What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Author Sholem Asch and his wife Matilda (Madzhe), 21 October 1929.

Jewish gender roles and sexual mores underwent radical transformations in the modern era.  Where traditional Ashkenazic Jews practiced early arranged marriages, modernizing Jews embraced broader European ideals of romantic love. Modern Yiddish literature, especially the novel—in Yiddish, the word roman means both novel and romance—educated readers in the conventions, ideals and limits of heterosexual love.  Tevye’s daughters are only the most famous literary reflection of changing patterns of sexual choice in the real world.   

Modernity, with urbanization, secularization and immigration at its disorienting core, deeply affected traditional Jewish gender roles. Jewish modernizers objected, for instance, to women’s centrality and visibility in the marketplace, and encouraged new ideals of Jewish masculinity. Here, too, literature played both positive and negative roles, providing models of “proper” feminine or  masculine behavior as well as critical images of Jewish “types”—the shrew, the luftmentsh, the henpecked husband and the coarse innkeeper’s wife.

Where nineteenth-century Yiddish literature typically expressed the conservative, bourgeois gender ideologies of the Jewish enlighteners, twentieth-century literature, theater and film brought a broader and more radical range of sexual expressions. Sholem Asch’s drama God of Vengeance (1907) staged a lesbian romance in a Jewish brothel (the first Broadway staging of the English version was shut down for obscenity).  Women poets like Celia Dropkin, Kadya Molodowsky and Anna Margolin introduced such themes as adultery and female sexual aggression. And Isaac Bashevis Singer vividly combined folkloric and occult motifs with psychoanalytic insights to mine the sexual complexities of the traditional and post-traditional world. 


  Professor Ruth Wisse reflects on the scope and ambition of Asch’s writing. Wisse asserts that Asch takes risks and is not afraid to “go large” by branching out beyond Jewish topics in his Yiddish works. To watch more interviews about Sholem Asch, click here.  

For further information about Sholem Asch and other topics discussed above, watch our related video clips by clicking here.


This exhibition is made possible by a generous grant from the David Berg Foundation.