July 20, 2019

The Myth of the Jewish Nose

“There is no such thing as a Jewish nose. There are Jews, and they have noses, just like almost everyone else. Those noses are in no way remarkable or significantly different from the noses of the general population. The big (often hooked, frequently grotesque, generally repulsive, and highly caricatured) Jewish nose is a myth.

I don’t say this as an act of self-hatred or a distancing from an important cultural or ethnic feature that I dislike and want to abandon. I’m not a nose-job seeking young woman (or her parent), and it’s not 1988. I have nothing against big noses, on whomever they may be found. Which is pretty much everyone, everywhere, in roughly equal proportion. I say this, instead, as someone who has researched the history of physiognomy, the imagined connection between facial features and internal character, and how our commitment to that connection affects how we judge people. I’m a historian and theorist of the face and body, and I think a lot about what our faces mean … and what they don’t.

Attractive or not, big noses are hardly unique to Jews—or even particularly concentrated among them. And yet we as a community have fundamentally internalized this invented narrative, imagining it to be a defining characteristic of our physical features and incorporating it into our broader cultural identity. But (and let me say this again, clearly and without ambiguity): There is no such thing as a Jewish nose.

Someone actually measured. Back in 1911, anthropologist Maurice Fishberg measured 4,000 Jewish noses in New York (with calipers!) and found no significant difference in size or size frequency with the general population. While no one has exactly reproduced Fishberg’s much cited study, more recent research on noses shows that while there are genes that control the shape and pointedness of the nose, they are affected largely by geographic origin and not at all, it turns out, by religion. University College London’s Dr. Kaustubh Adhikari and his team showed that the appearance of the nose is an evolutionary adaptation: Europeans tend to have narrower noses to deal with the air of a cold, dry climate, while Africans have broader noses that help them regulate a more humid and warm environment. Which is to say: Jews from different regions historically have different kinds of noses, and different size noses, and different shape noses. Just like everyone else.”

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