I read with interest a recent column in The Tablet by David Mikics (Professor of English, University of Houston) on Jewish vulgarity or, as the piece otherwise explains it, “the once-vibrant Jewish trait of not caring what the goyim think.” Although touted as a three-part series, only the first part has been published thus far, and this first essay is a kind of focused review of elements within John Murray Cuddihy’s The Ordeal of Civility and Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century. In the following essay I want to expand upon, and challenge, some of the ideas raised in the piece by Mikics.
I have to agree with the basic premise of the opening remarks of Mikics’s column. He writes that “the charge that Jews are vulgar now seems almost quaint. … Jewish lack of manners was once taken seriously both by Jews and by their gentile neighbors and competitors. The vulgar, unmannerly Jew was a countercultural force, and not just a reason for shame and repression.” The overall state of contemporary culture has indeed degraded to such an extent that Jews no longer stand out as singular producers of cultural obscenities. And yet there is a deep history of Jews as the agents of vulgarity in the West, stretching back to Roman accounts. Mikics doesn’t seem concerned with this deep history, focusing only on the twentieth century as covered by the works of Cuddihy and Slezkine.
Historical Jewish Obscenity
Jews have often been regarded by host cultures as both inherently obscene and as promoters of the obscene — a corrosive force acting against group morality, and therefore group cohesion. In Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (2014), Josh Lambert points out that in the ancient Mediterranean Jews were referred to as “an obscene people.”J. Lambert, Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2014), p.3. Such comments may have been as much observations as aspersions, since we know that in later centuries obscenity became an integral part of Jewish linguistic culture. For example, Bernard Dov Weinryb writes that in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Poland, “many erotic or obscene expressions and metaphors appear in Hassidic writings. …They reflect the way the average Jew in those times used obscene language, mainly of an erotic character, in his conversation.”B. D. Weinryb, The Jews of Poland: A Social and Economic History of the Jewish Community in Poland, from 1100 to 1800 (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1972), p. 387. On more recent contexts, Jonas E. Alexis has written that,
Jewish actors tend to gravitate towards shows with sexual themes. … Israeli-American Natalie Portman tells us in the movie No Strings Attached that “monogamy goes against our basic biology.” And [Jewish singer] Adam Lambert says, “When I’m on stage there’s definitely a sexual energy that goes into it.” In 2009 Lambert performed ‘For Your Entertainment’ at the American Music Awards. During the performance Lambert dragged a female dancer by her ankles and pushed “a male dancer’s head into his crotch and simulated oral sex.”J. E. Alexis, Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: Surprising Differences, Conflicting Visions, and Worldview Implications—From the Early Church to our Modern Time (Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2012), p.217.
As well as being represented and self-representing as having an intrinsic relationship to the obscene, the historical record is also replete with examples of Jews involving themselves heavily in the trade in obscenity. In his pseudonymously-published Letters from England (1808), the English Poet Laureate Robert Southey remarked on Jewish peddlers who wandered nineteenth-century England hawking “miserable and obscene prints.”R. Southey, Letters from England: Volume Two – Third American Edition (Philadelphia: Benjamin Warner, 1818), p.179.
In 1886 Édouard Drumont warned of a “pornographic war” being waged on France by Jews.R. Blobaum, ‘Criminalizing the ‘Other’: Crime, Ethnicity and Antisemitism in Early Twentieth-Century Poland’ in R. Blobaum, (ed.), Antisemitism and Its Opponents in Modern Poland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), p.89. In 1913, a “filthy press” in Warsaw “belonging to a certain Zimmerman,” was confiscated by Polish police after it was discovered disseminating pornography throughout the Russian Empire — activities described by the newspaper Przegląd Katolicki as a “Jewish atrocity.”Ibid.
(R. Blobaum, ‘Criminalizing the ‘Other’: Crime, Ethnicity and Antisemitism in Early Twentieth-Century Poland’ in R. Blobaum, (ed.), Antisemitism and Its Opponents in Modern Poland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), p.89.) Estonian police raided a building in 1909 belonging to the Jewish Benjamin Mikhailovsky, one of the richest merchants in Narva. One of Mikhailovsky’s side projects, apart from the trade in precious metals, was printing, and during their search police seized “11,119 cards they considered pornographic.”A. Weiss-Wendt, On the Margins: About the History of Jews in Estonia (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2017), p.43. And in Poland in 1910, the Polish Archbishop Pelczar would write, “I consider it my duty to warn Christian society against those Jews who intoxicate our people in the tavern and destroy them with usury; against those who maintain houses of debauchery in the towns; who trade in live goods [i.e. selling women into prostitution], who poison our young people with pornographic prints and periodicals.”B. A . Porter, Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p.303. In the U.S, it is well-established that Jews have had a prominent role in the porn industry since the late nineteenth century.
As well as prominent involvement in pushing pornographic vulgarity into Western culture, Jews have been noted for their general disdain for the social norms and manners of the host population. Naomi Cohen writes that the nineteenth-century Jew was faulted for “his vulgarity, boorishness, and ostentatious behavior.”N. Cohen, What the Rabbis Said: The Public Discourse of Nineteenth-Century American Rabbis (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 159. In his article in The Tablet, David Mikics is primarily concerned with this strain of Jewish vulgarity. Although it was a kind of open in-joke among Jews, discussions of Jewish social vulgarity among non-Jews were a source of alarm. Cuddihy’s book in particular, notes Mikics, “was notorious: Here was a non-Jew talking about vulgar Jews, as if this were a real thing. Clapping the lid over such a shonda was the primary task of some reviewers, who hinted that Cuddihy must be an antisemite.” He continues,
It is bad manners to talk about Jewish bad manners the way Cuddihy did— and even more so today than 50 years ago. But his book made a powerful case that Cuddihy did not see vulgarity as a flaw but instead as a weapon Jews used to disrupt gentile society—for which he admired them. Jews deployed their rudeness to make a principled argument against the goyim (a word Cuddihy didn’t shy away from), who were cultural prisoners of a hypocritical code that swept unruly emotions under the rug and leaned on polite euphemism to conceal the vampiric nature of capitalist exploitation. The grand Marxist and Freudian theories about the human condition have a crude Jewish impulse at their core, Cuddihy argued, which makes them more, not less, compelling.
Cuddihy, like Josh Lambert and Unclean Lips, imputes an idealistic motive to what is quite obviously a phenomenon fuelled more by the baser instinct towards aggression. Lambert, for example, argues that Jews “engaged with obscenity — produced it, defended it, wrote about it — for precisely the same reasons that many of their Protestant, Catholic, and nonreligious peers did so: to make money, to seek sexual gratification, to express antisocial rage.”Lambert, Unclean Lips, p.14. In terms of factuality, this probably ranks somewhere alongside defining a dog as a four-legged mammal — it is technically truthful but is so insufficient and incomplete as to be almost worthless. Most interesting of these proffered reasons is ‘antisocial rage,’ which is left hanging in tantalizing fashion without further elaboration. Indeed, lest readers begin to ponder the fact that, numerically speaking, Jews appear to have a disproportionate amount of ‘antisocial rage,’ Lambert hastens to clarify that he means his subjects are merely “expressing anger about their individual lives” [emphasis added].
Speaking through one of his characters in The Anatomy Lesson (1983), the Jewish filth-peddler Philip Roth seethes: “With me money is not the paramount issue. The defiance is. The hatred is. The outrage is.” Lambert takes this comment and avoids asking who Roth is defying, or who his hatred and outrage is directed towards. Roth’s hatred, like other subjects discussed in Unclean Lips, is simply abstracted into what Lambert describes in anodyne fashion as a purely “personal, apolitical rage.”
I’ve reached different conclusions from Lambert, who argues with some tremendous leaps of logic that Jewish vulgarity was a method employed by Jews to facilitate assimilation and force their way into genteel society (!). Evidence in the field of obscenity suggests that Jews have long possessed a disproportionate surplus of “antisocial rage,” and that the expression of this rage is rather more political than apolitical, and rather more communal than purely personal or individual. In the careful, consistent, and persistent action of Jews in challenging and overturning obscenity laws, for example, one detects a hatred that is more focused than abstract, more contrived than spontaneous.
My own perspective is echoed by Joshua Furst in a 2014 article published in The Forward, titled “A Short History of Jews and Obscenity.” The article reviews Unclean Lips and finds the book an anodyne and bland text that avoids the fundamental impulses behind Jewish transgression of the host culture’s norms. For Furst,
What’s lost in “Unclean Lips” is the thrill obscenity can create. It’s the sharp dangerous edge of anarchy and when used effectively, it can BLEEP up the most carefully planned cocktail party, smashing all propriety to BLEEP. Lambert’s systematic and earnest exegeses take all the fun out of obscenity. It’s like going to a strip club to find yourself being lectured about heteronormativity and the male gaze by a fully clothed BLEEPer. Presenting obscenity as a means of gaining access to the domain of polite, civil society seems, to me at least, to miss the BLEEPING point.
Maybe more problematic, if one cares about the relationship between Judaism and American culture, are the limited and predetermined objectives Lambert presents his Jewish protagonists as having. In these pages, obscenity is first and foremost presented as a tool by which Jews were able to assimilate and gain acceptance by the American cultural elite as well as monetary and societal success, and to enter the “prestige culture” as Lambert calls it. But what of the other ways in which obscenity can and has been used? What of transgression and dissidence? Obscenity is such a powerful weapon against those who would wish to control our behavior (to say nothing of our imaginations) and villainize us for our culture. And the angry refusal of Jewish figures like Lenny Bruce, Abbie Hoffman and even Al Goldstein to accept the terms the over-culture demanded was as Jewish in character as Henry Roth’s yiddishisms and Liveright’s entrepreneurship through scandal.
Genteel society, or Gentile society?: Moral Destruction as Ethnic Warfare
When Jews discuss Jewish vulgarity and its motives, there is an obvious conceit at play in the framing of the issue. Almost exclusively one encounters the notion that Jews wanted to upset a stuffy “genteel society.” Such phrasing places Jewish action in the sphere of a clash of behaviors rather than a clash of ethnicities. Take, for example, Mikics, who writes, “The one time I saw him, in the 1980s, Abbie Hoffman seemed to me a genuine charismatic, as well as a matchless stand-up comic. Like Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks or the gang at Mad, he sensed how Jewish vulgarity could explode the sacred cows of genteel society” [emphasis added]. This is little more than a clever shell game. If Jews are the aggressors seeking change, isn’t the genteel society really just gentile society?
The lowering of the moral values of a nation or ethnic group and the systematic encouragement of vice in it are inherently aggressive and political acts, designed to weaken the spiritual resistance of the national group. In Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History, the Australian academic A. Dirk Moses discusses the use of “moral techniques” as an instrument of genocide. He writes that “The technique of moral debasement entails diverting the ‘mental energy of the group’ from ‘moral and national thinking’ to ‘base instincts.’ The aim is that the desire for cheap individual pleasure be substituted for the desire for collective feelings and ideals based upon a higher morality.” It is demoralizing to a people. It is debasing to a nation. It is a weapon wielded in ethnic warfare.
Moses, who I am assuming is Jewish based purely on his name, was writing specifically about policies enacted in post-invasion Poland by the National Socialist regime. On these policies, Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish self-styled expert on genocide, remarks: “Therefore the [National Socialist] occupant made an effort in Poland to impose upon the Poles pornographic publications and movies. The consumption of alcohol was encouraged, for while food prices have soared, the Germans have kept down the price of alcohol, and the peasants are compelled by the authorities to take spirits in payment for agricultural produce. The curfew law, enforced very strictly against Poles, is relaxed if they can show the authorities a ticket to one of the gambling houses which the Germans have allowed to come into existence.”J. G. Heidenrich, How to Prevent Genocide: A Guide for Policymakers, Scholars, and the Concerned Citizen (London: Praeger, 2001), p.45.
As discussed in Kevin MacDonald’s Separation and Its Discontents, the National Socialist movement in Germany adopted what in many respects was a mirror image strategy of that employed by the Jews. This is clear not only in the adoption of race laws, but also in the fact the National Socialists were here merely copying and expanding upon what they understood to be the pre-existing tactics of Jewish cultural domination in Poland (and others in Europe). Indeed, Jews were widely understood by both Poles and Germans as having been intimately involved in the alcohol industry of Poland prior to the invasion of 1939, with the Tablet even affirming in a 2014 article that Jews “ruled Poland’s liquor trade for centuries” in a system in which Polish peasants were compelled to purchase Jewish alcohol. Jews have also long been associated with dominating the gambling industry (Israel is currently the global center for online gambling). In those areas of nineteenth century Poland where local nobles granted tax exemptions to Jewish communal institutions, Jews continued to sell liquor and run inns and taverns, in which they established gambling facilities to further squeeze the Poles. And the activities of Jews in promoting pornography in Poland have already been discussed above.
My question then, on considering the remarks of Moses and Lemkin, is both simple and stark: If, by promoting vice, the National Socialists were employing a genocidal technique against the Poles, what had the Jews been doing? And if the Jews are engaging in the same activities in the West today, what are they doing and why? Can we really describe a set of behaviors as on the one hand indicating a desire to “assimilate” and promote “freedom,” while maintaining on the other hand that these same techniques are designed to destroy?
Mikics, while playfully teasing for much of his article as if these Jews were simply a bunch of loveable rogues, slips towards the end when he laments such ‘tame’ shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm:
Shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm hawk Jewish rudeness for easy laughs, proving that the vulgar Jew has declined from a real threat into an amusing, half-legendary caricature. … The exuberance of Jewish vulgarity, and the in-group solidarity of the shtetlakh it expressed, are both missing. [emphasis added]
What is Jewish vulgarity, then? Mikics seems to suggest here that it’s a way in which Jews can both bond with one another and threaten the host society. Or, to use another of his phrases, it melded “Jewish aggression with communal solidarity.” Perhaps it’s best to end with the self-explanatory, and consider the following remarks from Joshua Furst:
Among the Jewish traits I am most proud to be historically and culturally associated with is the way my people obstreperously defend our principles even when doing so goes against our best interests. … I see it as my birthright to get under people’s skin and annoy them until they want to scream. And one of the greatest rhetorical tools people bent towards this sort of behavior can wield is the well-timed, carefully aimed obscenity.
 J. Lambert, Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2014), p.3.
 B. D. Weinryb, The Jews of Poland: A Social and Economic History of the Jewish Community in Poland, from 1100 to 1800 (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1972), p. 387.
 J. E. Alexis, Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: Surprising Differences, Conflicting Visions, and Worldview Implications—From the Early Church to our Modern Time (Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2012), p.217.
 R. Southey, Letters from England: Volume Two – Third American Edition (Philadelphia: Benjamin Warner, 1818), p.179.
 R. Blobaum, ‘Criminalizing the ‘Other’: Crime, Ethnicity and Antisemitism in Early Twentieth-Century Poland’ in R. Blobaum, (ed.), Antisemitism and Its Opponents in Modern Poland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), p.89.
 A. Weiss-Wendt, On the Margins: About the History of Jews in Estonia (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2017), p.43.
 B. A . Porter, Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p.303.
 N. Cohen, What the Rabbis Said: The Public Discourse of Nineteenth-Century American Rabbis (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 159.
 Lambert, Unclean Lips, p.14.
 J. G. Heidenrich, How to Prevent Genocide: A Guide for Policymakers, Scholars, and the Concerned Citizen (London: Praeger, 2001), p.45.