Conference explores steamier side of shtetl life

Yiddish film star Molly Picon, seen here in the 1923 classic "East and West," rarely wore women's clothes onscreen. (The National Center for Jewish Film)

Yiddish film star Molly Picon, seen here in the 1923 classic “East and West,” rarely wore women’s clothes onscreen. (The National Center for Jewish Film)

BERKELEY, Calif. (JTA) — Cantor Sharon Bernstein sits down at the electric piano in a room filled with Jewish academics and Yiddish linguists, and launches into an early 20th-century Yiddish song.

As the first words spill out, the chuckles begin: “I had a sister named Esther, her ____ was as deep as the Dniester, and when she ____ she’d say, ‘fester, fester.’”

Bernstein sings in Yiddish, but the cantor at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco translates into English for those not conversant in the mama loshen.

Her spirited performance Sunday of what was billed as “dirty Yiddish songs” kicked off “Sex and the Shtetl,” a three-day exploration of sexual mores and practices in the prewar Yiddish world sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union.

Life in the shtetl wasn’t all Shabbat candles and milking cows, say experts who come from as far away as Boston, London and Jerusalem to discuss cross-dressing in early Yiddish film, baby farms in late 19th-century Vilna and the Freudian underpinnings of Jewish jokes.

“There was a lot of discussion about Jewish sexuality in the late 19th-century Yiddish world,” said Donny Inbar, associate director of arts and culture at the Israel Center of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation.

Many of the songs Bernstein performs come from a collection compiled by Hebrew University folklore specialist Meir Noy, which he took from old Yiddish songbooks and personal interviews. Some of the more “juicy” lyrics were set to traditional learning chants, Bernstein says, adding: “Someone was having a lot of fun with this.”

As modernity encroached on tradition, it wasn’t just Jewish religious practices that came under siege at the turn of the 20th century. Norms of marriage, love and family relationships were all shifting. The changes were reflected in Jewish culture of the time, but they were rarely discussed openly and are little remembered today.

“A lot of it was embarrassment,” said David Biale, professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Davis, and author of “Eros and the Jews.”

“We wanted to become respectable, and sex wasn’t respectable, so we pretended it wasn’t part of who we were,” Biale said. “But it’s out there in the Yiddish writers, like Isaac Bashevis Singer.”

Sex and gender roles in Yiddish literature and film “is a hot topic” among graduate students today, says Naomi Seidman, director of the Center for Jewish Studies.

The Berkeley conference was held in conjunction with a Yiddish film festival curated by Zehavit Stern, a doctoral student at Berkeley.

An impetus for the festival, Stern says, was her “frustration” with the nostalgic way people view these films.

“I acknowledge the urge to see them as documents,” she said. “Especially the ones shot on location — you can see the streets, hear the language — it is precious. But that becomes the only thing people see. The reality is much more complex.”

For example, Stern says, Molly Picon, who starred in many of the most popular American Yiddish films, did not play traditional female roles but appeared as tomboys or even actual boys. In the 1936 hit “Yidl with a Fiddle,” she runs away with a klezmer band, dressing as a man for most of the film.

“Cross dressing was her shtick,” Stern said.

Seidman points out that women passing for men was a common motif in turn-of-the-century Yiddish film and literature. In S. An-sky’s “The Dybbuk,” a bride is possessed by her dead lover’s soul and speaks in his voice under the chupah. In “Yentl,” a Singer tale popularized in the 1983 Barbra Streisand film, a young woman dresses as a boy to enter the all-male yeshiva world.

“The fact that no one notices Yentl is a woman shows how effeminate Jewish men were considered compared to the Western European ideal of masculinity,” Seidman said. “Demonic possession of a woman by a man is a transgender dream we haven’t even begun to enact here in the Bay Area.”

Of course, just because Molly Picon wore trousers doesn’t mean our great-grandparents were dabbling in illicit sexual experimentation. But, Seidman says, the Picon films, Singer stories and other popular Yiddish works suggest an almost erotic idealization of the comradeship and intimacy of the all-male worlds of the yeshiva, the bathhouse and the rebbe’s court.

“That’s what Yidl and Yentl wanted,” Seidman said.

Referring to silent film heroine Mary Pickford, who epitomized a certain American ideal of fragile femininity, Seidman asks, “What does it mean that American culture had Mary Pickford and Yiddish culture had Molly Picon?”

There was a dark side to modernity’s loosening of the sexual reins, however.

A scandalous court case in late 19th-century Vilna uncovered a Jewish baby-farming operation on the outskirts of the Lithuanian capital where single Jewish mothers acted as wet nurses for wealthier matrons while their own babies were spirited away and killed. If the Jewish community had built orphanages instead of pretending single women weren’t getting pregnant, suggested Chae-ran Freeze of Brandeis University, such tragedies could have been avoided.

“Many of the men who seduced these women emigrated to America, leaving them behind,” said Freeze, author of the forthcoming “Sex and the Shtetl: Gender, Family, and Jewish Sexuality in Tsarist Russia.”

Edward Portnoy of Rutgers University described “dowry farmers,” Jewish men who married young women for their dowries, then left for the New World. Others married multiple women in Europe and sailed to New York, then sent for the women and forced them into prostitution.

“Geographic mobility, to a certain extent, shaped sexual behavior and morality,” said Freeze. “These men didn’t have to account for their behavior because they were leaving.”

Listen to Cantor Sharon Bernstein performing early 20th-century erotic Yiddish songs on Nov. 15, 2009 at a conference in Berkeley, Calif. (Recorded by Karen Roekard)

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