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.
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.
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).