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Story Archives

Body + Mind

Nathaniel Deutsch

By Nathaniel Deutsch

At the age of 75 my father became a golem. Or at least that’s what he told me when I visited him in the hospital, where he was suffering from kidney failure, only the latest in a series of medical complications related to diabetes. When I asked him what he meant, my father groaned, “I have become a golem. An out-of-control body.”

My father grew up in a very orthodox Hungarian Jewish family in pre-Holocaust Europe and — after coming to America as a war refugee — Borough Park, Brooklyn. In the yeshivas that my father attended, students were encouraged to cultivate their minds and souls but not their bodies. Indeed, they were taught that bodies were things to be ignored, subdued or enlisted to perform mitzvot (commandments) but not indulged or exercised.

Years of sedentary existence undoubtedly contributed to my father’s many health problems. Yet I also suspect that his profound alienation from his own body granted him a seemingly magical ability to overcome ailments that would have felled an Olympic athlete. During his numerous stays in the hospital, my father always had roommates who looked to be in better physical shape than he was. Some of them never recovered. My father, meanwhile, slowly but surely returned to some semblance of health. Invariably, he astounded physicians with his incredible resilience. They naively attributed his dramatic recoveries to an amazing if unaccountable reserve of physical strength. But I knew better. My father didn’t mend because of his body but, rather, despite it, or, even more accurately, to spite it.

 

How can I nourish my whole self? 

 

Nathaniel Deutsch is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he serves as the Co-Director of the Center for Jewish Studies and the Director of the Institute for Humanities Research. He is also the author of six books, including, most recently, The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement.