Mind Caviar

"My mother could make anybody feel guilty--
she used to get letters of apology from people she didn't even know.

~ Joan Rivers (1991)

Mind Caviar Issue 13, 2004-2005

Legacy of the Grandfathers:
a Meditation on Jewish Sexual Attitudes

by Marcy Sheiner

A few years ago Mordecai Richler, a ninety-something Jewish writer and scholar (now deceased), launched an attack on sex writers, particularly female-- of the Jewish persuasion. Alarmed by the sudden proliferation of Jewish erotic anthologies (my own Oy of Sex, Karen Tulchinsky's Friday the Rabbi Wore Lace, and Neurotica, a gender-mixed collection), Richler published what was billed as a "review" in the Los Angeles Times, but was actually a litany of highly charged opinions. The first two-thirds of the piece was a nostalgic paean to his ignorant youth, when "Our parents never told us anything about sex" and "nice Jewish girls knitted diamond socks, played mah-jongg and peddled raffles for the synagogue's ladies' auxiliary." This idyllic world, he moaned, seemed to be  "crumbling all around me. Standards aren't what they used to be."

Mind Caviar
He published a similar piece a few months later on a Canadian website, aimed at Dirty Jewish Girls. The man was obviously on a rampage, offended by the very notion that Jewish women might enjoy, participate in and-- the ultimate chutzpah-- write about sexual activity. 

By his own admission, Richler had never read a real piece of pornography in his life; his fiercest adolescent turn-on came from ads for bras in the New York Times. That women would dare use explicit language and sexual description made him positively apoplectic.  He confessed that he might deign to read Neurotica if he discovered it on a bedside table (unlike my collection and Tulchinsky's, he declared it respectable because of its heavy-hitters in the Jewish literary pantheon) but he made sure to add that he¹d never actually go out and purchase the book himself.

What does Richler's crusade tell us about sexual attitudes among Jewish men? Or at least among older Jewish men? My own grandfather, were he still alive, would be about Richler¹s age, and I'm pretty sure he, too would be flabbergasted by my work. No doubt he would have written me out of his will, something he did and undid regularly to his numerous heirs. My father, also long gone, would have been mortified by my flaunting of sexuality in print-- though, as is the case with my mother, this might have been mitigated by his pride in my publication and modest degree of fame. 

But these men were related to me; Mordecai Richler can claim no such personal stake in the matter. He seems to consider himself a stand-in for all Jewish paterfamilias; perhaps, as with African-Americans and other minorities, he views all younger Jewish women as his granddaughters, and feels it his duty to admonish our transgressions. Ultimately, Mordecai Richler made it crystal clear that for a Jewish woman to proclaim herself a sexual being is a profound act of transgression.

Cultural Clues & Taboos

In my book Sex for the Clueless, I wrote that Judaism didn't impose a lot of rules and regulations on my sexuality, as compared to Catholicism and other religions. I wrote this after thinking about my upbringing, steeped in Jewish culture rather than religion. The only sexually-related rule I recall was being told over and over that I must marry a member of the tribe. But Richler's attacks inspired me to take a closer look: somewhere in our religion or culture lies a heavy subtext against expressing our sexuality. In Orthodox homes, of course, sexual taboos dictate where girls can go, and what they're allowed to wear. But in non-religious homes like mine, these things were never clearly spelled out. Thus, although sex was a taboo subject in my family, I never connected it to Judaism. 

Story-telling was a major activity in my family; half the stories put my grandfather (my mother¹s father) in the starring role. He was a short, portly, cigar-chomping tyrant who pulled guns on cabbies if they complained about his notoriously paltry tipping. Many oft-repeated stories concerned my grandfather's treatment of my mother's dates. When one poor guy got her home ten minutes late, so the story went, my grandfather greeted him at the door with his famous gun.  Hearing that, and similar stories as a pubescent girl, I must have absorbed some pretty heavy messages about the rules around male and female interactions.

In our home, sex was simply not discussed. My sister and I picked up information off the streets; she was three years older than I, so my sex education began in my pre-teens. We privately referred to my mother as "The Refrigerator." She was a cold woman, no doubt about it, but we meant the epithet in a frankly sexual way. We sympathized with my father, a warm, jolly fellow who, we imagined, lived in a constant state of deprivation. 

As an adult, I've come to see the situation somewhat differently: my guess is that my father, like many men of his generation, was fairly ignorant about female sexuality, which most likely translated to ineptitude in bed. My mother had probably been raised to view sex as a spousal duty not to be enjoyed by the suffering woman, and avoided it as much as possible. My teenage scorn has turned to compassion for both of them. 

My sister and I rebelled against our parents in every way possible: she dated black boys; I was a master shoplifter. And, of course, we became sexually active at an early age. It's no surprise we both got pregnant-- she at nineteen, I at eighteen, and married the daddies, much to our parents' despair. My sister had always flaunted her sexuality, wearing tight, short skirts and gobs of eye makeup; I, on the other hand, looked like the girl next door, but my behavior was just as wild. So, when I informed my mother of my pregnancy she proclaimed, "I thought you were a nice girl!" And, she added, "You are not to tell your father! I am not going through this again!"

But, of course, my father was told; he complained bitterly that he'd gotten no pleasure from his two daughters. Oy, the guilt! It rears its ugly head even as I write this. I'm a wretched daughter who deprived my father of a joyous wedding. We had a wedding, all right, but in the photos it's obvious that everyone was thoroughly miserable. My mother's face throughout the ordeal was a study in distaste.

Distaste. I had committed a most distasteful act: I had let the world know that I'd had sex for sex's sake. Nice Jewish Girlhood was lost to me forever. Some forty years later, when I published Sex for the Clueless, the first thing I felt when I held it in my hand was: "My God, my mother is going to read this!"

Jewish Guilt, Jewish Pride

Now, my mom is actually proud I make a living of sorts through the written word-- in her estimation, it's a high calling. All along she's felt some regret (as do I) that my published work is almost all of a sexual nature; but she understands the plight of "the starving writer." She doesn't read everything I write, but she keeps it all in a file she calls "The Archives." Still, Clueless was the first non-fiction book authored solely by me, rather than a fictional collection I edited. Personal anecdotes about my sex life run rampant throughout the text. I explain, with the voice of authority, phenomena such as swingers' cruises, sex parties, and the dynamics of S/M. Rather than celebrating on publication day, I felt like crawling under a rock.

Did I really need Mordecai Richler to alert me to the sex-negativity of my cultural upbringing? Well, as I said, I¹d assumed that my family's attitudes were unique to them. Since we weren't at all religious, I did not suspect Judaism as the culprit. But Judaism, whether practiced religiously or not, affects its people in a myriad of ways. I've long suspected that my claustrophobia-- particularly in crowded trains-- is a legacy of the Holocaust. Israel itself is testament to the paranoia and distrust of outsiders bred by centuries of oppression. Jews from families who never kept kosher become physically ill at the thought of drinking milk with a hamburger. Thus it is with fear of sexual exposure. My fear of revealing my sexuality in print-- perhaps even fears around communicating to sexual partners-- can be at least partly traced back to Jewish prohibitions.

I've occasionally wondered how, with a "Refrigerator" for a mother and a tyrant for a grandfather, I ended up being as sexually free as I am. The only possible explanation is rebellion. In this I am not alone. When I was growing up, Jewish girls were known to be more promiscuous than their Christian sisters. I naively assumed this indicated a healthier upbringing-- but they say that the stricter the home, the fiercer the teenage rebellion. Since guilt permeates just about every area of life in Jewish culture, it makes sense that it would incite rebellion, including sexual. 

In Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth raged against Judaism as an irrational cult; during the course of his writing career he's purposely shocked the Jewish establishment with his "blasphemies." Erica Jong, creator of "the zipless fuck," is Jewish. It took another two decades before her sisters spoke up in favor of casual sex, but the party's in full swing now. Jewish grandfathers may be rolling over in their graves, but there's no turning back. Hot, sexy, noisy Jewish women have arrived.

You can visit Marcy Sheiner to read more at her Web site.

Copyright © 2004 Marcy Sheiner. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or post in whole or in part. 

Marcy Sheiner is the editor of a dozen collections of women's erotica, including The Oy of Sex: Jewish Women Write Erotica, and Best Women's Erotica 2005 (both from Cleis Press). She's written book reviews for more than a decade for periodicals including the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Spectator, and an assortment of online publications. She has reviewed, edited, and contributed to books of erotica, and has written essays revolving around censorship, memoirs, gender terrorism, monogamy versus infidelity, misogyny in the medical establishment, and persons living with physical disabilities. Sheiner's solo books are Perfectly Normal and Sex for the Clueless.

She is currently (late 2004, early 2005) seeking erotic stories from both men and women on the theme of birthdays. For guidelines email her at marquest@earthlink.net.

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