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 Roths Defend­er of the Faith,” about a cou­ple of sol­diers on a U.S. Army base at the end of World War 2; Isaac Bashe­vis Singers 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.

Relat­ed Content:

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).