Are Jews Too Sexy for the Censors?

—Jodi Eichler-Levine

Jewish authors are tremendously popular when it comes to banned-books lists. Judy Blume, Lesléa Newman, and Anne Frank are all represented on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Banned Books of 1990-1999 and 2000-2009 lists. These are just a few examples of Jews whose work has been targeted, banned, and even burned in America. All of these women’s ouevres have one thing in common: sex. Sex, along with race and obscenity, is one of the most common rationales presented for banning books. Are Jewish authors too sexy for the library?

It is Banned Books Week, a time to reflect on how censorship has altered the American literary landscape and to take action on freedom of expression. For 2015, the week’s focus is on Young Adult literature: that mildly nebulous, wildly popular genre that crosses between “juvenile” and “mature” literature.

Jews, particularly Jewish women, have been stereotyped as licentious and sexually voracious ever since the nineteenth century brought us notions of the “exotic Jewess,” a seductive, Orientalized creature. More generally, the notion of “carnal Israel,” contrasted with “spiritual” Christianity, dominated many public discussions of Jews. As Josh Lambert argues in Unclean Lips, the very notion of obscene speech in American derives in part from reactions towards Jewish and other writing as insufficiently pure and “American.” Modern Jewish writers and filmmakers have received a disproportionate number of obscenity charges.

Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? caused a stir when it was first published in 1970. Censors charged that the book offends along axes of both sex and religion. On the one hand, Margaret famously discusses menarche with God, asking when she will finally get her first period; she also describes her early, and really quite limited, sexual experiences. At the same time, Margaret faces tensions as the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and her Christian grandparents are particularly doctrinaire. As a result, the book was charged with “anti-Christian sentiment.” Blume’s Tiger Eyes, Forever, and Blubber have also been banned, typically for explicit sex scenes or “immoral content.”

Fast-forward two decades to 1989, when Lesléa Newman, an out Jewish lesbian poet and children’s book author, publishes Heather Has Two Mommies, a picture book about a lesbian family. Newman has written about her desire to have all children see their families represented in children’s books; she also connects this longing to her own experience with the lack of Jewish family representations during her youth. In the New York public schools, the book’s inclusion as a suggested reading for the “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum led to public outrage and the downfall of a schools chancellor.

Ironically, it was the protection of children—a very romanticized notion of the marriage as a primarily a venue for procreation—that drove Supreme Court Justice Stephen Bryer’s majority opinion in the very case that legalized marriage equality, just over a quarter century after Newman’s book. Heather Has Two Mommies was re-released just a few months before the decision, with some minor changes. Heather’s mommies now wear matching rings.

Think of the children! This is the double-edged refrain behind both intellectual censorship and legal progress. Both turn upon the notion of young people as innocent blank slates who lack the agency and discernment to make their own sense out of challenging material. This irony is starkest when we consider bans on one of the most popular Jewish authors across the globe, namely: Holocaust victim Anne Frank.

Various edited versions of her journal, usually titled Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, have been wildly popular and assigned in American schools since the book was translated into English in 1951. In 2013, the diary was almost removed from the Northville, Michigan. Most bans have stemmed from Frank’s explicit reflections on her emerging sexuality and the changes in her adolescent body. Once again, the Jewish female body is suspect: oversexed, potentially dangerous, and overtly described. Frank’s body is a particularly contested one, as her diary and other portrayals became fast forward forms of hagiography, leading contemporary Americans to resist associations between Frank and sex.

Does the censorship of Jewish-authored books truly stem from old, anti-Jewish caricatures? Is it mere happenstance? The causality is not simple. Intersectional identities cannot be neatly sorted out and untangled. I will say this: these particular Jewish authors do not shirk from our always-embodied lives. They trouble sexual taboos, portray powerful women, and challenge social mores, pushing for social justice in their lives and in their art. Like the much-maligned isha zara—the “foreign woman”—of the book of Proverbs, these women cross boundaries and give us new visions. What some see as transgression, others see as its flip side: wisdom.

Keep writing, Jewish women. Write strong.

Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and the Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University (PA). She is the author of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature (NYU Press, 2015).

The late trials of the Holocaust

—Frank Tuerkheimer and Michael Bazyler

Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in the February 16th issue of The New Yorker, “The Last Trial” is a wonderful summary of the belated and long overdue reaction of the German legal system to the atrocities committed by the Germans in implementing the plan to exterminate European Jewry. She correctly notes that with the Demjanjuk decision, the German legal establishment has now reached a final stage in its legal approach to Nazi criminality: anyone participating in the operation of a death camp is legally complicit in homicide, requiring no specific proof that the person killed or injured anyone.

This is not the first time such an approach has been taken to Second World War crimes committed by the Germans. When the U.S. War Department was preparing for the main Nuremberg trial before the International Military Tribunal in 1945, Colonel Murray Bernays brilliantly came up with a similar idea, eventually implemented in the Nuremberg Charter. The Bernays plan contemplated Nazi bodies to be charged as criminal organizations. If convicted, then in the future it would only be necessary to prove that an accused Nazi was a member of that organization; the degree of individual involvement would bear on the sentence meted out to the convicted member. The Allies charged and the International Military Tribunal in its 1946 judgment convicted the SS [Schutzstaffel, the Nazi party’s protection squad], the SD [Sicherheitsdienst, the Nazi’s security service] and the Gestapo as criminal organizations, adding the requirement that in a subsequent prosecution under the Bernays theory the prosecution would have to prove that the person was aware of the organization’s criminal activity – a relatively soft burden when it came to concentration camp administrators.

Bernays’ idea was implemented in subsequent Nuremberg trials conducted by the U.S. military, but never after that. Thus the envisioned extensive prosecution of the large number of persons complicit in German atrocities never took place. While the Germans did prosecute several cases involving the death camps – Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec and Auschwitz – they applied the technical requirements of the German penal code, which required specific motivation for the crime of homicide to have occurred. This cramped the prosecutions significantly and resulted in many acquittals and very light sentences.

Now, seventy years after the Bernays’ vision of future prosecutions, the German legal system has adopted a similar approach. Seventy years, however, is a lethal gap, and it is unlikely that any still-living geriatric Nazi war criminals will be prosecuted to completion. Already, a number of Auschwitz guards have died while awaiting prosecution. Demjanjuk died in an old-age home while awaiting an appeal of his relatively light six-year sentence.

Ephraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi hunter, has quipped that he is the only Jew in the world who prays for the good health of Nazi war criminals. Given the passage of time, it is doubtful that his prayers will be answered.

Laudatory as the new German approach is, it is painful to think of all the Demjanjuks in the administration of the death camps who either were not prosecuted or who received light sentences. Kolbert’s reference to Martin Luther King’s lament that justice may come too late is apt and sobering.

Frank Tuerkheimer is Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin School of Law. Michael Bazyler is Professor of Law and the 1939 Society Scholar in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law, Chapman University. They are co-authors of Forgotten Trials of the Holocaust (NYU Press 2014).

How Katz’s Delicatessen became a New York icon

—Ted Merwin

When I was growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, school field trips meant being schlepped on a bus to the McGraw-Hill building on Sixth Avenue, to a multimedia film called the “New York Experience,” in which a kaleidoscopic montage of New Yorkers of different stripes celebrated both past and present life in Gotham. Nowadays, all one needs to do to get a sense of the real New York is to pay a visit to Katz’s Deli on Houston Street, where a prickly, pickle-y, briny Yiddish gestalt holds imperious sway in a churning sea of multi-racial, multi-ethnic customers and counter people.

And so “The Ur-Deli,” Jordan Weissman’s recent piece in Slate on how Katz’s stays afloat despite charging $20 for a pastrami sandwich, while it ably limns the economic factors that have raised the price of beef (even beef of the non-kosher variety, which Katz’s retails), only hints at what makes Katz’s emblematic of Jewish life in New York. Katz’s is what the peerless French Jewish scholar Pierre Nora would call a lieu de memoire, a place in which Jewish memory itself is staged and constructed—a place in which every neon sign seems to light up a kind of historic Jewish body electric for the benefit of all New Yorkers. Indeed, there is something Whitmanesque about Katz’s, peopled, often around the clock, by a jostling crowd of cab drivers, tourists, politicians and businesspeople. (Of course, if Whitman had ever been to Katz’s, he would have called his magnum opus “Slices of Pastrami” instead of “Leaves of Grass.”)

We may never know which Jewish delicatessen was the first to open in New York; the deli–from the Latin word delicatus, meaning anything that was alluring, enticing, or voluptuous–morphed in successive stages out of the gourmet take-out stores of Europe, only gradually sprouting tables at the turn of the twentieth century and becoming a particularly relaxed and raucous type of restaurant that brought together Jewish immigrants from different Eastern European nations and enabled them to begin to form a collective American Jewish identity while fressing on smoked and pickled meats, crunchy cucumbers, and spongy, slightly sour, seeded rye bread.

But Katz’s, which opened in 1888 as Iceland Brothers (the brothers were bought out by Willy Katz in 1910, at the peak of Jewish immigration), was certainly one of the pioneers. Its survival is remarkable, given how many similar establishments went in and out of business on the Lower East Side in those years, and how challenging the restaurant business remains to this day. It has profited hugely from the tens of thousands of visitors who descend on the Lower East Side each year seeking to experience, or at the very least to imagine, what life was like in New York more than a century ago.

True, what cemented Katz’s in the popular imagination is its role in the 1989 Rob Reiner comedy film, When Harry Met Sally, in which Meg Ryan’s vociferous “orgasm” articulated the whole “let it all hang out” ethos of Jewish culture (one summed up, perhaps, equally well by the pendulous salamis hanging behind the deli counter). It was—as another non-Jew, Henry James, called it in his (admittedly highly prejudiced) 1905 survey of the Lower East Side—a “Jewry that had burst all bounds.” This is what Katz’s sells: the celebration of excess, the drive to overturn limits, the claiming of one’s irrepressible due.

Katz’s may thus be not just the most “New York” restaurant there is, but the most American and most democratic one. A flash mob last year recreated the notorious scene from the Reiner film in Katz’s with dozens of (seemingly) non-Jewish women simultaneously reaching “climax” in unison, thrusting the deli even more to the pinnacle of American popular culture. As Katz’s has become ever more a destination restaurant, the little carnival ticket that one uses to purchase one’s food gains entry not just to an eatery but to a buoyant, beguiling and boisterous show. For such a bonanza, $20 seems like a true Lower East Side bargain.

Ted Merwin is Associate Professor of Religion & Judaic Studies and Director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa). He is the author of Pastrami on Rye: A History of the Jewish Deli (forthcoming in 2015 from NYU Press). For more information, visit his website:

NYU Press wins two National Jewish Book Awards

NYU Press is thrilled to announce that two of our books are among the winners of the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards, selected by the Jewish Book Council!

Congratulations to Hasia Diner and Gennady Estraikh, editors of 1929, and Melissa R. Klapper, author of Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace!

Book Title

WINNER in the Anthologies & Collections category

1929: Mapping the Jewish World
Hasia R. Diner and Gennady Estraikh, eds.
NYU Press

Book Title

WINNER in the Women’s Studies category

Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940
Melissa R. Klapper
NYU Press

The annual National Jewish Book Awards are presented by the Jewish Book Council. Read the complete list of this year’s winners and finalists here.

City of Promises: A 2013 Top 25 Outstanding Academic Title

NYU Press is proud to announce that City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, edited by Deborah Dash Moore, was selected as one of the year’s top 25 academic books by Choice, in a special preview to the publication’s annual Outstanding Academic Titles list.

Honoring the best in scholarly publishing, Choice‘s Outstanding Academic Titles list is widely recognized in the academic community for its sweeping coverage of the most significant scholarly titles reviewed each year.

Don’t miss the full list in the January 2014 issue of Choice, which features 663 exceptional titles (and may include additional NYU Press books!).

+ Save 50% on the award-winning three volume set by entering code WHITE13 at check-out on our website! Offer expires on January 2, 2014.

Podcast: Josh Lambert on Jews and obscenity in America

In Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture, Josh Lambert navigates us through American Jews’ participation in the production, distribution, and defense of sexually explicit literature, plays and comedy.

From Theodore Dreiser and Henry Miller to Curb Your Enthusiasm and FCC v. Fox, Lambert explores the central role Jews have played in the struggles over obscenity and censorship in the modern United States. Below, listen to a conversation with Lambert on a recent episode of Vox Tablet’s podcast. 

[Warning: This conversation contains explicit language and content.]

What’s new about Hanukkah?

—Dianne Ashton

[This post originally appeared on the Jewish Book Council blog on November 26, 2013.]

This year, Jewish Americans will participate in an extraordinary Hanukkah celebration—they will light the first menorah candle on the evening before Thanksgiving. This has never happened before, but we came very close to it in 1888. Then, the first Hanukkah light and Thanksgiving occurred on the same day. That year, the national Jewish newspaper, the American Hebrew, dedicated its November 30 issue to the “twofold feasts.” The issue was as much “a tribute to the historic significance of Chanuka” as to “the traditions entwined about Thanksgiving Day.” The editors hoped readers would find the newspaper to be “a stimulus to the joyousness and gladness upon the observance of both.” In previous years they had described Hanukkah as a festival to thank God for the Maccabean victory, and, seeing both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as occasions for giving thanks to God, they easily encouraged American Jews to enthusiastically celebrate both events.

But most of the time, as we know, Hanukkah occurs at a time closer to Christmas. Most years, the American Hebrew’s Hanukkah message urged its readers not to join their fellow Americans in the national festivities because it was the celebration of Jesus’ birth that enchanted their gentile neighbors. Instead, that newspaper echoed the December messages of most other Jewish publications. Jewish newspapers, synagogue bulletins, women’s and men’s club letters, rabbinical sermons, and the urgings of educators and self-styled community leaders alike urged America’s Jews to make their Hanukkah celebrations as festive as possible.

Again and again, in the years since that early American Hebrew message, American Jews wove Hanukkah’s story into their own contemporary lives in ways that reflected their changing circumstances. Those retellings kept Hanukkah’s meaning alive and relevant. They turned the simple holiday rite into an event which, like other well-loved Jewish festivals, drew families together in their own homes where they could tailor the celebration to fit their own tastes in food and décor, and to reflect their own ideas about the holiday’s significance. They could indulge their children, and be joyous.

Will we ever celebrate Hanukkah and Thanksgiving together this way again? Almost. In 2070 Thanksgiving will fall on November 27th and Hanukkah will begin the following day. In 2165, we will light the first Hanukkah candle on November 28—Thanksgiving Day. But for Hanukkah’s first light to occur the evening before Thanksgiving, as it does this year, is truly an anomaly we won’t see again.

Dianne Ashton is Professor of Religion Studies and former director of the American Studies program at Rowan University. Her most recent book, Hanukkah in America: A History (NYU Press, 2013) is now available. (Read more about the book in this review from the Jewish Book Council.)

Why Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will never again coincide

—Joel Hoffman

[This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post on November 24, 2013.] 

This month, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will overlap for a joint celebration that will never happen again. Here’s why. (Try to keep up with me on this.)

Thanksgiving is the 4th Thursday in November. Hanukkah is the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.

The 4th Thursday in November can range from the 22nd to the 28th. If the 29th is a Thursday, then so is the 1st, so the 29th would be the fifth Thursday, not the fourth. And if the 21st is a Thursday, then it’s only the third Thursday. On average, then, Thanksgiving falls on the 28th about every seven years. It will fall on the 28th this year, then again in 2019, 2024, 2030, and 2041, or four times in the next 28 years. (It’s not exactly every seven years because leap days throw things off a little.)

The Jewish month of Kislev can currently start as early as November 3 or as late as December 2, which means that the first day of Hanukkah can come as early as November 28 or as late as December 27.

The reason for the broad range of possible dates is that the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar. The months are based on the cycles of the moon. But the calendar changes the lengths of those months, and even how many months are in a year, to make sure that Passover always falls in the spring. This complex system—put in place by Rav Shmuel in the first half of the first millennium CE—ensures that the Jewish date and the secular date match up every 19 years. (By contrast, the Muslim calendar is purely lunar, which is why Ramadan can fall during any time of the solar year. The Christian religious calendar is almost entirely solar, but Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox [around March 21], a calculation that involves the moon as well as the sun.)

Because of this Jewish 19-year cycle, 19 years from now, in the year 2032, Hanukkah will again fall on November 28. But Thanksgiving in that year falls three days earlier, on the 25th.

On average, we would expect the 19-year Jewish cycle and the 7-year Thanksgiving-on-November-28 cycle to coincide about every 19×7 years, which is to say, approximately every 133 years. And they sort of do.

One-hundred and fifty-two years ago, in 1861, the first day of Hanukkah and the 4th Thursday in November were both on November 28th. But there was no Thanksgiving back then.

In 152 years from now, in 2165, Thanksgiving falls on the 28th, and you’d expect Hanukkah also to fall on the 28th, but it doesn’t.

If you’ve been paying attention (and if you haven’t given up yet), you may have noticed that I said “currently” when I explained when Kislev can begin. Remember Shmuel, who fixed the details of our current Jewish calendar in the first place? He, like everyone else back then, though that the year was 365.25 days long. This is why we have a usual year of 365 days, but every 4th year we add a leap day in February to make 366.

But Shmuel—again, like everyone else—was off by a little more than 11 minutes. The year is not quite 365.25 days long, but, rather, closer to only 365.2425 days, or about 11 minutes shorter than 365.25 days. For a long time no one noticed those 11 minutes. For a longer time no one cared. But by the time of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, those 11 minutes per year—or about 3 days per 400 years—had added up to about ten days.

This meant that March 21, which had once been the approximate date of the spring equinox, was now 10 days later than the spring equinox. Or, conversely, the spring equinox fell on March 11. This was a problem for the Church, because the springtime holiday of Easter was shifting further and further away from spring.

Pope Gregory fixed the problem in two ways. First, he lopped off 10 days from the calendar. For Catholics, the day after Thursday, October 4, 1582 was Friday, October 15, 1582. Secondly, he eliminated 3 leap days every four hundred years. He decreed that years divisible by 4 would still be leap years, unless they were also divisible by 100 but not by 400. So 1600 would be a leap year (divisible by 100 and by 400), but 1700 would not (divisible by 100 and not by 400). This became known as the Gregorian calendar, and it gradually spread through the Christian world.

In 1752, the British empire adopted the Gregorian calendar, making the day after Wednesday, September 2, 1752 not the 3rd but rather the 14th. (An 11th day was necessary because 1700 was not a leap year in the Gregorian calendar.)

The Jews, of course, didn’t give a damn what Pope Gregory said. They kept using the Shmuelian calendar for their calculations. The Shmuelian calendar and the Gregorian calendar have been diverging at the rate of about 11 minutes a year, or 3 days every 400 years. Furthermore, the year 2100 will be a leap year in the Shmuelian calendar (because it’s divisible by 4) but not in the Gregorian calendar (because it’s divisible by 100 but not 400). So not long after the year 2100, the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar will diverge by an additional 1 day—though the details are even a little more nuanced, because Shmuel used a simplification of the final Jewish calendar.

This is why (remember the question from several paragraphs ago?) in the year 2165, when we’d expect Thanksgiving and Hanukkah to coincide again, Hanukkah will actually be one day later. And that is why Thanksgiving and Hanukkah will never again coincide.

Well, almost never. If the Jews don’t ever abandon the calculations based on the Shmuelian calendar, Hanukkah will keep getting later and later—moving through winter, then into spring, summer, and finally back into fall—so that tens of thousands of years from now they will again coincide. But long before then the springtime holiday of Passover will have moved deep into summer, so be on the lookout for a memo with a calendar update in the next several thousand years.

And in the meantime, don’t miss this opportunity to enjoy an exceedingly rare confluence of celebrations.

Happy Hanukkah. And Happy Thanksgiving.

Joel Hoffman is the author of In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language (NYU Press, 2004). Hoffman is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post—read more of his entries here.