Upcoming talk at PAMLA, Honolulu, Nov. 2017: “Trans/Drag/Nonbinary Identities and Repentant Communities in I.B. Singer’s ‘Androgynous,’ et al.” Standing Panel: Jewish Literature and Culture

In The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture (2009), Warren Hoffman analyzes the elusive complexity of Singer’s genderqueer and genderfluid characters in the five or so short stories which take up the theme of gender and sexual difference; Hoffman situates Singer’s characters between Talmudic discussions of halachic concerns around intersex persons and the gay, lesbian, and queer Jewish community Singer knew in 1970s New York. My paper supports Hoffman’s reading and suggests that Singer was also interested in exploring the habitus of Jewish community, and especially its retrospections, repentances and regrets when it makes alliances against or persecutes nonnormative persons in body, gender, or sexuality. I am interested in the crowd dynamics in play in these stories. The texts are not friendly toward the idea that queer folks should be made to take on burdens of negativity, rejection, and persecution which are uncomfortably similar to what the general Jewish population itself endured. Where an authoritarian community sees an existential threat in toleration of differences, these texts assert an existential threat to the community insofar as it fails to protect and foster its sexual minority members who, after all, are its children. These dynamics resonate in a new way at the present moment, when scapegoating various clusters of minorities functions as a normalized part of the repertoire in mainstream political discourse across the world. Singer asks challenging questions of governments and global movements, under the miniaturized model of shtetl life. He adopts an ethics of appearance, acceptance of a person’s “face-value,” as they present themselves in their own terms, without seeking to uncover a person’s sublime, hidden mysteries of body or spirit. The ambiguities and illegibility of his characters’ gender status refuse the community’s desire to “solve” gender as a problem, or to “assimilate” its differences, and offer an occasion for the community to rededicate itself to cohabitation and care.

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