Like Fanny Brice, are we cutting off our nose to spite our race

It was a Monday night in Napa, and for the first time, I was actually beating my boyfriend at Scrabble. Remote in hand, he began to channel surf.

I’d just slapped down the tiles to spell out “tranquil” across a triple word square when I heard the announcement: “Coming up next, ‘The Swan.'”

“‘The Swan?’ What’s that?” I asked as he continued surfing. Before he could finish explaining the latest reality show, I’d forgotten about the board game.

Repulsed, yet riveted. There’s no other way to describe what came over me. With a hand clasped over my mouth, I watched as two sad souls were poked, judged, marked up, sliced and diced on national television. In bandages, pain and tears, they dragged their sorry forms before the cameras, all in pursuit of the Barbie dream. But only one, the worthy one, would be named a beauty pageant contestant by the “team of experts.” It was the sickest show I’d ever seen, and it left me reeling.

With hit programs like this, it’s no wonder the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported 8.7 million cosmetic procedures in 2003, a 32 percent jump over the previous year. Topping the menu of orders: nose jobs, liposuction and breast augmentation.

And while no one at ASPS could break down the demographics, I always had a hunch our people helped pave the way for cosmetic surgery.

A college roommate from New York nonchalantly fessed up to her “sweet 16 nose job” — a rite of passage where she came from. A relative of mine took her daughter for a new nose, and left with one for herself. A 2-for-1 special, I suppose.

My mother has jokingly, I hope, pleaded with my little sister, a medical student, to specialize in plastic surgery. Keeping nip and tuck in the family — what could be sweeter?

I know, I know. If going under the knife makes people feel better about themselves, who am I to judge? It’s easy for me to sit here in my 30-something skin, “lucky” nose, and say I’d never do it.

But if Jews deem tattoos as taboo, a violation of the God-given body, why would elective facial reconstruction be any better?

From what I’ve gathered, it seems Jewish scholars generally permit cosmetic surgery, as long as there’s a practical or psychological reason behind it. So if a new nose increases likelihood of marriage or greater success at work, might as well pass the scalpel, they say.

Elizabeth Haiken, author of “Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery,” wrote that American surgeons began experimenting with nasal plastic surgery in the late 1800s. Among noses listed as “desirable for improvement”: the “Jewish nose.” Having identified a good market in the Jews, the surgeons pounced, and our people became the “first group of Americans to undertake surgical alteration of ethnic features in any numbers.”

With the movie boom of the 1920s, cosmetic surgery for stage and screen gained broad acceptance. When Franny Brice, a Jewish comedian, had a nose job in 1923, speculation about her motives inspired Dorothy Parker’s wisecrack that Brice had “cut off her nose to spite her race,” an accusation Brice vehemently denied. Still, Haiken writes that her biographer acknowledged that Brice, “must have hoped that the operation would make her look less Jewish… Ethnicity was definitely not fashionable in the 1920s.”

The standard of beauty was Anglo-Saxon, and by replicating the accepted norm, plastic surgeons furthered the inferiority complex attached to “the Jewish nose,” also referred to in Haiken’s book as “the facial ‘stigmata.'” Through surgery, Jews could join the ranks of those deemed beautiful, while stifling the odds of discrimination. By the end of World War II, plastic surgeons were in all corners of our country, prepared to lop off our shnozzes.

The other night, I was in Berkeley with my nieces, playing Chinese checkers. “American Idol” pulled us away from the game I intentionally wasn’t winning. Amelia and Zoe, 8 and 6, rested their heads on my lap as we watched the wannabe divas sing.

At each commercial break, despite my efforts to shield them, “The Swan” was promoted for young girls like my nieces to see. As I peered down at their little Jewish faces, I could only hope that they will love and respect themselves enough to preserve what they’ve been given.

Jessica Ravitz is working on her master’s in journalism at U.C. Berkeley. She can be reached at