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.

Josh Lam­bert is the aca­d­e­m­ic direc­tor of the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter and vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst. He’s the author of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Fic­tion: A JPS Guide (2009) and Unclean Lips: Obscen­i­ty, Jews, and Amer­i­can Cul­ture (2014), which received a Jor­dan Schnitzer Book Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Stud­ies and a Cana­di­an Jew­ish Book Award. His reviews and essays have been pub­lished by the New York Times Book Review, the Los Ange­les Times, the Los Ange­les Review of Books, Haaretz, Tablet, the For­ward, New Eng­land Pub­lic Radio, and many oth­er publications.