When we think about Yiddish culture, sex isn’t usually the first thing that springs to mind. But the folks behind this week’s conference “Sex and the Shtetl,” held at the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, put the spotlight on the prurient.
Discussions included what the Jewish Telegraphic Agency calls the “almost erotic idealization of the comradeship and intimacy of the all-male worlds of the yeshiva, the bathhouse and the rebbe’s court”; Molly Picon’s cross-dressing; and the shame of single motherhood that led to the creation of a Jewish “baby-farming operation” in 19th century Vilna where mothers “acted as wet nurses for wealthier matrons while their own babies were spirited away and killed.” Also, Tablet Magazine contributing editor Eddy Portnoy, who recently wrote about a grisly sex crime culled from the 19th Century Yiddish press, spoke at the conference about “‘dowry farmers,’ Jewish men who married young women for their dowries, then left for the New World.” And Cantor Sharon Bernstein sang this dirty ditty: “I had a sister named Esther, her ____ was as deep as the Dniester, and when she ____ she’d say, ‘fester, fester.’” (To fill in JTA’s blanks, check out Tablet Magazine’s article on the myriad Yiddish terms for the female reproductive organs).
The three-day extravaganza ran in concert with a Yiddish film festival featuring screenings of films based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yentl and S.Y. Ansky’s The Dybbuk. Naomi Seidman, director of the Center for Jewish Studies, pointed out the sexual politics inherent to each: “The fact that no one notices Yentl is a woman shows how effeminate Jewish men were considered compared to the Western European ideal of masculinity,” Seidman said. “Demonic possession of a woman by a man is a transgender dream we haven’t even begun to enact here in the Bay Area.”
Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.