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Four-Letter Words: Why Jews Have Led the Making and Defense of Obscenity in America

Does sexually graphic material help Jewish continuity? ‘Unclean Lips’ argues for the unseemliness of Bruce, Roth, and their ilk.

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A policeman searches comedian Lenny Bruce after Bruce's arrest for allegedly using obscene language during his act in a North Beach nightclub, the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, California, 1961.(Bettmann/Corbis /AP)

A warning to listeners: This episode of Vox Tablet contains explicit language and content you wouldn’t normally hear on our podcast. To censor such language, offensive as it may be, felt contrary to the spirit of Lambert’s argument, which posits a connection between “obscenity” and Jewish culture and continuity.

Jews are oversexed. That’s a long-held stereotype. And, like most stereotypes, it’s baloney. What is true, however, is that Jews in America have been fighters on the front lines in producing, distributing, and defending sexually explicit materials for more than a century.

Josh Lambert, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts and a Tablet contributing editor, addresses why that has been the case—especially in the literary world—in Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture. He joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss how stories about masturbation and incest work as metaphors for the struggles over Jewish continuity, to explain why the likes of Sarah Silverman and Larry David still use four-letter words with relish and abandon, and to resolve once and for all whether Yiddish is a saltier language than English.

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Four-Letter Words: Why Jews Have Led the Making and Defense of Obscenity in America

Does sexually graphic material help Jewish continuity? ‘Unclean Lips’ argues for the unseemliness of Bruce, Roth, and their ilk.

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