Queer subtext in Yiddish writings Who knew

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Author Warren Hoffman spent much of his career researching the lost world of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants. And he found that world to be quite queer.

Based on his reading of certain period texts, the Philadelphia-based academic believes Jews of the Ellis Island generation grappled with sexual issues as much as they did fitting into American society.

Warren Hoffman

And by “sexual,” he means lesbian, gay or anything other than heteronormative. In other words: queer.

Hoffman addresses the topic in his book “The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture.” He spoke earlier this week at several Bay Area locations as part of a national book tour.

As the title suggests and Hoffman concludes, Yiddish-speaking Jews did not always adhere to prescribed sexual lines, even if they strived to appear so.

“The point of the book is to ask how did Jewish American culture look at queer sexuality?” Hoffman says. “By looking at these mainstream texts, I hope to show that queer sexuality was central to how Jews were understanding their place in America.”

Though he does include some fairly recent texts that tackle sexuality and Jewish culture head-on, Hoffman focused mostly on early 20th century works, written at a time when Yiddish speakers lacked the vocabulary to grasp what Hoffman calls queer sexuality.

Chief among those works: Sholom Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” a 1907 play that featured a romance between two women; “The Rise of David Levinsky,” a sexually ambiguous English-language novel from 1917 by Daily Forward editor Abraham Cahan; and the “pants roles” films of the late Yiddish actress Molly Picon.

“I want [the book] to challenge our notions that the Yiddish world is conservative and old-fashioned,” Hoffman says. “I use [the term ‘queer’] not just how it’s used today as a catchall for LGBT, but to go back to this idea of strange, odd or usual.”

The Asch play, which is still performed, was bold for its time. It not only depicted an apparent same-sex relationship, it also took place in a brothel. Not exactly good clean bubbe-and-zayde stuff.

Hoffman says that based on his study of the playwright’s archives, housed at Yale University, Asch never confirmed that his main characters were lesbians.

Asch “saw this as a mother-daughter relationship,” Hoffman adds. “Maybe he believed that, but I’m not convinced. So many critics said this is a lesbian play, flat out. But I think it’s much more complex than that.”

The same goes with Picon’s many cross-dressing roles on stage and screen, which seemed to suggest a measure of gender bending in the Yiddish culture of the era.

Picon was happily married for decades to her manager, Jacob Kalich, though one time she turned up to receive a lifetime achievement award dressed in a full tuxedo.

Cahan’s novel plays with Jewish male stereotypes, particularly the weak, effeminate nebbish later tweaked to comedic perfection.

“There’s a difference between what it means to be an Israeli versus what it means to be a Jewish American,” Hoffman says. “In my chapter on [Philip Roth’s] ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ I make this distinction between the macho Israeli after 1967 versus the diasporic Woody Allen Jew in the United States.”

Hoffman, 34, doesn’t exactly fit into either category. He has a Ph.D.

in American literature from U.C. Santa Cruz, specializing in Jewish American literature, theater and queer studies.

He also had a dual career in the theater, serving three years as dramaturg–literary manager for the Philadelphia Theatre Company, where he worked with playwrights such as Terrence McNally, Christopher Durang and David Henry Hwang. A play he wrote, “The Last,” won an award from the Foundation for Jewish Culture.

His day job these days is director of arts and cultural programming for Philadelphia’s Gershman Y.

Hoffman says the theme of his book germinated during his doctoral studies around 10 years ago when two things occurred at the same time: He came out as a gay man, and he started to read those classic Yiddish texts through queer new eyes.

“As I’m reading through these texts,” he recalls, “I was seeing all these things about sexuality that seemed very obvious to me, but nobody was talking about it.”

Hoffman noted that his book has been getting largely rave reviews. Apparently he is striking a nerve with his queer perspective of Jewish life in America.

The Philadelphia native, raised in a liberal Reform household, struck a different nerve when gradually he became more religiously observant, even as he was coming to terms with his sexual orientation.

“When I came out to my parents, they weren’t upset,” Hoffman recalls. “When I told them I was keeping kosher, they went ballistic.”

“The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture” by Warren Hoffman (216 pages, Syracuse University Press, $24.95)

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.