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).