Michal Raucher reviews Ben Kasstan’s Making Bodies Kosher: The Politics of Reproduction among Haredi Jews in England (Berghahn: 2019).
In Making Bodies Kosher, Ben Kasstan explores the ways Orthodox Jews in Manchester, England respond to public health interventions. From 2014-2015, Kasstan lived within a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood in Manchester and conducted interviews with Jewish families, rabbinic leaders, and “maternity carers,” a term he uses to refer to doulas, midwives, and postnatal support persons (Kasstan 2019:24). Making Bodies Kosher combines archival and ethnographic research in order to demonstrate that the “protection of health and bodily care forms an enduring area of contestation between an ethno-religious group and the state.” Through a focus on reproduction and immunizations, Kasstan argues that Haredi Jews in Manchester “manage encounters with the external world by focusing on the body as a terrain of intervention” (2). This drives their negotiation with and responses to biomedical services.
As much as Haredi Jews are the focus of Kasstan’s research, the state is also under the microscope in this book. Kasstan shows that minority groups like Jews in the UK have been considered “hard to reach,” a phrase within public health discourse that describes certain minority groups as non-compliant or resistant to medical services. This rhetoric places the blame on the minority groups, as Kasstan shows how public health services in the UK have attempted to assimilate Orthodox Jews since the early 20th century. Kasstan argues that when minority groups are framed in this way, “they are accused of compromising the body of the nation’s integrity and immunity” (2019:9). Haredim, however, are not resistant to science or biomedicine. They place blame on the state for not accommodating their needs and thus making it difficult to procure medical services. In response, Haredim of Manchester have developed strategies of self-protection when engaging with health care providers.
Throughout Making Bodies Kosher, Kasstan advances a theory of immunity and immunitary reactions as that which happens when two distinct social and political bodies meet. Drawing primarily on the work of Italian political philosopher Roberto Esposito (2015), Kasstan uses “immunity” in both the theoretical sense and the biophysical sense. In the theoretical sense, he shows that Haredi Jews in Manchester require “social immunity from external contagions” (Kasstan 2019:54) such as other minority groups that surround them, or assimilationist techniques from the government. Public health efforts have also attempted to “assimilate (and immunize against) ethnic and religious difference within the body of the nation” (Kasstan 2019:127-128). Foreign minorities, whose practices are distinct from the objectives of biomedical authorities thus threaten the immunity of the national body. However, Kasstan’s focus on immunizations and Haredi Jews’ responses to the NHS schedule of vaccinations shows how immunity is not just a conceptual reality but also a biophysical one. He shows that “childhood vaccinations then become the point where competing risks and responsibilities intersect, entangling the bodies of the individual, the social, and that of the nation” (Kasstan 2019:224). Kasstan brilliantly shows that Haredi Jews of Manchester approach vaccine schedules with suspicion and resistance due to the ongoing concern about social immunity. But in so doing, they put their children in a medically vulnerable position from within. Haredi families assume they need immunity from others in the UK and the biomedical system, but they overlook the fact that “some Haredi neighborhoods in London do not achieve the required threshold to confer social immunity” (Kasstan 2019:224). This means that Haredi children are susceptible to infection from others within their community.
Kasstan paints a historically rich picture of the Jews of Manchester, showing how they were created through immigration, relations with the UK broadly, and intra group politics. He emphasizes that there is no singular Haredi community, but rather that the community is an imagined concept promoted by the government. While anthropologists understand that social groups like Haredi Jews are not monolithic, Kasstan’s point here is that “public health discourse constructs target populations” and ultimately constructs ideas about citizenship wherein conformity to public health practices confers citizenship (2019:211). During a time in which a global pandemic is affecting racial, religious, and economic groups differently, it is crucial that public health experts understand these differences between and among social groups. Making Bodies Kosher urges public health experts to look inward at the ways in which their rhetoric about minority groups emphasizes citizenship at the expense of health care.
Kasstan makes a compelling case about the importance of understanding internal differences. At times, though, this framing belies some of the other important arguments that Kasstan makes. For instance, although Kasstan shows that historically Jews in Manchester have had dynamic relationships with the state, we lose some of this dynamism in the immunity framing. The theory of immunity advanced here seems to suggest that the clash occurs when two distinct bodies meet, but as Kasstan elegantly shows in his historical analysis, these two bodies were co-created. Furthermore, his focus on immunity comes at the expense of thick description. I wanted to know more about Mrs. Shapiro, Mrs. Yosef, Mrs. Gross, Rabbi Raphael, Rabbi Kaplan, and Mrs. Schmidt, for instance. Kasstan’s attention to the way they speak about immunity, how they negotiate with doctors, and the medical decisions they make contributes to his larger argument, but what else can Kasstan tell us about these individuals? Did they grow up Haredi? Do they work outside the home? How many children do they have? Did they get immunized as children? A book can never capture the depth of ethnographic research, but Kasstan’s limited descriptions of his interlocutors somewhat re-inscribes a binary logic that he is attempting to refute, namely of the state versus Haredim.
Making Bodies Kosher focuses on reproduction and infant care, areas that Kasstan refers to as “health borderlands.” Kasstan asserts that “anxieties around bodily protection intensify” around these times (2019:251). The anthropology of reproduction, which Kasstan engages with, and particularly the reproduction of Jews, supports Kasstan’s analysis (Rapp 1999; Davis-Floyd 2003; Ivry 2010; Birenbaum-Carmeli 2008; Kahn 2006). While Kasstan’s focus on Haredi Jews in the UK is a welcome shift from the predominant focus on Jewish reproduction in Israel and North America, scholarship on healthcare among Jews has overwhelming focused on reproduction. Kasstan’s analysis encourages scholars to explore whether there are other times where anxieties are heightened due to the potential disruption of social immunity. In a chapter that contains more of a historical analysis, Kasstan looks at controversies over autopsies. Are there determinants of death that similarly raise anxieties for contemporary Haredi Jews? Alternatively, I am interested in knowing how Kasstan might apply a gender analysis to his focus on reproduction and infant care, two areas that involve women’s negotiation with medical authorities. Is there greater anxiety among Haredi Jews due to the idea that women are more permeable to outside influences? Kasstan notes that these two events are embedded in reproducing the social body and therefore increase the anxiety around immunity, but therefore is the concept of social immunity somehow gendered? How would Kasstan’s analysis change if he had chosen two medical events more frequently experienced or managed by Haredi men?
Although Kasstan’s primary audience is medical anthropology, his contribution to Jewish studies is significant. Notably, he encourages scholars of Jewish studies to consider all the ways in which practices, ideologies, and cultures of Jews are created in negotiation with each other, with the state, and with other forms of authoritative knowledge. His resistance to a solely halakhic (Jewish legal) approach in his analysis makes this book a fine contribution to the anthropology of Jews and Judaism.
The fields of Jewish studies, medical anthropology, and the anthropology of reproduction will benefit significantly from Making Bodies Kosher. Moreover, public health experts would do well to heed the critique Kasstan has offered in order to provide better care to minority groups around the world.
Birenbaum-Carmeli, Daphna. 2008. Your Faith or Mine: A Pregnancy Spacing Intervention in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community in Israel. Reproductive Health Matters 16(32): 185-91.
Davis-Floyd, Robbie. 2003. Birth as an American Rite of Passage. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Esposito, Roberto. 2015. Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, trans. Z. Hanafi, reprinted. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Ivry, Tsipy. 2010. Kosher Medicine and Medicalized Halacha: An Exploration of Triadic Relations among Israeli Rabbis, Doctors, and Infertility Patients. American Ethnologist 37(4): 662-680.
Kahn, Susan Martha. 2000. Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Kasstan, Ben. 2019. Making Bodies Kosher: The Politics of reproduction among Haredi Jews in England. New York: Berghahn.
Rapp, Rayna. 1999. Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America. New York: Routledge.
Michal Raucher is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her first book, Conceiving Agency: Reproductive Authority among Haredi Women, an ethnography about reproduction among ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem, will be published by Indiana University Press in November 2020. Follow Michal’s author page on Facebook at @MichalRaucherAuthor.