Monday, November 23, 2009

Sex and the Shtetl: Yiddish As You Never Knew It

Everyday life in Eastern European shtetls, or small towns, was expressed in Hebrew and Yiddish -- Hebrew for the sacred, and Yiddish for everything else. Until now, who would think that everything else included...SEX?

Last week, San Franciscans were able to take part in 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.

As Sue Fishkoff reports in The Jerusalem Post,
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.
Yiddish songs, some of them bawdy, were sung and translated at the conference, and there was a lot of discussion about Jewish sexuality in the late 19th-century Yiddish world. Cantor Sharon Bernstein, who sang the Yiddish songs at the electric piano, said that some of the more "juicy" song lyrics were set to traditional learning chants, adding "Someone was having a lot of fun with this."

Sex and gender roles in Yiddish literature and film was a hot topic for discussion, with many examples cited of stories where women passing for men was a common motif. These include S. Ansky's The Dybbuk, I.B. Singer's Yentl, popularized in the 1983 film with Barbara Streisand, and the 1936 film Yidl Mitn Fidl, in which Molly Picon ran away with a klezmer band, dressing as a man for most of the film. Here is a video clip of Picon singing the title song.



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