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Jews and their noses

by: Hasdai Westbrook - Last updated: 2003-10-24

Some noses are small, some are big

Different size noses

Ever wondered whether it is realy true Jews are blessed with big noses? Of course not! Some are big, some are small. SJ reveals there's more to Jews and their noses than meets the eye and discovers how the stereotype came about.

What's in a nose? Wait, stop. Put down that electric hair trimmer and step away from the mirror. That's not what we meant. For years, we just took it for granted that Jews were, shall we say, blessed in the beak department. But after some Eskimo-related mishaps, we got curious. And so, nostrils flared, we went looking for answers. Is there really such a thing as a "Jewish" nose? Our wise council drew a blank. So we asked John Relethford, professor of physical anthropology at New York's SUNY-Oneonta.

"No," says Relethford. Apparently, having a huge honker has nothing to do with being a Red Sea pedestrian. "Being Jewish is not a matter of biology. It’s a matter of culture," Relethford explains. Biology and culture do overlap somewhat since, to be considered a Jew, your mother generally needs to be Jewish. But that still leaves papa. Take the example of Prof. Relethford himself: "I’m Jewish, yet I have classic Northwestern European features," says our man in academe. Explanation? The good professor converted to Judaism when he married.

So, is the super-sized Semitic snout just a myth? According to Relethford, "Nasal shape is very much influenced by what type of environment your ancestors found themselves in." And since Jewish genetic ancestry is mixed, you can’t blame the tribe for your prodigious proboscis. "If you look at any population of Jews," says Relethford, "you’re going to find Jews with large noses, Jews with small noses. It varies."

Fair enough. But where did the stereotype of the hook-nosed Jew come from then? The culprit seems to be bad science. Nineteenth-century eugenicists ascribed "primitive" physiological characteristics to Jews, including what one enlightened scientist called "a large, massive, club-shaped, hook nose." Character could also be ostensibly inferred from nasal shape, a "Jewish nose" being the sign of "commercialism or desire for gain." The stigma of this supposedly Jewish feature led many Jews to undergo plastic surgery as a cure for their "nostrility." Indeed, the father of the modern nose job was Jewish surgeon Jacques Joseph of Berlin, who pioneered scarless rhinoplasty in the 1880’s.

If, then, you’ve been judging strangers Jewish by the size of their schnozzes, and not by the contents of their kehilla, you should be feeling a big wave of guilt right about now.

First published in New Voices