Sensual Semites


Edited by Nathan Abrams
240 pages. Five Leaves Publications. $25.78.

A judge, who gets an erection when a defendant accidentally exposes her arm, sprints home to have sex with his wife, lest he sinfully spill his seed on the ground. The judge’s wife, after demanding to learn her rival’s identity, tracks the woman down, beats her with an iron lock, and runs her out of town. A different man solicits sex from his daughter-in-law, whom he mistakes for a prostitute. He is also a judge, and when she later becomes pregnant he almost orders her execution for adultery until she reveals herself to him. A third man offers his two virgin daughters to appease rioters trying to kick his door in. Those same daughters later get him intoxicated and rape him while he sleeps.

These stories might sound like the sort one would expect to find in X-rated magazines, but they come from much holier sources. The first derives from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 65a, while the other two can be found in Genesis chapters 38 and 19.

Nathan Abrams’ new book Jews & Sex strives, in part, to bring these sorts of stories out of “hiding in plain sight,” as Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis observes in the first chapter, “The Bride of God: Jewish Erotic Theology.” Dennis, who is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas, and adjunct instructor in Jewish studies at University of North Texas, explains that most people have no idea that Judaism contains an “erotic theology.” Some are aware of the tendencies in Jewish mysticism to treat the relationship between God and the Jewish people as a sexual one (for example, Song of Songs), but Dennis insists sexual references—even allusions to God’s body that run counter to Maimonides’ insistence that God is wholly spirit—appear in a much wider range of places: “Hebrew Scriptures, the Talmud, the Midrash, and other fundamental and authoritative Jewish sources.”

Jews & Sex includes 16 essays by 17 authors, on a variety of topics like “Twentieth Century Lesbo Sensuous Yiddish Poetry,” “Barbie’s Jewish Roots,” “Woody Allen and the Feminised Jewish Male,” and Abrams’ own chapter on “Kosher Beefcakes and Kosher Cheesecakes: Jews in Porn—An Overview.” A few reoccurring themes emerge, such as several pieces on censorship of homosexual films in Israel, like the Israeli army’s disassociation with Eytan Fox’s 2002 film Yosi and Jagger and scandalous films denounced as pornography like Dover Kosashvilli’s Gift from Heaven (2003).

The book is scholarly, with 19 pages of footnotes, but it is mostly accessible even to laypeople who are unaccustomed to dealing with dichotomies, spheres, and categories. Abrams explained in an interview that he views the book’s audience as “everyone interested in Jews and sex, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, practicing and believing, or otherwise.”

He remembers references to sex were “very much hidden” in his high school studies at Jews Free School in North London. “I can’t comment on the differences between Jewish denominations, as I was raised Orthodox and have not had extensive experience of the other ones,” he said.

Orthodox or not, one is not likely to come across much Yiddish poetry about lesbian relationships, Hinde Ena Burstin writes in her chapter. Burstin, who is an honorary research associate at the University of Sydney’s Department of Hebrew, Biblical, and Jewish Studies, notes that most scholarship on Queer Yiddishist literature to date has focused on poetry written by men about women. “To date, there has been no documented discussion of lesbian Yiddish poetry by women,” she writes.

One of the poems Burstin includes is her own Miriyam’s Song (“Miriyam’s Lid”), in which the narrator tells her lover, “I’m frightened, for the danger is great./ They say that our love isn’t normal—/ They will kill us if they find out.” And again, “But those who have no idea/ Have ruled that our love is forbidden.” In the end, the narrator triumphs and insists, “the Heavens know you are my basherte,” or chosen one. “Though the risk we take is great,/ Our love is even greater.”

If Jews & Sex can be criticized on one front, it is perhaps the book’s occasional redundancy where more ground could be broken. Several writers dwell on sex in Jewish theater, literature, and motion pictures, where there is much to be said, for example, about Jewish music (perhaps Jewish hip hop and its employment of a sexualized vocabulary) and Jewish visual arts. Nudes appear on tombstones in the Jewish cemetery in Prague, and they even appear in illustrations in medieval holy books. Additionally, the authors have a decidedly internationalist focus—they come from Europe, North and South America, Israel, and Australia—but the reader is left wondering how sex is treated differently by Jews from other parts of the world.

But nitpicking aside, the book often interrogates issues that have been widely ignored by scholars. Abrams’ own essay on Jews and pornography is perhaps the most interesting of the lot. Abrams, who directs both Bangor University’s film studies programs and its graduate programs at its National Institute for Excellence in the Creative Industries, begins by noting that “the study of race and ethnicity in porn is woefully underdeveloped.”

Abrams opens his own study of the ways people have responded to Jewish involvement in pornography by critiquing Luke Ford, “a self-styled adult industry gossip-monger.” Abrams argues that Ford, who has since given up his porn sites for a blog with the subheading “Your Moral Leader: Jews, Judaism, Journalism,” overestimates Jewish involvement in the industry. Not only do Ford and others claim that Jews in the porn industry represent the larger Jewish population, Abrams suggests, but anti-Semites also turn to pornography to show how degenerate all Jews are. Abrams stresses that the performers in question “tend to be secular Jews, having received varying degrees of Jewish education but, by and large, define their Jewish identity in cultural rather than religious terms.”

Abrams’ chapter becomes a warning not to romanticize the story of Jews and sex. Though it is an area in which more scholarship is needed, there is no excuse for sloppiness and assumptions that overestimate Jewish involvement in all things sexual. And asked how he responds to people who say pornography is disgusting and the entire enterprise should be ignored, Abrams said, “It’s there. It’s as much a part of our culture as allegedly non-dirty industries, so it should not be ignored simply because some people can’t stomach it.”