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Finding a Place for Contemporary Jewish Literature in Jewish Day Schools

Thursday, February 05, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Josh Lambert wrote about the importance of exposing teenagers to great Jewish books. His most recent book is Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity, and American Culture. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In my last post, I mentioned that Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus changed my life when I picked it up off a dusty shelf in the basement of my parents’ house when I was about 17. If not for that book, I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time thinking about modern Jewish literature since then.

Roth’s first book resonated with me because it’s funny and acidly observant of a Jewish community that wasn’t too different from the one I grew up in, in Toronto, and because its title novella is powerfully evocative of a young man’s growth into maturity. But what was most stunning to me was that I had found the book on my own, rather than being handed it by my parents or teachers.

At the time, I was a student at a Jewish day school, from which I would go on to graduate after twelfth grade. Throughout high school, I spent hours each day in classes on Tanakh, Talmud, and Jewish ethics. In English class, though, we read exactly what would be read in any public school: Shakespeare, George Orwell, and, when it came to more contemporary fiction, popular non-Jewish writers like Barbara Kingsolver. It wasn’t until I arrived at college—a centuries-old, nonsectarian institution named for a Puritan minister—that I learned the names Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, and Cynthia Ozick.

What’s strange about this is that these authors’ works have such deep textual relationships to the classical Jewish texts I was studying in high school. And, even more important, they directly address the central question that my community Jewish day school seemed to want me and my classmates to be thinking about: what does it mean to be a Jew today, in a cosmopolitan culture?

I realize, of course, why in earlier generations a book like Roth’s might not have been thought appropriate for a Jewish day school. Even in the 1990s, there might have been teachers and administrators at my school who would have worried that Roth’s story “The Conversion of the Jews,” about a kid in a Jewish supplementary school class who asks the most loaded theological question and then threatens to jump off the roof, might have given us some bad ideas. Literature is subversive; S. Y. Abramovitch, who became known as Mendele Mocher Sforim and as the grandfather of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, was once literally run out of town because his satires were so biting.

But does that mean these texts have no place in Jewish education? I hope not.

I hope, on the contrary, that Jewish day school teachers and administrators realize that literature that asks difficult questions about Jewishness and forces us to confront the conflicts and tensions within Jewish life can be one of the best ways to reach teenagers, and that it can help them to think about who they are, where they come from, and what choices they want to make.

That’s why I’m delighted to have the opportunity to lead the first Great Jewish Books Teacher Workshop, this summer at the Yiddish Book Center. Educators from across North America will come together to read and discuss some of the most fascinating modern Jewish texts and to develop new ways of introducing that literature into the curriculum, in English and language arts, Jewish history, social studies. Then we’ll work collaboratively all year to integrate these ideas into classrooms.

Will exposing more teenagers to modern Jewish literature solve all the problems facing the American Jewish population? Of course not. But will it help to create a generation that is more thoughtful, more committed, and more willing to face the challenges head-on? I think it will.

Josh Lambert is the Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center and a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Read more about the Great Jewish Books program at the Yiddish Book Center here.

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The Importance of Exposing Teenagers to Great Jewish Books

Tuesday, February 03, 2015 | Permalink

Josh Lambert is the Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center and a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His most recent book is Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity, and American Culture. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

2009 Sami Rohr Prize Winner Sana Krasikov at the Great Jewish Books Program

A little less than a century ago, a New York State Supreme Court justice named John Ford came home to find his 16-year-old daughter reading a D. H. Lawrence novel and flipped out. He tried—and almost succeeded—to pass a “Clean Books” bill that would have crippled New York publishers in the interests of keeping such literature far away from teenagers like his daughter.

Is literature still dangerous to teenagers in 2015? Books still do get yanked out of school libraries now and again, although these days, it seems that most parents’ anxieties focus more on video games and social media. But I’d like to believe that literature can still exert a profound influence on our kids, even an unsettling one. In fact, I’ve seen evidence of it.

For the last three summers, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing some of my favorite literary texts with groups of hardcore teenaged readers at the Yiddish Book Center’s Great Jewish Books Summer Program. Together, these teenagers read stories like Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith,” about a couple of soldiers on a U.S. Army base at the end of World War 2; Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” about a town dupe whose wife repeatedly cheats on and humiliates him; and Grace Paley’s “The Loudest Voice,” about a Jewish girl who wins the starring role in her school’s Christmas pageant.

Over the years, these works, like Lawrence’s, have been seen as threatening. Before winning the Nobel Prize, Singer was criticized by some as a pornographer. One 1950s reader wrote that Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” did “as much harm as all the anti-Semitic organizations.”

In 2015, it’s the Internet, rather than short stories or poems, that’s more likely to be seen as posing a threat to impressionable young minds. But literature can still cause students to do things that may surprise their friends or parents. I see it happening with the students who come through the Great Jewish Books Summer Program. Some decide to learn Yiddish or Hebrew or Farsi. Some become fascinated by Jewish ritual. Some find themselves asking new and difficult questions about gender, the law, or the role of violence in our society. Some make friends with people unlike any they’ve ever met before—small-towner with cosmopolitan, Orthodox with atheist. Discovering a new language or a new perspective on religion and tradition can cause major upheaval in a teenager’s life and can lead him or her down an unexpected and untrodden path. That’s not always easy for them, or for their families and communities.

But it’s what I always hope will happen, because it will mean that modern Jewish literature has helped a group of teenagers consider real and difficult questions about what being Jewish means to them. That’s certainly what happened to those of us who teach in the program. If I hadn’t stumbled across a copy of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus when I was 17, I don’t think I’d be a literary scholar and critic today.

So maybe we should be a little less dismissive of the scolds and prudes who, over the centuries, have wanted to keep literature out of teenagers’ hands. Maybe they’re right: stories are powerful.

Read more about the Yiddish Book Center's Great Jewish Books Summer 2015 Program and find an application here. Registration for 2015 is due April 1st.

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Sholem Aleichem’s Motl on a Kindle as Yiddish Classics Go Digital

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 | Permalink
Looking for something new to read with your book club? Have you thought about trying something old? Thanks to a collaboration between Yale University Press, New Yiddish Library, and Open Road Media, not only can you read a classic work of Yiddish literature, you can do it on your e-reader!

Josh Lambert, the author of American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide and the award-winning Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity and American Culture writes about the digital release of nine classic works and what the e-book revolution means for Yiddish literature

I still love old-fashioned books, but every day brings another reason not just to grudgingly accept, but to feel actual joy about the e-book revolution. One example: with the transition to the digital format, the New Yiddish Library will finally accomplish its mission.

Don’t know the New Yiddish Library? It’s a book series owing its existence to the historian Lucy Dawidowicz, who raised money in the 1980s for a Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature, and who, in doing so, couldn’t have even imagined that her efforts would result in Sholem Aleichem’s Motl ending up on a Kindle. 

Over the years, under the direction of the literary scholars and siblings Ruth Wisse and David Roskies, and in a partnership between Yale University Press and my employer, the Yiddish Book Center, the New Yiddish Library produced a series of truly excellent volumes: sharp, careful, readable translations of masterpieces of world literature, accompanied by rich introductions and footnotes by leading scholars. There are, of course, plenty of other translations of Yiddish literature by various hands and of varying quality, but the New Yiddish Library set the gold standard. 

And, until now, that gold was a little pricey. Not extravagantly so—published by Yale, the volumes were gorgeously produced and inexpensive by academic press standards, but they were still mostly too costly to assign to college students. And, for that matter, more expensive than most of what’s on the tables at your local Barnes & Noble. 

Thanks to a new partnership with Open Road Media, an ambitious e-book publisher founded by publishing veteran Jane Friedman, the books are now not just available on every device you can name (Nook, iPhone, an so on), but they’re reasonably priced. Or, to put it another way, the only thing standing between you and a genuine literary treasure—be it the stories of Mendele the Book Peddler, the gritty tales of Lamed Shapiro, or the delightful poetry of Itzik Manger—is less than what you’d spend on a movie ticket.

So, what does the e-book revolution mean? Today it means more access to some of the signal works of literary genius in which Jews figured out how to use their language, Yiddish, to express the complexity and excitement of becoming modern. Nothing wrong with that.

Josh Lambert is the Academic Director at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, a visiting assistant professor of English at UMass Amherst, and a contributing editor for Tablet. 

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Obscene Recommendations

Friday, December 20, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Josh Lambert wrote about whether or not "shmuk" is a dirty word, how publications handle obscenities and how he came to write his newest book, Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (NYU Press). He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Some of the literary works I deal with in Unclean Lips are relatively well-known—Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1935) and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), for example, are two of the most widely read novels by and about American Jews. But some of them even most scholars haven’t heard of.

Here’s a short recommended reading and listening list, in case you’re eager to learn more about the literary encounters of American Jews with taboo language and explicit discussions of sex.

1. Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot (1974), an extraordinary novel about an obese Jewish prostitute in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s brutally, unsparingly frank, and radically feminist, too—and it earns a mention in Ruth Wisse’s The Modern Jewish Canon.

2. Theodore Dreiser’s The Hand of the Potter (1918), a four-act play by one of the most prominent (non-Jewish) American authors of the early 20th century, which tells the tale of a young Jewish man who can’t resist raping and murdering little girls. (It’s actually not anti-Semitic.)

3. Some people remember Robert Rimmer’s novel The Harrad Experiment (1966), which was marketed as “the sex manifesto of the free love generation” and sold millions of copies. But people don’t tend to remember how much of the novel focuses on a Jewish character, Harry Schacht, and his traditional Jewish family. (Turns out his great-grandmother posed for nude photographs.)

4. The short stories by the American Yiddish playwright David Pinski that were translated into English under the title of Temptations in 1919 were censored thanks to the efforts of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. But you can read the book online now, including Pinski’s story about the time that Rabbi Akiva had to resist a couple of prostitutes sent to seduce him.

5. Lenny Bruce wasn’t the only Jewish comedian who got busted on obscenity charges; in the same years, Belle Barth was telling filthy stories on stage, with some punchlines in English, some in Yiddish. You can hear her circa 1960 album If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends online, and don’t worry if you don’t speak Yiddish: “There’s only two words you need to know in the Yiddishe language,” she tells her audience, “and that’s gelt and shmuk: ’cause if a man has no gelt, he is.”


Josh Lambert is the Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center and as Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture(2013) and American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (2009), and a contributing editor to Tablet magazine.

Is “Shmuk” a Dirty Word?

Thursday, December 19, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Josh Lambert wrote about how publications handle obscenities and how he came to write his newest book, Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (NYU Press). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

One of the points I make in my book is that what’s dirty in Yiddish isn’t always dirty in English, and vice versa. Here’s one example that I didn’t have space to include in its entirety.

At Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trial in Los Angeles, in February 1963, a Yiddish-speaking police sergeant named Sherman Block translated, for the jury’s benefit, a few of the Yiddish words Bruce had used in his act. What Sherman said, among other things, was that “throughout his narration, suspect [Bruce] interjected the terms 'shmuck' and 'putz,' which are Yiddish, and mean ‘penis.’”

Bruce disagreed. On the 1965 album Lenny Bruce Is Out Again, he countered:

Shmuk! The word shmuk is a German word. And it means literally in German a man’s decoration. Emes, a boutonniere, a lapel watch. I don’t think, uh—in a Yiddish dictionary, the Harkov [sic] dictionary, it says shmuk: ‘A yard, a fool.’ So there we have the literal—I don’t think the colloquial—any Jew gave it a different inference: ‘You’re acting like a man’s penis.’ I’m not going to be a penis anymore, let Nate be the penis from now on. So shmuk don’t mean shmuk, except to some putz who digs it.

Bruce was a comedian, not a linguist, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is funnier than it is, uh, true. Here’s the relevant entry from Alexander Harkavy’s 1928 Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary:

To native speakers of Yiddish, “shmuk” still has just as much power to offend as “cojones” does in Spanish, or as “cock” or “prick” do in English. But that didn’t stop the word from becoming increasingly prominent in all sort of English-language publications since the 1960s. Here’s the Google n-gram:

You can say “shmuck” in English now on the radio, on billboards, even on a television station as squeaky clean as QVC. So, is it a dirty word or a clean word? Simply depends on who’s listening.

Josh Lambert is the Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center and as Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture(2013) and American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (2009), and a contributing editor to Tablet magazine.

Bonus Video: 7 Great Uses of "Schmuck"

Can We Print “Motherfucker” Here?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013 | Permalink

Yesterday, Josh Lambert wrote about how he came to write his newest book, Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (NYU Press). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

There’s a little experiment I’d like to try, knowing that this blog post will be published by the Jewish Book Council and a MyJewishLearning blog.

The following is a passage from the conclusion of my book, describing the third season finale of Larry David’s television show Curb Your Enthusiasm, which aired in 2002:

The episode centers on the grand opening of a restaurant in which David’s fictional character, also called Larry David, has invested. In the middle of the meal, the chef, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and cooks in an open kitchen, involuntarily shouts a string of taboo words: “Fuck-head, shit-face, cocksucker, asshole, son-of-a-bitch.” A strained silence descends, and David recalls a group of high school students he saw earlier in the episode who had all shaved their heads in solidarity with a classmate undergoing chemotherapy. He decides to act on the students’ example, showing his support for the chef by mimicking his behavior, bellowing, “Scum-sucking, motherfucking whore!” David’s assembled friends and loved ones follow suit: “Cock, cock, jizzum, grandma, cock. . . . Bum, fuck, turd, fart, cunt, piss, shit, bugger, and balls. . . . Dammit, hell, crap, shit. . . . Fellatio, cunnilingus, French kissing, rimjob.” David’s father on the show, played by the veteran comedian Shelley Berman, chimes in to add a set of Yiddish taboo words—“Shmuk, putz, tukhis-lekher”—to the episode’s catalog of obscenities before the camera zooms in on David’s satisfied face, and the episode comes to an end.

What I’d like to know is whether the two websites who are scheduled to publish this post will reproduce the taboo language in the post’s title and in that quotation. Will they bowdlerize this with dashes or stars or other symbols? Will they euphemize words like “motherfucker” and “cunt,” but leave in words like “bum” and “fart” and “putz”? Will they print a warning at the top of the post, alerting readers that taboo language follows (and, if so, how will they phrase that warning)? Or will they refuse to publish the piece entirely, to avoid having to make finer decisions about taboo language?

I don’t mean to be disrespectful to two publications who have been kind to offer to publish my writing (and for whom I’m written before). Not at all. But one of the conversations I’m interested in starting with my book is precisely about what is fit to print now, today, and how Jews feel about that.

I’m not exactly a free-speech absolutist, thought I often feel that it’s pretty silly when The New York Times bends itself out of shape to avoid printing four-letter words, or when This American Life makes an announcement every time one of its radio stories with even “mention the existence of sex.” But I now have a three-and-a-half-year-old at home who is linguistically precocious, and I understand better than I did when I started writing my book why some people might feel uncomfortable when taboo language spews forth from a newspaper that shows up at the front door, or a radio program that goes out to millions of homes on weekend afternoons. I understand that every publication has to make decisions—not just once, but continually—about what is appropriate to publish, and what isn’t.

That’s why I think it might be interesting to see how the taboo language above is reproduced.

Josh Lambert is the Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center and as Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (2013) and American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (2009), and a contributing editor to Tablet magazine.

How Did You Come to Write That Book, Anyway?

Monday, December 16, 2013 | Permalink

Josh Lambert is the Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center and as Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His most recent book, Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (NYU Press), is now available. He's blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It’s a completely reasonable question, though generally people have been asking it a little shyly: “Why did you want to write a book about Jews and obscenity?” The implicit question, I think, is “I know you’re Jewish—are you also some kind of perv?”

I don’t quite accept the terms of that second, implied question—I’m sex-positive, and don’t cotton to the stigmatizing of responsible, thoughtful people who are into, say, polyamory or BDSM—and I’m also quite sure that the last thing I’d do if I did have some outlandish and/or shameful sexual tastes would be to announce them in the Q&A after an book event at a JCC or synagogue. Or here.

But the real explanation as to why I wrote Unclean Lips is simpler: I discovered the works of Philip Roth as a teenager, loved them, eventually read all of them, imitated them, and then went to get a PhD in English with the intention of writing about them. When I got to grad school, my advisor, hearing that I’m Canadian, recommended that I read Adele Wiseman’s 1974 novel Crackpot, which turned out to be the brutally frank story of an obese Jewish prostitute in Winnipeg.

As I kept reading, I found myself asking, “Why are so many of these great writers so obsessed with both Jewishness and sex?” And, wondering about that, I decided to read up on the history of the representation of sex in American literature in general. In books like Edward De Grazia’s magisterial Girls Lean Back Everywhere and Walter Kendrick’s brilliant The Secret Museum, I quickly came across cases including Rosen v. US (1896), Roth v. US (1957), Ginsberg v. NY (1968), and Cohen v. California (1971). And, naturally, I wondered about all those names, which were more or less identical with the names of the kids who had gone to Jewish Day School with me.

Who were these people, and why did they keep ending up on the wrong side of the law of obscenity? Were there any connections between these legal defendants named Roth, Ginsberg, and Cohen, and the literary writers named Roth, Ginsberg, and Cohen whose works I had been reading? It was hard to tell. The historians, literary scholars, and lawyers who wrote about obscenity in American culture, like De Grazia and Kendrick, didn’t say much about who the namesakes of those cases were.

I wanted to know more. That’s what got me started on the reading and research that led me to write Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert is the author of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (2013) and American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (2009), and a contributing editor to Tablet magazine. Read more about him here.

Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture

Monday, December 03, 2012 | Permalink

Josh Lambert, academic director at the Yiddish Book Center and author of American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide, discusses an exciting new Yiddish Book Center program: Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture.

Most of the Jews in their 20s that I know care more about culture than they do about religion or politics. They may or may not be members of a synagogue, and they may or may not be politically active, but they’re intense about something. It might be books—like the people who read this blog—or comedy or film or music or food or theater or something else, but most of them are following their favorite artists on Twitter, listening to podcasts, and working on creative projects of their own. Can we imagine a world in which these cultural pursuits are a central, fundamental part of what it means to be Jewish?

The Yiddish Book Center draws inspiration from the time when hundreds of thousands of Jews in America would read a daily Jewish newspaper, and when there were cafés across the country where Jewish writers and readers would gather, every day, to argue about art and everything else. Our new program, Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture, is about creating those kinds of opportunities. Funded by Michael Steinhardt, one of the founders of Birthright Israel, and developed by the Yiddish Book Center, this is a program that offers one-week immersive cultural experiences, for free, to Jews in their 20s. The deadlines are approaching fast for the first three of these. Tent: Comedy will take place in LA, in March; Tent: Creative Writing, in Amherst, MA, in June; and Tent: Theater, in NYC, in August.

In each program, a group of twenty Jews in their 20s will gather to experience that cultural field and its complex Jewish connections. In LA, they’ll discuss Jewish humor from Freud to Larry David, go out to the comedy clubs, and meet with stand-ups and screenwriters. In NYC, they’ll go to Off-Broadway and Fringe Festival shows, have an intimate conversation with Tony Kushner, and read some of the classic works of American theater. In Amherst, they’ll participate in creative writing workshops with teachers from the best MFA programs in the country, meet with agents and editors (for example, Matt Weiland from W.W. Norton, who’ll be editing Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth), and discuss the long and complex relationship between Jews and modern literature. 

Who wouldn’t want a week of free accommodations, free tickets to shows, free workshops, and smart, funny, meaningful discussions with brilliant teachers and a group of like-minded peers? No one I know.

More details can be found at our website, www.tentsite.org. And this is just the beginning. For 2014 we’re planning ten of these one-week programs, on a range of other subjects, run in partnership with innovative nonprofit cultural organizations from across the country. And even more in 2015.

Great Jewish Books...For High School Students

Friday, February 03, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Attention high school students and parents of high school students! Did you know that the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst has an amazing tuition-free summer program focusing on modern Jewish literature? In a week-long program, taught by Josh Lambert and Sana Krasikov, students will learn about authors like Babel and Kafka and Sholem Aleichem and Philip Roth and Grace Paley. Guest speakers include Allegra Goodman and Ilan Stavans. While it isn't necessary for applicants to have any specific Jewish knowledge, a love of literature is necessary

Basically, this sounds like an incredible opportunity, so, if you're eligible, you should definitely apply. The application deadline is March 15th and there are only eighteen spots available, so be sure to apply as soon as possible! Read more information about the program here

On the Bookshelf with Josh Lambert

Monday, February 15, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This week, on Josh Lambert’s weekly “On the Bookshelf” column for Tablet:

To read more about these books, as well as other “On the Bookshelf” recommendations, please click here.