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.

Josh Lam­bert (web/twit­ter) is the Sophia Moses Robi­son Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies and Eng­lish, and Direc­tor of the Jew­ish Stud­ies Pro­gram, at Welles­ley Col­lege. His books include Unclean Lips: Obscen­i­ty, Jews, and Amer­i­can Cul­ture (2014), and The Lit­er­ary Mafia: Jews, Pub­lish­ing, and Post­war Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture (2022).