A few months ago, Dr. Yoel Finkelman was browsing through the catalog of the New York auction house Kestenbaum & Company; it’s a regular chore at the National Library’s collections department. He noticed an interesting item.
Finkelman, the curator of the library’s Judaica collection, noticed a Yiddish pamphlet titled “Advice for Women and Young Women — Before and After the Wedding,” published in Warsaw in 1930. The work first came out in French in the 19th century; the edition purchased by the National Library was a Yiddish translation.
The author, a French professor, was a specialist in the pathology of sex organs. He offered advice on issues such as sexual relations, the female sex organs, masturbation, feminine hygiene, menstrual cycles, weddings and pregnancy.
Finkelman decided to buy the pamphlet for the library. “There are very, very significant scientific and cultural perspectives in this book,” he says.
At first glance, the work seems passé and insulting to women — perhaps even when it came out. For example, it says “the female sex was created weaker than the male. It is easy to influence women, even when it harms her. She worries about being beautiful and liked more than she is careful about her health and happiness.”
Later, the author adds: “Women’s lives are a chain of changes. Only such a delicate and weak creature could survive them — just like a stalk in the field, which bends in every direction when the wind blows but does not break.”
For Finkelman, the pamphlet provides an intellectual angle. “For the past few decades the issue of gender, including women’s place in Judaism and the study of sexuality, has taken a very central place,” he says. If we want to understand culture, we have to understand the role of gender and sexuality in it.
“To our ears, these things may sound old-fashioned and not completely in step with contemporary liberal Western values, but such a book could be considered progressive if only because someone was willing to speak directly on such matters,” he says.
“It’s reasonable to assume that in 100 years they’ll look at our dialogue on this issue — which we see as modern and progressive — and say it sounds strange.”
Despite the decades that have passed, some of the pamphlet’s advice might sound familiar to anyone who grew up in a Polish-Jewish household in Israel.
“The wedding without a doubt improves health …. The wedding is the best medicine,” the author says, adding a section on women whose health problems disappeared once they got married.
The pamphlet links lust with “the flower of shame,” but this lust can be translated into the spiritual feeling of love — “a spring that never runs dry.”
The author recommends sex as a way to preserve love, but also warns of “serious mistakes” and reminds us that “where pleasure is, there is also suffering.” He also advises us to set limits: “As you conquer desire and do not give it freedom, the pleasure increases at the time of uniting.”
He warns that the “excessive use of love” will weaken the sex organs and cause illness. The reason is clear: “Lust never remains silent. Even immediately after we have fulfilled its desires it grows and strengthens.” If you surrender to lust, you will never overcome it.
As an example he gives the “horrible disease of nymphomania,” whose symptoms include anger, crying for no reason and even injecting your speech with a bit too much chutzpah. “The woman sheds her embarrassment, cannot control herself when she sees a handsome man and gives the signs she wants to ‘be one with him,’” the Frenchman writes.
She eventually becomes so impertinent she makes demands openly. “If she is rejected, she becomes truly wild. Her eyes sparkle in anger and almost burst out of their sockets,” he writes. This isn’t far from “total insanity.”
If you aren’t familiar with the world of Yiddish — today largely the realm of ultra-Orthodox Jews and academics — you might laugh at the book’s terms for sexual relations.
But Haim Levy, a National Library expert on Yiddish, notes that discussions on sexuality were never foreign to the language. He mentions, for example, the translation into Yiddish of the work of Alfred Kinsey, the legendary American sexologist.