In Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth, a male character recounts various episodes of sexual frustration, gratification and much experimentation.
Indeed, great works of Jewish literature raise provocative — and very real — questions about love, sex and interpersonal relationships.
A new course at Drexel University, co-sponsored by the Judaic-studies program, the Drexel University libraries, and the department of English and philosophy, is delving into this subject.
During the 10-week course, which kicked off on Sept. 25, Emilie Passow, who teaches both in Drexel's Judaic-studies program and in the English and philosophy department, will be covering the topic through examinations of the writings of Singer, Roth, Rebecca Goldstein, S.Y. Agnon, Grace Paley and A.B. Yehoshua, among others.
Passow noted that the issues she'll touch on will range from love in the shtetl to arranged marriage and premarital sex. She's already devoted an entire lesson to Adam and Eve, and plans to lecture on the different challenges facing religious couples, as opposed to secular ones.
The professor said that the idea of cultural norms affecting behavior will be a recurring theme throughout the semester-long investigation.
"When you're dealing with a religious community, there are certain expectations about love and sex going hand in hand," explained Passow. "But in Western culture, sexuality is not necessarily linked with love. These are realities the authors present their characters with."
The course is part of a national American Library Association program called "Let's Talk About It." Up and running for about 25 years now, the program is meant to encourage libraries to host readings and discussion groups around a particular theme each year.
This year's theme is Jewish literature, with subtopics ranging from graphic novels (such as Maus) to the prevalence of golems, demons and other creatures in Jewish works.
Currently, about 160 libraries have won grants to participate in the program; each institution has been awarded $2,500 for the purchase of books, promotional materials and other supplies.
Drexel libraries director Jane Bryan explained that the university applied for the grant more than a year ago, in part because of "an interest in facilitating intergenerational discussions."
Half the spots in the 30-person class are open to undergraduates, and the other half are reserved for community members.
"In college, you're mostly surrounded by people your own age," said Bryan. "But there are wonderful benefits you get from older and younger people meeting in the same place at the same time."
Passow agreed, adding that the topic would spice up classroom discussions: "Specific gender roles, sexual activity before marriage — it will be interesting to see what people over 60 think of these issues compared to what the students think."