Two Jews and an Englishman are crossing the ocean on a ship. The Jews, who can’t swim, start arguing with each other about what they should do if it sinks. As they argue, they gesticulate with such vigor that the Englishman backs away to avoid injury. Suddenly, the boat begins to sink. All the passengers except for the Jews, who are too wrapped up in their argument to notice, jump overboard. After a long, exhausting swim, the Englishman finally reaches the shore. He is amazed to find the two Jews there, happily waving him in. Astonished, he asks them how they got there. “We have no idea,” says one of them. “We just kept on talking in the water.”
A version of this joke appears in a 1941 dissertation on “the gestural behavior of eastern Jews and southern Italians in New York City, living under similar as well as different environmental conditions.” The study was written by David Efron, who grew up in an orthodox Jewish home in Argentina and arrived in New York for graduate study in the 1930s. By his own account, when he spoke Spanish, he gestured with “the effervescence and fluidity of those of a good many Argentinians.” When he spoke Yiddish, his gestures were more “tense, jerky, and confined.” He sometimes combined the two styles, as when “discussing a Jewish matter in Spanish, and vice versa.” After living in the United States for a few years, he found his gestures becoming “in general less expansive, even when speaking in his native tongue.” His gestural identity was further complicated by the “symbolic Italian movements” he had picked up from Argentine-Italians and reinforced on a trip through Italy. But no matter what language he spoke, he proved to be “an adroit table-pounder.”
Efron was one of the last students of the famous anthropologist Franz Boas. Boas spent his career arguing that it was culture and environment, not biological race, that accounted for differences in how groups of people behaved. Efron’s study was designed as a challenge to the impressionistic explanations of gesture that the race theorists of the 1930s were passing off as science. One claimed that Jews of mixed race who no longer had other Jewish physical traits could still be identified by their gestures. Another categorized gesture by race: Nordic gestures were restrained; Mediterranean gestures were playful; the gestures of the Phalic race (as in the German region of Westphalia) reminded one of a fleeing chicken; Italian gestures were explained with reference to hot blood, light bones, and poor impulse control.
Efron observed the conversations of 1,250 Lithuanian and Polish Jews and 1,100 Italians from Naples and Sicily in and around New York City. In each group, about half were recent immigrants and half were “assimilated.” They were observed in a range of settings: parks, markets, social clubs, schools, universities, Catskills resorts, Adirondack hotels, and the Saratoga racetrack. He recorded five thousand feet of film and, with an artist, produced two thousand sketches of spontaneous gestures.
The results paint a picture of a stereotype, but a lovingly detailed and specific one. According to Efron, Jews used a limited range of motion, mostly from the elbow. Their movements were more angular, jabbing, intricate, and vertical than those of the Italians, who used larger, smoother, more curved lateral gestures which pivoted from the shoulder. Jews tended to use one hand, Italians both. Italians touched their own bodies, Jews touched the bodies of their conversational partners. Efron describes with delight an episode he witnessed where one man grabbed the arm of his interlocutor and started gesturing with it. That man, becoming annoyed, finally grabbed the first man’s wrist in retaliation and “started admonishing him back with his own hand.” Jews also did more gesturing with objects such as pencils or, in one case, a meatball on the end of a fork. Italians used less finger and wrist movement but more repetition. They also had a vocabulary of symbolic gestures with standard meanings—from “I know more than you think I do” to “I’ll sew your lips together” to “I’ll poke your eyes out”—that could be understood without any speech at all.