Wait a minute. Too robust? If shtetl women are supposed to be robust, why not shtetl men?
Here's a short answer: in the words of Estelle Roith (in The Riddle of Freud: Jewish Influences On His Theory Of Female Sexuality),
"… the shtetl ideal of male beauty was one that emphasized ... physically passive preoccupations: pale complexion, weary half-closed eyes, long beard, and pale delicate hands."
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* Fiddler On The Roof gets a lot wrong, if you're interested in historical accuracy, but here Harnick, Bock and Stein are right on the money. In fact, Daniel Boyarin, in his Unheroic Conduct, has a section called "'Give Me A Bridegroom Slender and Pale': The 'Effeminate' Talmudist as Erotic Object for Women"
Without going into what they were yet, let's just agree, this was undoubtedly confusing for all concerned. But it's probably not a coincidence that the situation arose when it did. Let's scratch the surface of what was going on at the time. Leaving aside the shtetl world for a second, Russia in the 1860s, '70s, and '80s saw …
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A smart aleck might be tempted to suggest that, amidst all this flux and ferment, there was only one force for stability and unity in the whole Russian empire, only one thing bringing all men together.
That's right. They all wore beards.
There were reformers running rampant, some who wanted Jews to assimilate--maybe even wear shorter beards!
Yiddish literature, Hebrew literature, Yiddish Theater, with heavy doses of European influence, budded and blossomed.
A class of wealthy industrialists emerged.
There were pogroms.
Meanwhile, young Jews were hot for the same ideas that were lighting a fire under other young Russians. But that didn't keep some of them from subscribing to other new beliefs: that maybe Jews should defend themselves, that Russia's Jewry should abandon its centuries-old passivity, that Jews needed their own homeland.
Is it any surprise that all this had an effect on ideals of masculine identity?(And did I mention other considerations, like what role gay men may have played in shaping the male beauty ideal in the shtetl, or why there were so many stories about young shtetl women masquerading as boys?)
There's a lot to talk about there. In the next one or two or three installments of Handsome Is As Handsome Does, let's talk about it.