The prostitute was a central figure in East European Jewish culture at the turn of the twentieth century. Diverse authors claimed that modernization processes like the development of individualism, secularism, capitalism, the global economy, and urbanization led to increasing rates of prostitution in imperial Russia and among the global Jewish diaspora. Jewish authors defended the Jewish community against the antisemitic claims that Jews controlled the sex trade and that prostitution was more widespread among Jews than other peoples. They also discussed the problems within the Jewish community that led to any Jewish people at all participating in the sex trade. My talk will explore how Yiddish and Russian authors who wrote fiction and nonfiction used a similar vocabulary of filth, pollution, and perdition to talk about the sex trade. I argue that, by doing so, they displace anxieties about modernity onto the body of the prostitute or, more broadly, the fallen woman. The writers whose works I explore had sympathy for sex workers and advocated for social reform that would improve women’s lot and help curtail the spread of prostitution. However, the literary writers created more ambivalent images—they wanted to help, but they were also intrigued by the aesthetic and erotic possibilities of sex workers’ bodies.
LeiAnna X. Hamel is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures with a minor in Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Her dissertation project, “Undisciplined Bodies: Deviant Female Sexuality in Russian and Yiddish Literatures, 1877-1929,” analyzes the representation of female bodies and eroticism in Russian and Yiddish literary and nonfictional works. She is also the current Editorial Associate for the online journal In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.