Berkeley conference explores shtupping on the shtetl

Marital infidelity. Cross-dressing. Homosexual attraction. It’s not an episode of “Desperate Housewives.” It’s part of Jewish life in prewar Eastern Europe.

And it’s the juicy subject matter of “Sex and the Shtetl,” a conference sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. The three-day affair, which begins Sunday, Nov. 15, will be held at various Berkeley locales.

“Sex and the Shtetl” constitutes the seventh annual Eli Katz Memorial Yiddish Conference. Its subtitle says it all, albeit in academic lingo: “Gender Roles, Erotic Practices and Marital Structures in Yiddish Literature and Ashkenazic Culture.”

Naomi Seidman, who serves as director of GTU’s Center for Jewish Studies, helped plan the event, which includes three days of panels, lectures, film screenings and live music. Everything is open to the public, and all conference sessions are free.

Seidman says the idea for the conference grew out of a popular current in academia.

“In the 1990s there was an [academic] explosion about sex, Jews and the body,” Seidman says, “a combination of queer studies, Jewish studies and post-colonial studies.”

She notes that the conference addresses cultural stereotypes that solidified over the centuries, including what Seidman calls “the feminized Jewish man … compared to the way non-Jewish men are supposed to be: romantic, physical, militaristic.”

But as the conference panel topics reveal, there was a lot going on under the sheets back in Tevye’s day.

The keynote address, delivered by University College (London) professor Ada Rapoport-Albert, will delve into the peculiar case of Jacob Frank. He was an 18th-century Ukrainian Jew who launched a cult that spread across Eastern Europe around the time Chassidism first appeared.

Frank believed in what Seidman calls “a strange amalgam of sinful practices and proto-feminism. He encouraged followers to wife-swap. If you were a Frankist, visited your friend and his wife was home [alone], she would give you a spiritual test. If you passed she would have sex with you.”

A lecture from U.C. Berkeley doctoral candidate Zehavit Stern explores the life and work of actress Molly Picon, the spunky darling of the Yiddish stage and screen. Apparently Barbra Streisand wasn’t the first Jewish actress to don men’s clothing. Picon got there before her.

“She played one cross-dresser after another,” Seidman adds. “The ‘Yentl’ theme is everywhere in Yiddish film. In high culture, you have ‘The Dybbuk.’ What does it mean when a woman is possessed by the soul of dead lover? That’s a weird, transgender thing.”

Seidman, too, will participate in a panel and present a paper on one of her research specialties: gender segregation in the Chassidic culture of the time, or what she calls “partially eroticized homo-social environments.”

In other words: dozens of teenage yeshiva boys, living together, sleeping together and coming of age together.

“[Early] Chassidism attracts young adolescent boys,” she says. “It’s a social sphere that’s intensely erotic, where drinking and avoiding marriage is part of the culture.”

In addition to the panels, the conference features a concert from the Israeli band Sala-Manca, accompanied by Yarden Erez, as well as screenings of classic Yiddish films from the 1930s at the Pacific Film Archive. Cantor Sharon Bernstein also will be on hand to perform a series of “dirty Yiddish songs.”

Even though the bulk of the conference consists of scholars presenting research papers, with the subject being sex, Seidman has no worries attendees will find the experience a dry one.

Says Seidman of the conference, “I hope it’s a little damp.”

“Sex and the Shtetl”

Sunday, Nov. 15, through Tuesday, Nov. 17, in Berkeley. Lectures and panels are free. Discount film tickets available for attendees. More information: (510) 649-2482, [email protected] or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.