On the Bookshelf
Unzipped: Those who do and those who don’t—frank talk about Jews and sex
Last week was an unusually good week for anyone with anything to say about Jews and sex. In particular, various observers objected to Rep. Anthony Weiner’s invocation of the cliché that Jewish women don’t give oral sex. But here’s a new question for a new week: Is it equally offensive when a Jewish woman invokes that same stereotype? Please see the rather creepy first chapter of Lisa Baron’s exuberant tell-all memoir Life of the Party: A Political Press Tart Bares All (Citadel, June), in which the former spokeswoman for Ralph Reed introduces herself by explaining that during the 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, she was busy “in a Greenville hotel room giving Ari Fleischer a blow job,” and then goes on to note that, “yes, some Jewish girls do give blowjobs.” And discuss.
If you want a more reliable source on the sexual proclivities of Jewish women than Weiner (or Baron), you’re in luck. Edited by Erica Jong, the unrivaled doyenne of sexually frank Jewesses, Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex (HarperCollins, June) features contributions from a fascinating group of Jewish women including Elisa Albert, Anne Roiphe, Julie Klam, Jean Hanff Korelitz, Jennifer Weiner, Daphne Merkin, Ariel Levy, Eve Ensler, Rebecca Walker, and Molly Jong-Fast. Any single one of them, I suspect, would know exactly what to do with Weiner and his witty repartee if she got her hands on him.
Surprisingly, Jong notes that she was disabused of her assumption “that pudeur was obsolete” when “at least half a dozen contributors to [her] book would not say yes until their partners agreed.” In other words, many writers still hesitate to write frankly about sex, even in this age of seemingly universal shamelessness. A similar point is illustrated by Love Shrinks: A Memoir of a Marriage Counselor’s Divorce (Soho, May), in which Sharyn Wolf, a Jewish therapist and author of How to Stay Lovers for Life, admits that “in the first few drafts of writing this book, I left our sex life out, putting myself through hoops to do so.” Only later did she deem it relevant to the story of her divorce that “during the eight official years of my marriage, my husband and I had sex three times.”
Maybe the absence of sex is now what surprises us? In Haley Tanner’s novel Vaclav & Lena (Dial, May), a Soviet woman determines to get her family to the United States, despite the “limit to the number of Russian Jews America would take”; soon enough, she’s there, in Brighton Beach, and she’s sure her son “is every afternoon after school having sex or even just doing naked things,” while a co-worker informs her that the “kids these days are all having sex.” But the girl for whom Vaclav falls, Lena, isn’t one of those kids: While “girls on television and in movies and books seem always to know if they are ready to have sex for the first time. … Lena does not know.” Meaning that’s she’s not ready. At least not yet.
In Tanner’s novel, things do work out, but if you prefer romances strained and longings unfulfilled, you have other options. Evelyn Toynton’s The Oriental Wife (Other, July), her second novel, follows a German Jewish teenager as she escapes Hitler’s Europe, pursues various beaux, and then, in America, suffers an unexpected medical tragedy. Talia Carner’s Jerusalem Maiden (HarperCollins, May) opens in 1911 Jerusalem with a young Orthodox girl fretting, Asher Lev-like, that to pursue her artistic talent would be a sin: “What if I wanted to live in Paris and paint people and animals?” she wonders, to her frum brother’s horror.
Wanting what you can’t have is the quintessence of romance, at least of a certain kind. Marketers in Hollywood have known that for a surprisingly long time, as Flickers of Desire: Movie Stars of the 1910s (Rutgers, July) makes clear; as early as a century ago, audiences were already described as “craving” and “begging” for photographs of performers whose real personalities and actual lives were impossible to access. The collection, edited by Jennifer Bean, includes dense, detailed essays on the careers of early stars including Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin, and Gaylan Studlar’s essay suggests that while some critics have attributed “the decline in [Theda] Bara’s stardom to pure and simple antisemitism”—many fans weren’t thrilled when the iconic vamp and femme fatale turned out to be Jewish—Bara’s initial appeal may have depended on “an image of racialized feminity, the sexually seductive Jewess associated with the East.”
That image is one of many that have been enacted, appropriated, and transformed over the years by modern Jewish dancers. Edited by dancer and choreographer Judith Brin Inger, Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance (Wayne State, June) includes almost 200 photographs, and it treats performances ranging from “The Jewish Dancing Girl” of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago to Tamar Rogoff’s 1994 memorial dance in Belarus.
Modern ideas about Jews’ and women’s sexuality can be complex and strange, but some of the images that circulated in antiquity were downright bizarre. William Loader demonstrates this in The Pseudepigrapha on Sexuality (Eerdmans, March), the third installation in his vast five-volume project “exploring attitudes toward sexuality in Judaism and Christianity during the Greco-Roman era.” In The Testament of Solomon, a pseudepigraphical text believed to have been composed sometime in the first four centuries of the common era, the notoriously polygamous Jewish monarch encounters a group of demons. One of them, named Onoskelis, is “a female demon of mixed form, a human woman with the legs of an ass,” who gleefully explains, “Sometimes I strangle men; sometimes I pervert them from their true natures.” Just imagine how much more trouble Weiner might have gotten himself into if she were still around.
Long before Francis Bacon became famous for his carnal paintings, Chaim Soutine brought bloody beef into the artist’s studio and inspired generations of flesh-minded painters
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