Carnal, but strictly kosher

Lynne Segal is not entirely seduced by arguments for the innate naughtiness of God's chosen people

May 15, 2008


Many of us who can confidently claim we are "Jews" in some sense have trouble enough knowing what sense that is. The permutations, were we to assert any shared ties with that even more complex and confused category "sex", would seem unfathomable. It was, after all, a Jew who said: "Do you not know how uncontrolled and unreliable the average human being is in all that concerns sexual life?" No matter: Jews and sex are both fashionable topics, so here we have a collection conjoining the mutually elusive. Sadly, it contains no reference to Freud, that Jew mentioned earlier, who might have cautioned against the enterprise; worse still, the essays are uneven in style and substance. Nevertheless, there are thoughtful contributions, if few surprises.

As ever, writing about sex, Jewish or otherwise, it is the stubbornly perverse, not the humdrum and normative, that captures attention. We need the perverse dynamic, it seems, to concentrate attention on what modernity affirms as the essence of our being. Elemental or not, straight sex usually interests us only when packaged as insatiable, in the excesses so profitably marketed as pornography.

Fortunately for Abrams, Jews can be securely placed as both perverts and pornographers. So too, of course, can Gentiles, but let's stay focused. The first foray into biblical texts is uninspiring, with the US rabbi Geoffrey Dennis contrasting the marital prudishness of traditional Jewish communities (the wedded couple committed to procreation) with the more mystical readings of medieval kabbalah texts (celebrating sex in all its forms): "Both sides value sexuality, but for very different reasons." Quite! However, the three subsequent essays quickly place homosexuality (and other forms of non-procreative sex) firmly in the saddle.

Jay Michaelson also argues that the pervasive biblical insistence on polarised gender and marital order exists in tension with certain rabbinical (hallachic) texts suggesting multiple gender and sex categories, including the homosexual. Neatly anticipating queer readings by some 1,500 years, midrashic consciousness is presented as seeing "biblical texts and narratives as fonts for an infinite number of interpretive and fantastical elaborations". Always already postmodern!

The Australian Jewish lesbian Hinde Ena Burstin grabs the reins next to explore three Yiddish-language poets from different periods (including herself) who celebrate "lesbo-sensuous fantasies". How Jewish is that? I know not, though "Miriyam's Lid", by Burstin herself, is suitably suggestive, if somewhat restrained in its stanzas.

"Jewish sexuality" is puzzling enough, but justifiably or not, I felt myself on firmer ground when it narrowed down to an Israeli strand, specifically exploring images of masculinity in the military, while still focused on gay sex, this time in Eytan Fox's film Yossi and Jagger. Here, Nir Cohen writes of Israel's flourishing gay world, where individuals enjoy (almost) full social equality, yet where mainstream heterosexist, macho imagery celebrating the muscular masculinity of the "new" Jew penetrates male gay and straight scenes alike.

There are other memorable, if hardly unique, historical explorations of Jews in the Western imaginary: portraying diasporic men as "weak" and "effeminate" yet also perversely "oversexed"; Jewish women as "sexually immoral" yet also "clannish". The possible destructive impact of anti-Semitism on Jewish men's sexuality is analysed in the writing of Henry Roth, while Jewish authors themselves, including Philip Roth, are held responsible for influential misogynistic renderings of Jewish women (as both frigid and acquisitive) in postwar American fiction. However, the most controversial essay is that by Abrams himself, pondering the links between Jews and porn, whether as prominent promoters and profiteers, or among its well-known strippers and studs. It is Jews linked to the industry, including Sheldon Ranz and Luke Ford, who suggest that Jews are attracted to the business, in whatever capacity, because of pornography's role as innately subversive. I wonder.

When ex-porn actress and "post-porn-modernist" Annie Sprinkle promotes the active, spiritual enjoyment of sexuality in the service of peace, love and freedom, she sounds to me essentially Californian, more than Jewish. Moreover, it was another Jewish woman, Andrea Dworkin, who led women into battle against pornography, comparing it to Nazi propaganda. I'm sure some secular Jews are particularly tolerant of the sexually subversive, but these same Jews are often more prominent than many in all cultural arenas. There may be distinct temporal and social narratives linking Jews and sex, but despite this collection, each category remains, for me, obscure.

Jews and Sex

Edited by Nathan Abrams

Five Leaves Publications 200pp, £12.99

ISBN 9781905512348

Published 8 February 2008

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