A work on sex translated into mamaloshen is now available at the National Library in Jerusalem. Women, don’t be insulted.
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.
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.”