In October 1977, Barbra Streisand asked, “What’s a nice Jewish girl like me doing on the cover of Playboy?” Now with Jewish two-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman posing naked for ESPN The Magazine’s Annual “Body Issue,” we’re asking a similar question. “It sounds like a Jewish mother’s nightmare,” writes JTA’s Andrew Tobin about Raisman’s photo shoot, “But Playboy, it’s not.”
In his book “Acting Jewish,” Professor Henry Bial writes that the Jewish label on Playboy’s cover with Streisand suggests that she is a sex symbol both in spite of her Jewishness and because of her Jewishness. In “Jewhooing the Sixties,” David Kaufman points out that “by providing a new model of ‘Jewish beauty’ herself, [Streisand] helped make Jewishness aesthetically attractive and romantically appealing.” So as the athlete who won her gold medal with a floor routine set to “Hava Nagila,” and who her rabbi Keith Stern says “is very proud and upfront about being Jewish,” is it Raisman’s Jewishness that makes her photo shoot provocative, or is the shoot less risqué than the “naked” headlines suggest?
While posing nude on the balance beam, Raisman bears her muscles, but reveals nothing, leaving plenty to the imagination, as Tobin points out. In the world of nude photography, her shoot may be as tznius, or modest, as it gets. Though the shoot may be suggestive, it suggests not only 21-year-old Raisman’s potential sex appeal as gymnast-Jewess, but also a triumph of body positivity amidst industries — both gymnastics and nude portraiture — where many girls have struggled with eating disorders.
“[The headline] sounds a little sexualized — that’s one frame — but when you listen to the interview, [Reisman’s] talking about what she’s able to accomplish with her body through discipline. That frame is a very different frame,” says Deborah Meyer, executive director of Moving Traditions, which runs Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing, a program promoting positive body image for adolescent girls through Jewish sources.
Reisman is five feet and two inches worth of muscle — bulkier than many other gymnasts, she says, but that didn’t stop her from proudly posing before a team of photographers. “I think imperfection is beauty,” says Raisman. “Instead of being insecure about my muscles, I’ve learned to love them. I don’t even think of it as a flaw anymore because it’s made me into the athlete that I am.”
To Meyer, Raisman exudes discipline and hard work, while withholding negative self-judgment. “She’s a powerful role model for Jewish girls and women,” Meyer says, explaining that gratitude to God for the bodies we were born with and what we can do with them is a Jewish value. The morning blessing called “birchot hashachar,” says Meyer, is about appreciating “gifts from God” — our bodies, the world surrounding them, and the resources, such as food and water, we put into them. In Leviticus Rabbah, Hillel tells his students, “the Torah teaches that every human being was created in the image of God. If this is so, shouldn’t we, who are made in God’s likeness, take care of our bodies?” Raisman says she always eats healthy: “everything I put into my body is for the purpose of gymnastics.”
In bearing it all, Raisman’s naked photo shoot for ESPN The Magazine may bear less in common with Playboy than the headlines suggest. Like the title of Bial’s book “Acting Jewish,” the values Raisman puts forth in her interview may fall in line with “acting Jewish” — only here, not only may her Jewishness make her sexy like Streisand, but her Jewish values also make her strong. Perhaps Raisman’s naked shoot isn’t a “Jewish mother’s nightmare” after all.