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January 30, 2014 by

Obscenity and the Feminist Case for Free Speech

9781479876433_p0_v1_s260x420In his new book Unclean Lips (find an excerpt in Lilith’s Winter 2013-2104 issue) Josh Lambert, academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, traces the history of Jew and obscenity in America, which which has in the past been treated gingerly because of problematic stereotypes. Yet Lambert writes that in each epoch of free speech and obscenity debates, Jews have been involved for different contextual reasons relating to our status in America and the mores of the time. He talked to Lilith about feminist depictions of prostitutes, Sarah Silverman, birth control and censorship, and modern-day modesty crusaders.

Sarah Seltzer: Where did your interest in obscenity in a Jewish context came from? Was there one writer or artist who provided the doorway to the topic?

Josh Lambert: Basically it was reading Philip Roth, and finding myself compelled by his twin obsessions with Jewishness and obscenity. Then, my grad advisor asked me to read Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot, an amazing novel that not nearly enough people have read or discussed. And I felt like I had another side of the story.

SS: Crackpot! You write that it posits its prostitute protagonist, and her decision to allow her son to sleep with her unknowingly, as a feminist alternative to the Portnoy’s Complaint narrative. Do you think that the novel’s feminism mixed with its taboo subject is why it has faded while Portnoy and its ilk flourished?

JL: The approach to [the character] Hoda, in general, is so warm, so loving, that’s it is impossible for me to read the novel as critical of her as a sex worker. But the question is, *why* would an author who was deeply concerned with questions of Jewish identity and feminism center her novel on such a figure?  My argument about how it’s an allegory for a kind of warm-hearted, open, feminist approach to Jewishness is the only way I have of answering that question.

As for why people don’t talk about it more, it’s entirely clear to me that the feminist radicalism of the novel is what has kept it off people’s radar.  The difficulty she had publishing the novel is incredible, and it seems quite clear that publishers just didn’t know what to do with it.

SS: Harriet Pilpel is another figure in the book whom I didn’t know about but feel like I should have. The anti-obscenity laws she fought had this very practical side of suppressing information about birth control. Her history really makes a good feminist case for free speech.

JL: That conjunction, which makes no sense to us (what do these two things have to do with each other?) tells us a lot about where anti-obscenity laws come from in the first place.  There’s some good scholarship on this: the early abortionists were women and immigrants (some of whom were Jews).  Those were the targets of Comstockery. Basically so much of anti-vice activism comes down to protecting male privilege.

SS: In your last chapter, you talk about a revival of modern “modesty culture” championed by Orthodox Jews like Shmuley Boteach and Wendy Shalit. How should the rest of us respond to them?

JL: We need to assert and articulate our own standards of modesty, and make clear that we’re as committed to them as the Orthodox are to their standards.  But our modesty, I’d hope, would have a lot less to do with sleeve length and hem lines, and a lot more to do with the way we respect everyone’s sexuality and sexual choices. Obviously Jewish feminists have already been doing quite a bit with this. [Editor’s note: visit the archives at for more of the feminist take on sexuality and sexual choices.]

SS: Artists, you note, choose to write about risqué topics with various degrees of euphemism on their own, for reasons having to do with their artistic vision and their own “modesty.”

JL: My students have often pointed out that there are modest/euphemistic moments in Portnoy’s Complaint, even. It’s almost impossible to find non-metaphorical literary representations of sex. (What would that even sound like?)

SS: In the “speaker’s benefit” chapter you noted that championing avant-garde art that was obscene actually provided a way for Jews to ENTER the mainstream when the country club door was shut!

JL: The best way I have of saying that is that obscenity was a way of turning money into prestige. Which is so bizarre, in a sense, but makes so much sense given how much we venerate the authors who championed obscenity: James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, etc.

SS: You also argue that because Jews are a diaspora people, we’re used to making decisions about what culture is and isn’t allowed without a central authority dictating to us.

JL: Right. In a sense this made Jews more American than the Americans. Because it took a long time for Americans to come around to the idea of free speech.

SS: Some still haven’t!

JL: There’s a way that free speech in America is a much more fragile thing that people generally appreciate–and it has had a much shorter life than most people imagine. I can absolutely blow my students’ minds by telling them that it was only in Lawrence V. Texas that sodomy became a constitutionally protected act.

SS: Do you see any particular free speech frontiers on your radar right now? Any contemporary Jewish envelope pushers?

JL: In the conclusion I write about figures like Sarah Silverman, Larry David, James Deen, etc.  If you look at what’s happening in censorship–by Apple and Facebook, by the FCC, by the Justice Department–it’s largely impelled by two linked forces: “family-friendliness” and Evangelical Christians.

I seems to me that the fact that Evangelical Christians are very careful to say that they love and support Jews creates a situation where some Jews want to make very clear how *far* they are, politically and culturally, from that viewpoint. Asserting oneself as a “dirty Jew” is a very powerful way to reject the mainstream-y Christian values, and also the triumph of the “family-friendly” marketplace.

Sarah Marian Seltzer is a journalist, essayist and fiction writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, the Washington Post, the Hairpin and the Forward among other places. Find her at and tweeting too much at @sarahmseltzer.