkah games of earlier decades like “Valor Against Oppression” featuring “latter day Maccabee” Moshe Dayan; he is not even the Monopoly-esque “Race Dreidel” that promised that “every Jewish boy and girl thrills to hear the heroic story of the Maccabees.” Although Zishe the Strongman is not explicitly Hanukkah-themed (or, perhaps, because it is not Hanukkah-themed), it can present an American model of historical Jewish masculinity for boys to emulate. Books aimed at young boys so often make obvious otherwise implicit goals of masculinity, and Zishe suggests that American Jewish parents sought a romanticized shtetl masculinity: simple, strong, and gentle. American Hanukkah celebrations often emphasize the miracle of the oil while deemphasizing the Israeli military, especially given the current conditions of occupation, and the gorier parts of the Maccabean victory, both of which offer a much more complex version of what it means to become a Jewish man.
American parents today, despite widespread support for Israel, may feel ambivalence about teaching their boys to emulate Dayan. But the experience of besiegement and the necessity of military action also fail to resonate with the majority of American Jews. Mainstream Zionism in America lacks the David vs. Goliath quality of the Maccabees or even the early state of Israel. Zishe the Strongman, on the other hand, represents a world of moral clarity. For Zishe, there is no fight at all: no David, no Goliath, no Maccabees, no Egypt or Syria. He demonstrates his strength through entertainment and brings joy to “his fellow Jews” everywhere. In many ways, even with its romance and nostalgia, then, this tale of Zishe resonates with American Jewish life. And it certainly represents a desire for a world with a simpler legacy of Jewish masculinity, one where every boy can grow up to be like Zishe: “His heart was as great as his strength.”
Sharon Gillerman, “Samson in Vienna: the Theatrics of Jewish Masculinity,” Jewish Social Studies (Jan 2003).
Jenna Weisman Joselit, Wonders of America (New York: Henry Holt and Co, 1994).
Robert Rubinstein, Zishe the Strongman (Minneapolis: Kar Ben, 2010).
Sarah Imhoff is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University/Bloomington. She teaches American Jewish history, rabbinic literature, and gender.