The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Widespread admiration for Volodymyr Zelensky could upend stereotypes about Jewish men

Zelensky’s bravery has made him into a tough-guy sex symbol — at odds with centuries of depictions of Jewish men

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a video address on March 20. (Ukrainian Presidency Press Service/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has gained the status of modern tough-guy hero since Russia invaded his country. From debates about who will play him in the inevitable war film to comparisons to the heroic Maccabees, Zelensky is being idolized across American media as a masculine sex symbol. One of the most circulated thirst tweets exclaimed: “BREAKING: every woman in your life now has at least a small crush on Volodymyr Zelenskyy and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.”

What’s most surprising is that Americans have celebrated his manliness despite Zelensky’s being Jewish. Traditionally, Americans have seen manliness as uncharacteristic of, if not antithetical to, Jewish identity. While there have been tough Jewish men, the stereotype in popular media has leaned toward a bookish nebbish, embodied by someone like Woody Allen — so much so that the characteristics of a nebbish imply Jewishness, even if it’s unstated. The unprecedented hero worship of a Jewish “stud” heroically leading his people in wartime may upend these emasculated stereotypes that have plagued Jews for so long.

Several stereotypes have dominated popular conceptions of non-Orthodox Jewish men for centuries. The two most prominent are “the Scholar” (bookish, physically frail, meek and often cowardly) and “the Lawyer” (greed-driven, maliciously clever, and corrupt and legalistic). As masculinity became synonymous with nationalism across Europe and the United States in the late 19th century, Jews were routinely excluded from both, branded instead as meek outsiders regardless of their citizenship.

Jewish men fought back against these pervasive stereotypes. Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, for example, repeatedly attempted to engage in fencing duels in the late 19th century to prove that he met the Austrian standard for masculinity, but he couldn’t gain access to dueling societies, which barred Jewish members. Not to be deterred, Herzl formed a Jewish dueling society and eventually his own modern nationalist movement. He argued that Zionism would create and promote a new kind of Jew, “the manly, honorable, dueling, fighting Jacob Samuels,” in the words of scholar Daniel Boyarin, an image that would overcome those Jews whom Herzl called the Mauschel, a group he described as “crooked, ‘low and repugnant,’ frightened, unresponsive to beauty, passive, queer, effeminate.”

In the United States, Jewish men found their masculinity challenged, as well. They served in all branches of the military in disproportionate numbers from the Revolutionary War through World War II, trying to prove their toughness. Yet, military authorities denied Jewish men access to high-ranking positions because of distrust of Jewish loyalties and presumed cowardice. In the early 20th century, middle- and upper-class Jews also attempted to participate in the manliest sporting and social programming — by joining country and athletic clubs, fraternities and men’s social organizations — but they, too, ran into prejudice, which barred them from most of these clubs and organizations.

Like Herzl in Austria, American Jews created parallel organizations, some to disprove assumptions that Jewish men were weak, unathletic, antisocial or clannish, and others to serve as correctives, because some Jewish men saw these stereotyped traits as actual inadequacies in their manhood. The Jewish War Veterans organized to combat the notion that Jews were, as the instruction manual for the Medical Advisory Boards weighing candidates for the draft during World War I stated, “more apt to malinger than the native born.” Jews established men’s clubs like the City Athletic Club of New York because they knew that such venues were the breeding grounds for nonmartial American manhood.

Accusations about weakness or a lack of manliness were a constant thorn in the side of Jews attempting to fully integrate into American society and gain access to the middle and upper classes, which were closely linked with the notion of rugged American masculinity. And whatever progress these Jewish institutions and their members made in countering mainstream perceptions of Jewish masculinity was largely undone in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

New stereotypes of Jewish men emerged in American media because of three effects of World War II — American Jewish affluence, the Holocaust and the declaration of Israeli statehood. Postwar novels like Leon Uris’s “Exodus” helped to popularize the image of the hypermasculine, sexier Jewish sabra, an image that was exclusive to those born in Israel, making American Jews look weaker by comparison. As Holocaust representation became a genre, especially after the Six-Day War in 1967, it birthed a second stereotype, one that applied to European Jewish men. The world came to perceive them as downtrodden victims, decimated by tragedy. Finally, postwar commentary on affluent Jewish life in the suburbs popularized the concept of the “Nice Jewish Boy” — American-born, beloved by mothers, effeminate, gentle and delicate.

Jews both chafed at and perpetuated this last stereotype. Popular novels by such Jewish authors as Philip Roth and Norman Mailer depicted characters both embodying and disparaging the “Nice Jewish Boy.” These authors had more masculine, tougher Jewish men in their stories, but both also painted Jewish male characters as victims of the emasculating nature of affluence and suburban living. Some Jews even defended the gentle form of Jewish masculinity as unique to Jewish culture and the rabbinic tradition.

Yet, the rise of the “Nice Jewish Boy” made it nearly impossible to rid American culture of the basic idea that Jewish men were less masculine.

Decades of popular culture simply entrenched the postwar stereotypes further. Depictions of the Holocaust became a popular subgenre of American entertainment featuring fiction, memoirs, history, feature films and documentaries.

The image of American Jewish men as nebbishes and nice Jewish boys also persists, in both Jewish and non-Jewish media, as a comical archetype. Jewish men frustrated with such images have reveled in new representations of tough Jews on screen in recent decades. Yet, the tough Jews depicted on television and in films, if recognized as Jews, are fictional or highly fictionalized (think of Eli Roth as the “Bear Jew” in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 movie “Inglourious Basterds”).

Meanwhile, when Jewish actors play tough guys on the screen, their characters are seldom recognized as Jewish (like Jon Bernthal as the Punisher), and when historically Jewish figures are presented as tough, producers, directors and authors often make them notably less Jewish in both behavior and appearance. The choice to cast the blond-haired, blue-eyed, non-Jewish Daniel Craig as Jewish militant Tuvia Bielski in the film adaptation of Nechama Tec’s 1993 book “Defiance,” and tweaks made to the character, epitomized this pattern.

Enter Zelensky, a real-life, rugged, tough Jewish fighter, being lionized for these traits on social media. Viral images and videos show him stoically assuring the world that he and his cabinet remain in Kyiv, refusing offers of evacuation and rallying his country to fight alongside him.

Not only is Zelensky’s Jewish masculinity being celebrated, but he is being favorably juxtaposed in the United States against non-Jewish leaders like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump who have leaned in to their masculinity and garnered praise from supporters specifically for embodying manhood. Trump, for example, not only aggressively bullied his critics and opponents, but famously touted the size of his own genitalia on the campaign trail.

The praise and admiration for Zelensky may just be a win for Jewish manhood. Even as Zelensky’s manhood receives hyperbolic praise, his new admirers have highlighted his Jewishness, not downplayed it, as was done in the cases of other masculine Jews.

Historically, this recognition of a diaspora Jewish leader as tough, patriotic and sexy is unprecedented. And it may even have lasting effects on the perception of Jewish men globally, working toward unraveling centuries of prejudiced stereotypes that have persisted despite the best efforts of Jewish men to shatter them. Yet, whether this is a good thing, simply placing Jews on equal footing with other Americans, or whether it represents the creation of a new, potentially damaging hypermasculine Jewish archetype, only time — and perhaps the Hollywood version of Zelensky’s life — will tell.