Jewish Nose

Joseph Jacobs

Jewish nose is a caricature of Jews with hooked noses with a convex nasal bridge and a downward turn of the tip of the nose that emerged in 13th century Europe. The stereotype persists despite the fact that this nose type is as common in the general population as it is among Jews in countries where it is prevalent, such as in the Mediterranean.

Around the middle of the 19th century, and lasting for more than a century, the term ‘Jewish nose’ was commonly used in scientific literature to describe a particular shape of nose which thought to be a race-based deformity characteristic of people with Jewish ancestry (which by unwitting efforts of plastic surgeons of early 20th century started to be viewed as a pathology to be corrected).

Robert Knox, an 18th-century anatomist, described it as ‘a large, massive, club-shaped, hooked nose.’ Another anatomist, Jerome Webster, described it in 1914 as having ‘a very slight hump, somewhat broad near the tip and the tip bends down.’ A popular 1848 essay ‘Notes on Noses’ written by solicitor George Jabet under pseudonym Eden Warwick offers quite a different description, and specifies that though this nose is popularly identified as Jewish, should be properly defined as a ‘Syrian nose.’ He writes that it is ‘very convex, and preserves its convexity like a bow, throughout the whole length from the eyes to the tip. It is thin and sharp.’

In the mid-19th century, Jewish folklorist Joseph Jacobs wrote: ‘A curious experiment illustrates this importance of the nostril toward making the Jewish expression. Artists tell us that the best way to make a caricature of the Jewish nose is to write a figure 6 with a long tail; now remove the turn of the twist, and much of the Jewishness disappears; it vanishes entirely when we draw the continuation horizontally. We may conclude, then, as regards the Jewish nose, that it is more the Jewish nostril than the nose itself which goes to form the characteristic Jewish expression.’

The statistics cited in the chapter ‘Nose’ of the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901–1905) by Joseph Jacobs and Maurice Fishberg, demonstrate that, contrary to the stereotype, the ‘Jewish,’ or hooked, nose is found with the same frequency among people of Jewish descent as it is among non-Jewish people from the Mediterranean region generally. The data collected by Jacobs and Fishberg showed that this type of nose is found in the minority of Jews (20–30%) and that the vast majority have a straight nose. In 1914, Fishberg examined the noses of 4,000 Jews in New York and found that only 14% could be described as either aquiline or hooked. In 1906, Felix von Luschan suggested that the arched nose in Jews is not a ‘Semitic’ trait, but is a consequence of the intermixture with the ‘Hittites’ in Asia Minor, noting that other races with Hittite blood, such as the Armenians, have similar noses. The same theory was held in 1910 by Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a racialist writer whose ideas on the racial inferiority of Jews influenced the development of Fascism.

A Roman statue depicting a hawk-nosed figure in the collection of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, and acquired in 1891 from Princess Piombino, lacked an inscription in Latin identifying the subject but was presented by the museum in 1925 as Josephus, an identification defended by Robert Eisler. The grounds for Eisler’s inference were simply that a notice in Eusebius stated that Josephus, the most famous Jew of his time, had a statue erected in his honor, and this bust, he thought, corresponded to a ‘crooked,’ ‘broken,’ ‘Jewish nose’ as distinct from the classic aquiline Roman nose. The identification is still widely used though scholars have rejected the claim. Hebrews in ancient Near Eastern art, like other peoples, Canaanites for example, who lived to the west of the Assyrian empire, have straight protruding noses.

Art historian Sarah Lipton traces the association of a hooked nose with Jews to the 13th century. Prior to that time, representations of Jews in art and iconography showed no specific facial features. ‘By the later thirteenth century, however, a move toward realism in art and an increased interest in physiognomy spurred artists to devise visual signs of ethnicity. The range of features assigned to Jews consolidated into one fairly narrowly construed, simultaneously grotesque and naturalistic face, and the hook-nosed, pointy-bearded Jewish caricature was born.’

While the hooked nose became associated with Jews in the 13th century, the Jewish nose stereotype only became firmly established in the European imagination several centuries later. One early literary use of it is Francisco de Quevedo’s ‘A un hombre de gran nariz’ (‘To a man with a big nose’) written against his rival in poetry, Luis de Góngora. The point of his sonnet was to mock his rival by suggesting his large nose was proof he was, not a ‘pure blooded Spaniard,’ but the descendant of conversos, Jews who had converted to Catholicism to avoid expulsion. In particular, the reference to ‘una nariz sayón y escriba’ (Spanish for ‘a nose of a hangman and scribe’) associates such a nose maliciously with the Pharisees and the Scribes responsible for Christ’s death according to the New Testament.

In the 20th century, the hooked nose became a key feature in antisemitic Nazi propaganda. ‘One can most easily tell a Jew by his nose,’ wrote Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher in a children’s story. ‘The Jewish nose is bent at its point. It looks like the number six. We call it the ‘Jewish six.’ Many Gentiles also have bent noses. But their noses bend upwards, not downwards. Such a nose is a hook nose or an eagle nose. It is not at all like a Jewish nose.’

According to writer Naomi Zeveloff, ‘in prewar Berlin, where the modern nose job was first developed, Jews sought the procedure to hide their ethnic identity.’ The inventor of rhinoplasty, Jacques Joseph, had ‘a large Jewish clientele seeking nose jobs that would allow them to pass as gentiles in Berlin,’ wrote Zeveloff.

But this negative view of the Jewish nose was not shared by all Jews; Jewish Kabbalistic texts consider a large nose as a sign of character. In his book ‘The Secrets of the Face,’ Kabbalistic Rabbi Aharon Leib Biska wrote in 1888 that Jews have ‘the eagle’s nose.’ ‘A nose that is curved down […] with a small hump in the middle attests to a character that seeks to discover the secrets of wisdom, who shall govern fairly, be merciful by nature, joyful, wise and insightful.’

Among those seeking surgery to make their noses smaller were many American Jewish film actresses of the 1920s to 1950s. ‘Changing one’s name is to Jewish males what fixing one’s nose is to Jewish females, a way of passing,’ writes film historian Patricia Erens. One of the actresses to undergo surgery was Fanny Brice, inspiring commentator Dorothy Parker to comment that she ‘cut off her nose to spite her race.’

According to Erens, this fashion ended with Barbra Streisand, whose nose is a signature feature. ‘Unlike characters in the films of the 1930s and 1940s, she is not a Jew in name only, and certainly she is the first major female star in the history of motion pictures to leave her name and her nose intact and to command major roles as a Jewish actress.’ Streisand told ‘Playboy’ magazine in 1977, ‘When I was young, everyone would say, ‘You gonna have your nose done?’ It was like a fad, all the Jewish girls having their noses done every week at Erasmus Hall High School, taking perfectly good noses and whittling them down to nothing. The first thing someone would have done would be to cut my bump off. But I love my bump, I wouldn’t cut my bump off.’

‘As Jews assimilated into the American mainstream in the 1950s and ’60s, nose jobs became a rite of passage for Jewish teens who wanted a more Aryan look,’ wrote Zeveloff. By 2014, the number of rhinoplasty operations had declined by 44 percent, and ‘in many cases the procedure has little bearing on […] religious identity.’

In ‘The American Scene’ (1905), Henry James alluded to the stereotype in a description of the Jewish slums in New York City’s Lower East Side by comparing Jews to a ‘sallow aquarium [with] innumerable fish, of over-developed proboscis.’ The Jewish nose stereotype was a common motif in the work of Thomas Mann, who described it as ‘too flat, fleshy, down-pressed.’ In his 1909 novel ‘Royal Highness,’ for example, Mann invents a Jewish doctor, Sammet, whose nose is described as giving away his origins, being ‘too broad at the bottom.’

In ‘The Great Gatsby’ (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the gangster Meyer Wolfshiem focused on his ‘expressive nose,’ a reference Fitzgerald later denied was antisemitic, despite privately expressing bias against Jews. ‘In The Sun Also Rises’ (1926), Ernest Hemingway’s character Robert Cohn flattened his nose while attending Princeton University, an alteration that was symbolic of the perceived sacrifices required to fit in with a predominantly Anglo-Saxon peer group at a university with a strongly antisemitic atmosphere.

Bernice Schrank notes that Jewish attitudes toward the Jewish nose has changed from negative in the 1950s to positive today. ‘The change from unacceptability to acceptability is based on an increasingly successful challenge to the American myth of melting pot sameness by the politics of ethnic difference.’

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