Seders during my childhood in Great Neck invariably began with the same unintentional ritual. My father knocked over his brimming glass of wine, sending crimson rivulets speeding across the starched white tablecloth, like the Israelites scurrying across the desert. We spent most of the first half of the seder mopping up the mess; by the time we got to the description of the cascade of blood that was visited on the Egyptians, we were just about ready, like Pharaoh, to throw in the towel.
Dad’s inability to grasp objects with his hands plagues him throughout the year. He can scarcely do the dishes without a glass tumbler shattering on the counter, and woe betide the poor fool who passes within 10 feet of him as he lugs a ceramic flower pot across the patio.
Alas, I’m no more adroit with my hands than he is. While erecting the sukkah a few weeks ago, I somehow managed to drive a screw through the middle of my left thumbnail, and to tear off the top of my right thumbnail on an errant piece of bamboo. (Talk about being “all thumbs,” or, in this case, considering what I was left with, no thumbs.)
The stereotype of the Jewish klutz, or schlemiel, is engrained in our popular culture. From Milton Berle and Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen and Ben Stiller, Jews have portrayed themselves as bumbling, clumsy, oafish and uncoordinated. Nor has this depiction been limited to men; Fanny Brice made a slapstick career of playing slipping ballerinas and stumbling Indian princesses.
As Jackie Mason observed in his 1988 Broadway show, “The World According to Me,” just “Go in any gentile home, they hit you with hammers, nails, screwdrivers, banging. …The toilet was once a chair. The living room was once a kitchen. The Ping-Pong table was once a furnace. The second floor was once a chimney…” Indeed, according to Mason, while “a gentile home is a workshop, a Jewish home is a museum.”
Last week’s Torah portion mentioned that Tubal-Cain (a descendant of Cain) worked as a blacksmith. And the Israelites certainly developed a long tradition of being involved in handicrafts of all types — witness the building of the elaborate Tabernacle in the desert. But since Jews were typically relegated to banking and commerce throughout the Middle Ages, they tended to use their heads — trained through the study of sacred Jewish texts — rather than their hands. (Kabbalists, however, used both. They believed that the 10 fingers corresponded to the 10 sefirot, or emanations of God; they manipulated their hands to channel blessings into the world.)
Jonathan Karp, who teaches history at Binghamton, told me that the idea that Jews should focus more on manual labor, including farming, became “one of the central preoccupations of modern Jewish history,” and that it was even “key to the dominant forms of Zionism.” Karp cites observers like the 18th-century scholar Christian Wilhelm von Dohm (a close friend of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), who believed that constantly following the fluctuations of the market gave Jews an anxious, unmanly temperament, and that anti-Semitism could be reduced by weaning Jews away from excessively intellectual careers.
Nevertheless, many of the Jews who arrived in America from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century used their hands to make a living. According to the “Encyclopedia Judaica,” among the 106,236 Jewish immigrants to the United States in 1903-’04, were a motley crew of 16,426 tailors, 4,078 carpenters, 2,763 cobblers, 1,970 glaziers and painters, 1,400 butchers, 1,173 bakers, and 14,830 in miscellaneous crafts. By the third generation, even as the vast majority of Jews had changed their occupational collars from blue to white, many still distinguished themselves in professions that required unerring manual precision; they became surgeons, musicians, fashion designers, and the like.
Mark Latash, who teaches kinesiology (the study of human movement) at Penn State, translated Nicolai Aleksandrovitch Bernstein’s mid-20th-century masterpiece, “Dexterity and Its Development” — which was lost for half a century and first published in the 1990s — from Russian into English. Latash (whose own last name, in Hebrew, means “to sharpen, hammer, forge, or push”; he speculates that his ancestors were stonecutters), explained that the idea that Jews are less dexterous is a matter of “lore and legend rather than science. It’s like the saying that if a Jew is smart, he’s really smart; if a Jew is a fool, he’s a damned fool.” Ideas of Jewish awkwardness, he said, have been similarly exaggerated, to the extent that, “If a Jew is clumsy, you shouldn’t give him anything to hold.”
Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College, where he also serves as Hillel director. He writes about theater for the paper.