Book Reviews — May 2009

Jews and Sex

By Nathan Abrams
Five Leaves, 2008, £12.99

In the mid-1990s I worked as a research assistant for Jewish Continuity, the short-lived organisation that sought to ensure the continuity of Judaism in this country. One of its major concerns was preventing intermarriage and, in order to do so, great pains were taken to research the lives of British Jewish single young adults. Notwithstanding the naivety and crudity of some aspects of Jewish Continuity’s ‘anti-intermarriage’ agenda, a detailed picture emerged that contributed to the understanding of British Jewry. But I couldn’t help feeling then, as now, that something was missing — we didn’t investigate what young Jews thought about the prospect and the reality of sex with other Jews. Was intermarriage partially a result of young Jews finding other Jews a sexual turn-off? Are non-Jews more sexually alluring to Jews (and visa versa)? What, in short, is the ‘sexual economy’ of British Jewish life?

It struck me then as now that the topic of Jews and sex is a crucial one if we are to understand Jewish behaviours and attitudes, particularly towards assimilation and intermarriage. So I was eager to read the unambiguously-titled collection Jews and Sex edited by British-Jewish scholar Nathan Abrams. The book has its roots in Abram’s essay on Jews in the porn industry, published in the Jewish Quarterly in the winter 2004/5 issue, and the nude cover photo of Jewish porn star/performance artist Annie Sprinkle suggests a welcome openness about sexual matters.

On reading the book though, it becomes clear that the title is too broad, for all its admirable straightforwardness.  This is, for the most part, a book about Jews and representations of sexuality. The 16 essays here are largely concerned with how Jewish artists and other cultural figures have represented sexuality in their work and, more generally, how Jews have been positioned and position themselves relative to discourses of sexuality.

The most successful essays here are those that open up the hidden worlds of Jews and sex: Hinde Burstin’s chapter on ‘twentieth century lesbo sensuous Yiddish poetry’ uncovers a barely known chapter of Yiddish literary history. Nathan Abrams’ own chapter on Jews in the porn industry does not just play ‘spot the Jew’, but interrogates why it might matter — or not — to look for the Jewish presence in porn.

Other contributors find interesting representations of Jews and sex in the work of various artists, filmmakers and novelists, throwing up some valuable lesser-known works worth tracing. This collection also contains much of a highly predictable nature: the usual suspects — Woody Allen, Phillip Roth and Howard Jacobson — all appear in chapters that are far from ground-breaking. Indeed, in its conceptual apparatus this collection will be familiar to anyone who has engaged in the study of contemporary Jewish cultural studies or gender and the Jewish body (Sander Gilman looms large as an influence). The two most conceptually adventurous and playful chapters in the book are Geoffrey Dennis’ ‘Jewish erotic theology’ and Jay Michaelson’s ‘Homosexuality and Liminality in Judaism’. Both are frustratingly short.

Jews and Sex leaves a lingering feeling of disappointment, heavy on representation but thin on sociology. Most problematically, a few contributors come close to using artistic representation of Jews and sex to draw conclusions about Jewish sexual practice — in particular, Jyoti Daniels’ chapter on Amos Gitai’s Kadosh argues that the film allows us ‘a glimpse into the lives of Hassidic women’. Perhaps a genuine investigation of sexuality in art and culture will encourage Jews to consider how their sexual practice and choice of partner might be intimately connected to Jewish life.