‘The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture’ by Warren Hoffman

Warren Hoffman, in this fascinating study, continues a conversation only recently begun by books such as Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community and Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires, as well as films like Eyes Wide Open, about a same-sex relationship in an Orthodox Jewish community.

All of these works explore the connections between queerness and Jewish identity, and are a positive sign that people are finally comfortable with openly and honestly discussing this topic.

The Passing Game (Syracuse University Press) examines six texts (one play, four works of fiction, and the films of the cross-dressing Molly Picon) from the early to middle 20th century, showing how Jewish-American authors and performers played with the idea of queerness to discuss the challenges of assimilating or passing within straight, white Christian society.

Hoffman uses the word “queer” not simply as a synonym for “gay” or “homosexual” but in its original meaning of “strange” or “ambiguous”, to explore works that may not explicitly deal with gay themes, but which still carry an undercurrent of ambiguity about sexuality.

Abraham Cahan’s 1917 novel The Rise of David Levinsky beautifully illustrates this point.  On the surface, the book is a typical rags-to-riches immigrant fiction, charting the successful career and assimilation into American society of a young Jewish man from Russia.  But on closer inspection, readers can see the cracks in Levinsky’s seemingly perfect life.

Throughout the novel, he never finds happiness in a relationship, and in fact, feels much more comfortable spending time with men than women.  While it’s impossible to know Levinsky’s sexual orientation for sure, he spends a great deal of time performing the role of the straight man, to erase any sign of difference.  At a time when Jewish men were considered effeminate and homosexual, there was a strong desire to appear tough and strong, “like a man.”

This ambiguity also finds its way in the cross-dressing films of Molly Picon.  Her characters frequently dressed in men’s clothing, and adopted a male persona originally for protection (although sometimes for sheer pleasure), but found success in life through this disguise.  Audiences in the Yiddish theater and film world, where Picon primarily performed, saw nothing odd about her cross-dressing; indeed, she became a world-famous star through these roles.  Hoffman suggests that her films pick up on the concealment and self-transformation that many Jews in the audience felt obligated to undergo in order to survive and thrive in America.

Perhaps the most unusual text Hoffman considers is Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel not usually discussed in queer studies.  However, there are queer elements and suggestive ambiguities that can be found in the main character.  His incredible misogynistic attitude towards women, for example, can be viewed as an extreme attempt to come across as a solidly straight male, loudly proclaiming his heterosexuality in a way he might not have to if he were indeed straight.

The fact that in several scenes he vividly imagines living with a man named “Sheldon”, even if only to disparage the idea, certainly raises the question.  Even Portnoy’s style of narration, as a rambling, near- hysterical monologue ending in a primal scream, marks him out as queer, as hysteria was commonly associated with women, Jews, and homosexuals.  For Hoffman, he is constantly “butching it up” to remove any possibility that he might be anything other than a completely assimilated, straight American male.  By protesting so much, Portnoy reveals the anxieties faced by Jewish men trying to pass in American society.

The Passing Game takes another look at Jewish-American literature, showing the large, hidden role of sexuality in assimilation.
Queering Jewish American Culture
by Warren Hoffman
ISBN: 978081563223
Syracuse University Press
Hardcover, $24.95, 206p