In Defense of Obscenity: Josh Lambert’s Unclean Lips

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Review and interview by Emma Morris. Emma is Jewrotica’s managing editor. Emma is the author of several original pieces, as well as co-author of an exclusive interview for Jewrotica.

Rated PG

In Isaiah 6:5, the prophet refers to himself as “a man of unclean lips” who dwells among “a people unclean lips”…

A recurring theme in the history of Jewish-American culture has been the integral role Jews have played in changing the concept of obscenity. In Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture, Josh Lambert details significant Jewish Americans from the late 19th-century until the present. These key figures have influenced both legal and cultural decisions through obscenity trials, literary censorship, debates surrounding freedom of expression, and other controversies. Scholars have largely ignored this phenomenon in fear that linking Jews or Jewishness to obscenity or other sexual representation in the arts would reproduce anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as the “lascivious Jew.”

Since antiquity, Jews have been considered “indisputably carnal” and disturbingly “prone to lust.” Hugh Hefner further reproduced this stereotype by stating that “American Jews – while not nearly as sexually permissive as the Hebrew of the Old Testament – are more liberal than either American Catholics or the mainstream of American Protestantism” while the beloved Dr. Ruth Westheimer claims that “Judaism is intensely sexual” and that “sex, in and of itself, has never been a sin for Jews, or something not to discuss.”

American Jews are, of course, a diverse group prohibiting any one unifying theory, explanation, or paradigm for why they have been so essential in understanding obscenity. Jewish men and women were crucial in the histories of publishing houses and obscenity trials. For instance, Ben Huebsch published Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Barney Rosset defended of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Miller’s infamous novel even incited a Jewish man to sue the local police with support of the ACLU for his right to read it.

In the first half of the 20th century, American culture was reeling from the Comstock Act (1873), which criminalized the mailing of “obscene” material, and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which tended to issue more charges “against Jews and more frequently than against Catholics and Protestants combined.” The social and cultural marginalization of Jews in the first half of the 20th century coupled with the legal discourse surrounding obscenity opened opportunities to benefit from this conversation. Horace Liveright, for example, was a publisher who strategically fought censorship in courts and in the press, and nearly single-handedly opposed the 1923 Clean Books League bill, a largely Christian-led crusade.

A variety of motivations propelled obscenity production by American Jews (and others), including profit, sexual gratification, or expressing antisocial rage. Unclean Lips describes several specific texts including the 1935 novel Call it Sleep, in which the author, Henry Roth, exemplified American Jews’ social/cultural marginalization and dis-empowerment as a motivation for the use of obscenity. Being obscene translated often into cultural or literary prestige. Roth’s taboo words put him at the forefront of the cultural avant-garde.

Lambert goes on to describe theories or representations of Jewish sexual deviance from Sigmund Freud to Theodore Dreiser to Robert Rimmer’s bestselling novel, The Harrad Experiment, the “Sex Manifesto of the Free Love Generation” which associated sexual freedom and open-mindedness with Jewishness. While Freud claimed that sexual deviance was not the particular burden of Jews or any single demographic group, others, such as Otto Rank, proclaimed Jews to be “women among the people,” replete with primitive essence and sexuality.

Unclean Lips traces how Americans in the 1940s began to theorize the rise of Nazism as a symptom of “sexual repression and rapacity that could be countered through frank and open discussion of sexual desires.” Anti-Semitism made “obscenity seem meaningful and useful, even necessary, to some American Jews.”

In the wake of the Holocaust, American Jewish leaders’ anxieties centered on reproduction, contraception, and abortion as threats to the waning Jewish population. However, Emma Goldman believed birth control was especially relevant to Jewish immigrants, and Harriet F. Pilpel, a pioneering lawyer and opponent of the Comstock Act, was a defender of women’s reproductive rights and of civil liberties for gay men and lesbians.

Reflecting the fear of American Jews’ inability to “produce recognizably Jewish offspring” were the novels of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, which dominated the post-war literary scene. Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and Letting Go “shift[ed] the emphasis of literary representations of contraception and abortion away from a focus on the bodily and social issues these technologies raise for women and onto the ramifications of reproductive rights, in terms of social and class reproduction, for young intellectual men in particular.”

In the 1960s, the decline in Jewish birth rates and the rising trend of interfaith marriages led to anxieties about the future of a Jewish population in America. Roth’s controversial novel
Portnoy’s Complaint explored the attraction of shiksas, connecting them with non-reproductive sex and masturbation,. Adele Wiseman’s radically feminist Crackpot inverted the Oedipal myth from perspective of the mother, Hoda, a prostitute who unknowingly (at first) has sex with her son. These incendiary visions of Jewish reproduction further reflected the fears of American Jews.

By the mid-70s, Jewishness was no longer an obstacle, but a source of cultural and literary value: explicit sexual realism, failure, disappointment, and disillusionment were considered noble Jewish characteristics.

Lambert draws the distinction between governmental and nongovernmental (cultural) censorship, which includes tzniut, the Orthodox Jewish concept of modesty, as another way of understanding the regulation of sexual expression in America. Orthodox Jews have several halakhic traditions in place, including tzniut, as well as prohibitions on speech and writing such as lashon hara, including rekhilut and nivul peh which all advocated for sexual suppression and restraint.

Meanwhile, in the US, Jews could write and publish what they wanted without worrying about whether a Jewish religious or institutional authority might censor and suppress their work (although still subject to American obscenity laws). However, if they wrote or performed in Yiddish, the government wouldn’t bother to censor them and were able to bypass vice societies, etc. Free from virtually any control by governmental or religious authorities (with some exceptions), the stakes were cultural, not legal.

Lambert closes Unclean Lips with a chapter detailing today’s manifestations of Jewish hypersexuality. This is exemplified by Sarah Silverman’s self-identification as a “dirty Jew,” Larry David’s abundant profanity in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the rampant celebration of Jewish pornographers and porn stars. All of these examples reclaim, undermine, and transform “the pernicious and still-circulating myth of Jewish hypersexuality” via “opposition to the banalities of a ‘sanitized culture.’”

Unclean Lips concludes that Jewish obscenity is central to the development of American literature – and these parallel histories cannot be understood separately.

Jews have been persecuted and censored for centuries, and perhaps the Jewish penchant for producing and defending obscenity is related to the anti-Semitic charge of Jews themselves being obscene. In other words, in defending obscenity, it may be that Jews are indirectly defending themselves.

Continue reading – An Interview with Unclean Lips Author Josh Lambert…

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Managing Editor of Jewrotica, Emma moonlights as a librarian. She also writes Jewish horoscopes, short stories, essays and a supernatural noir novella.