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).