'Unclean Lips:' Jews And Obscenity

New book traces role of Jews and obscenity in the pushing of societal boundaries, from Isaiah to Sarah Silverman.

01/24/2014
Jewish Week Online Columnist
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Few anti-Semitic remarks have plagued the Jewish people more than the “dirty-Jew” stereotype. “The idea of Jews as differing sexually from Christians had a long history… [I]n the ancient Mediterranean, Jews had been called an ‘obscene people,’ who were ‘prone to lust’ and ‘indisputably carnal’ by Romans,” writes Josh Lambert, academic director of the Yiddish Book Center and visiting assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His new book, Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture, illuminates the dangerous origins of this false idea, as well as teasing out salient questions about the Jewish historical role in obscenity law throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The book borrows its title from Isaiah 6:5, in which a “prophet refers to himself as ‘a man of unclean lips,’ who dwells among ‘a people of unclean lips.’” This passage is also the origin for many unflattering claims about the Jewish people perpetrated by foes as disparate as the Nazis to American censors and lawyers.

Lambert’s book rejects the prophet’s generalization of the Jewish people as unclean, choosing instead to examine the various roles of Jewish writers, lawyers, entertainers, and comic book writers in challenging the status quo.

Their motivations, as Lambert explores, are as multi-faceted as the American melting-pot, and range from specifically Jewish in origin to no different than Protestant, Catholic and nonreligious entities. The result is an interesting and often surprising overview of America’s changing views on obscenity, sexuality and acceptability. Why did Jewish creators use obscenity in their works, when four letter words were punishable in a court of law under the censorship Comstock laws? Same reason everyone else did: “to make money, to seek sexual gratification, to express antisocial rage.” 

The chapters, organized by topic as well as chronological order, take the reader through the twentieth-century by providing portraits of those Jewish men and women closest to the eye of the storm. Lambert discusses the Roths – Samuel, the poet and pornographer, Henry, novelist, and Philip, Pulitzer Prize winning author – as they pushed the literary boundaries in publishing and novelization. Sometimes they exaggerated the dirty-Jew stereotype; often, they challenged it.

Later, he explores potential reasons Jews may have had less difficulty accepting sexuality and general obscenity into their societies than other religious groups or racial minorities. Lambert’s answer, one of my favorite insights from the text, is thought provoking, and suggests that the lack of a central authority figure in the religion (no Jewish pope,) allowed for the free flow of ideas in the Diaspora. One rabbi could silence a morsel he found unsavory amongst his followers, sure, but had no chance of quieting the entirety of the Jewish people. So in the early 1920s, when crusaders for free speech, even obscene speech, began their legal battles, the Jewish populace already had similar freedoms to those being fought for. 

Yiddish, too, helped, as the United States government didn’t deem it necessary to hire Yiddish translators. By extension, Yiddish performances and writings that may have been considered obscene if they were in another, more widespread languages (French or German, for example) flew under the radar.

But Lambert takes care to include other races’ contributions, and doesn’t give too much credit to any one group. The book, however, is an entry in the Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History, which also includes such works as All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism by Daniel Katz and Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition by Marni Davis, and therefore has its focus squarely on the Jewish people.

Lambert doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, as befits a volume on obscenity, but always uses taste to describe otherwise distasteful acts. He skillfully handles, for example, Adele Wiseman’s novel, Crackpot, which occupies large sections of a chapter entitled “Otherfuckers and Motherfuckers,” and has as its protagonist an incestuous prostitute who sleeps with her own son, unknowingly at first, but then by choice.

These sections might be difficult for the squeamish amongst us to get through, but I hope not, for this book is likely intended for you. He ends the work with a discussion of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sarah Silverman and Larry David, who have seemingly taken back the term “dirty-Jew” with gusto, using the stereotype to their advantage.

Lambert, I suspect, has written this well-researched and thoughtful volume to open the door to more discussion, not only about the Jewish role in obscenity and sexuality, but the untold story of Jewish contributions in historical facets of all kinds. It is a slim volume with a generous notes section that may best be utilized for further reading on the subject. Readers will discover a trove of information in the appendices that could fill an encyclopedia if read to completion.

Unclean Lips is a great primer text for anyone interested in the history of Jewish Americans and obscenity. Interesting and informative; the work delivers.

editor@jewishweek.org

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