THIS book had its origins over ten years ago, in a casual question from a colleague about the role of sexuality in I. B. Singer's story "Gimpel the Fool." Singer's stories revel in magic and the demonic, forces that he associates with sexuality. As I thought about Singer's idiosyncratic view of the role of Eros in Eastern European Jewish culture, I wondered whether he had created it himself or whether he was not perhaps embellishing upon some long-standing traditions. Little did I realize that I was embarking on a quest that was to lead me back from the modern period to the Middle Ages, talmudic culture, and finally the Bible itself.
Thinking about Singer led me first to investigate the literary culture of the Jews of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. These writers, both highbrow and low-brow, created the Hebrew and Yiddish literary tradition to which Singer was heir. I became particularly interested in the autobiographies and other writings of the maskilim, the Jewish disciples of Enlightenment (Haskalah). As opposed to Singer, who drew upon popular culture, these writers held that traditional Jewish society suppressed erotic desire and created stunted and neurotic Jews, rather like Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy. I suddenly realized that a novel like Portnoy's Complaint, with which this book begins, was not so much the bizarre creation of an obsessed American Jewish writer as it was another link in a long literary tradition.
Reading these nineteenth-century authors, I was skeptical that the Jewish culture they were describing reflected the real historical tradition. After all, did not Judaism, as opposed to Christianity, affirm sexuality as a healthy expression of this-worldliness? I noticed that the maskilim were particularly concerned with Hasidism, the eighteenth-century
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Publication information: Book title: Eros and the Jews:From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America. Contributors: David Biale - Author. Publisher: Basic Books. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1992. Page number: Not available.
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