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The myths and misconceptions about Jews




The urban legends about us could fill a library, and have been compounded over time by fear and lack of education. While some amuse and some shock, their origins are equally fascinating, and may help us to understand why such myths have proven so popular.

Jews have often been likened to the devil, and we have also been said to possess a pair of horns, kept well-hidden beneath our kippot.

If you look at certain classical artworks based on biblical figures, Moshe is often portrayed with two small but noticeable horns atop his head. This is the case with Michelangelo’s Moses sculpture which depicts a stern-faced man dressed in a white robe, sporting a flowing beard… and horns.

This widespread image of the Jew was based upon a misinterpretation of the Torah. Moshe was often depicted in Medieval and Renaissance art with two horns on his head as a result of the Latin mis-rendering of the phrase in the verse “sent forth beams” (karan) as “grew horns” (a horn being a keren). This image, which was invoked frequently by artists at the time, including Michelangelo and Donatello in Italy, led to the widespread notion that Jews had devilish horns.

Another feature over which anti-Semites have and continue to obsess is the supposedly “typical” Jewish nose. In Europe in 1940, Jews were depicted as having hook-noses on posters, pamphlets, newspapers, even children’s books. Because many Jews did indeed possess such noses, it was said that this was a defining feature of Jews, and attributed to Jewish people around the world, a trend which continues today.

However, despite the claims of 19th and 20th century pseudo-science, the “Jewish nose” is not a genuine characteristic, nor is it uniquely Jewish. In the Encyclopaedia Judaica, anthropologist Harry Shapiro maintains that while the “convex profile with a depressed nasal tip is not infrequent among Jews, this is not surprising since the same nasal character is common enough in the general region from which they originate, not to mention that it also occurs in non-Jewish European people”.

So, why has this feature been attributed to Jews? According to historian Sara Lipton, until 1 000 CE, there were no easily distinguishable Jews of any kind in Western imagery. This applies even in the case of nefarious Jewish characters, such as the religious leader who can be seen urging Pontius Pilate to crucify Christ in images found in the Egbert Codex, an illustrated gospel book. They were visually unremarkable and required labels to identify them as Jewish. Jews sported many different kinds of “bad” noses – some tapering, others snout-like – but the same noses appeared on many “bad” non-Jews as well, and there was no single, identifiable “Jewish” nose.

By the late thirteenth century, however, a move toward realism in art and an increased interest in physiognomy resulted in artists turning to visual signs of ethnicity. According to Lipton, the range of features assigned to Jews consolidated into one fairly grotesque and naturalistic face, and the hook-nosed, pointy-bearded Jewish caricature was born.

Perhaps one of the most popular myths is that which links Jews to ill-gotten money. In truth, Jews have been associated with moneylending for at least a millennium. One of most common explanation for this is the exclusion of European Jews in the Middle Ages from various professional guilds, their confinement to ghettos, and restrictions preventing them from owning land. These restrictions led to Jews earning a living in one of the only areas left available to them – finance.

Medieval Christian theology held that charging interest (known as usury) was sinful, which kept many Christians from becoming financiers. The field therefore became dominated by Jews. Historian Howard Sachar estimates that in the 18th century, as many as three-fourths of the Jews in Central and Western Europe were limited to the precarious occupations of retail peddling, hawking, and “street banking” or moneylending.

By the time Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice in 1605, Jews had been providing commercial credit to Venice itself for almost a century. Based some distance from the city centre, Jewish moneylenders would ply their trade seated on benches known as banci, hence the eventual creation of the word “bankers”.

The fact that Christians regarded such occupations as incompatible with their religious principles fuelled the belief that Jews were morally lacking and willing to engage in unethical business practices that decent people had rejected. This led to a rise in the opinion that all financial transactions carried out by Jews were immoral, self-serving, and aimed at harming non-Jews.

Even among ourselves, myths about other sects of Judaism abound. Many believe, even today, that ultra-Orthodox Jews are so concerned about modesty, that they have marital intercourse through a hole in a sheet. This would ensure that they are modestly separated from one another, and incapable of seeing the other while engaged in marital relations.

This is a total myth. “There has never been a group of Jews anywhere in the world that has advocated having sex through a hole in a sheet,” says David Ribner, the founder and director of the Sex Therapy Training Program at Bar-Ilan University “That has never happened. It doesn’t happen today, it never happened in history. It’s not advocated in any text within the Jewish community.”

Rabbi Yisroel Bernath of Chabad Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Canada, says the myth might have originated from the “tallit katan” – a very wide, rectangular shawl with four knotted strings (tzitzit) hanging from each corner, worn by Orthodox men under their shirts. He says, “To make the garment simple, they cut a hole in the garment to put their heads through. Cleanliness is a big thing in Judaism, so they wash their tallit. Non-Jews in old Eastern European villages would see large ‘sheets’ hanging from the clothesline to dry. The ‘sheet’ had a hole in the middle, and active imaginations made up the rest.”

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