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  • Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture by Josh Lambert
  • Jeffrey Shandler (bio)
Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture. By Josh Lambert. New York: New York University Press, 2014. xii +203 pp.

It might well be tempting either to sweep under the rug American Jews’ considerable involvement in creating and publishing obscene materials or, conversely, to champion these authors, publishers, and editors, as well as the lawyers and judges who have upheld their endeavors, as exemplars of a Jewish commitment to freedom of expression and to freedom from puritanical hang-ups about sex. Fortunately, literature scholar Josh Lambert does neither. Rather, in Unclean Lips he offers an incisive, nuanced examination of noteworthy figures and works selected from among this extensive and wide-ranging phenomenon. In doing so, Lambert makes a compelling case for the value of this inquiry for the study of American Jewish history, among other fields of scholarship, including previous work on the history of literary obscenity in the United States, which has largely eschewed issues concerning Jews and Jewishness.

Following a substantial introduction, in which Lambert defines the topic and situates it in the landscapes of social, cultural, and intellectual history, is a set of case studies that are carefully curated to address multiple dynamics—including changes in obscenity laws, sexual mores, the socioeconomics of American Jewry, and media practices, among others—through a series of analytic inquiries. These case studies include: literary ripostes (by, e.g., Theodore Dreiser, Ludwig Lewisohn) to the [End Page 203] sexualized discourse of early twentieth-century antisemitism and the anti-Jewish rhetoric of American crusades to suppress obscene materials and constrain sexual activity, spearheaded by the activist and politician Anthony Comstock (whence the Comstock laws); the careers of second-generation American Jews who strove to elevate their cultural status as audacious modernists through the use of obscene language in their fiction (notably, Henry Roth) or of sexual frankness to raise the stature of cartooning and establish the genre of graphic novels (Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer); the work of fiction writers in the early post-World War II era (Philip Roth, Adele Wiseman) who grappled with the new discourse of American Jewish anxiety about demographic and cultural continuity through provocative descriptions of sex in their prose; the tacit aesthetic protocols of twentieth-century Yiddish writers (Yankev Glatshteyn, among others), whose self-regulation of their writing in keeping with Jewish cultural notions of tsnies (“modesty”) operated in the absence of American censors’ attention to the content of Yiddish publishing; and the paradoxical discourse of modesty found in guides by Orthodox Jewish authors (most famously, Shmuley Boteach) to a “kosher” sex ethic for a general American readership, published at the turn of the millennium. In each case study Lambert deftly integrates his impressive command of social and cultural history and literary theory, as well as scholarship on law, publishing, religion, and sexuality.

Lambert’s general thesis and his analytic approach to individual examples are a model of how to push beyond drawing facile connections between identity and culture, a phenomenon that afflicts much scholarship on modern Jewish literature and the visual and performance arts (as well as, it should be noted, the cultural studies of other identity-based groups). His careful and thorough exploration of the contingencies surrounding each of his case studies demonstrates both how variable are the many connections between Jews (whose Jewishness might mean anything—or nothing—to each one of them) and literary works deemed “obscene” (a label with its own shifting history) and, at the same time, how rich are the possibilities for these connections’ significance. Complementing these cases is the running discourse connecting Jews and salaciousness, which thrives among both anti-Semites and philo-Semites (among them James Joyce and Henry Miller). Even as this discourse seems to take on a life of its own, Lambert’s analyses demonstrate the value of resisting its allure (or its threat). Rather, he probes what may well seem a fraught or debasing topic in order to reveal, at a complex and often volatile intersection of cultural and political concerns, various ways that Jewishness has become significant—to individual Jews, Jewish collectives, and non-Jewish observers—in the American...


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pp. 203-204
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