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, Kadia 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.
More on depictions of gender in Yiddish writing from our collections:
"Yiddish Women Writers Reclaimed," an English-language lecture series with Professor Anita Norich, free to stream and download for a limited time.
David Mazower, great-grandson of Sholem Asch, writes about the difficult relationship between Asch and his translators.
A translation by Sonia Gollance of an excerpt from an etiquette book by Tashrak (Y. Y. Zevin) concerning social mores for women at balls.
"Problematic, Fraught, Confusing, Paralyzing—and Fantastic," a Pakn Treger article by Faith Jones on a 1927 anthology that 'gave Yiddish female poets their due.'
Faith Jones writes about Celia Dropkin’s “fierce and uncompromising” poetry, which often depicted the feminine and the erotic.
An episode of The Shmooze with Jessica Kirzane, translator of Miriam Karpilove's Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle against Free Love.
"In the Bedroom," a translation, by Jordan Finkin, of a short story by Yehudis that portrays a conversation between two women about love and desire.
In a Wexler Oral History Project excerpt, David Mazower, great-grandson of Sholem Asch, shares his thoughts on which of Asch's writings he finds most compelling and discusses Asch’s portrayal of women and the ways in which his writing was ahead of his time.