story little told is that of Jews in Hollywood’s seedier cousin, the
adult film industry. Perhaps we’d prefer to pretend that the ‘triple-exthnics’
didn’t exist, but there’s no getting away from the fact that secular
Jews have played (and still continue to play) a disproportionate role throughout
the adult film industry in America. Jewish involvement in pornography has
a long history in the United States, as Jews have helped to transform a fringe
subculture into what has become a primary constituent of Americana. These
are the ‘true blue Jews’.
activity in the porn industry divides into two (sometimes overlapping) groups:
pornographers and performers. Though Jews make up only two per cent of the
American population, they have been prominent in pornography. Many erotica
dealers in the book trade between 1890 and 1940 were immigrant Jews of German
origin. According to Jay A. Gertzman, author of Bookleggers and Smuthounds:The
Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940 (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), ‘Jews were prominent in the
distribution of gallantiana [fiction on erotic themes
and books of dirty jokes and ballads], avant-garde sexually explicit novels,
sex pulps, sexology, and flagitious materials’.
the postwar era, America’s most notorious pornographer was Reuben Sturman,
the ‘Walt Disney of Porn’. According to the US Department of Justice,
throughout the 1970s Sturman controlled most of the pornography circulating
in the country. Born in 1924, Sturman grew up in Cleveland’s East Side.
Initially, he sold comics and magazines, but when he realized sex magazines
produced twenty times the revenue of comic books, he moved exclusively into
porn, eventually producing his own titles and setting up retail stores. By
the end of the 1960s, Sturman ranked at the top of adult magazine distributors
and by the mid-70s he owned over 200 adult bookstores. Sturman also introduced
updated versions of the traditional peepshow booth (typically a dark room
with a small colour TV on which the viewer can view X-rated videos). It was
said that Sturman did not simply control the adult-entertainment industry;
he was the industry. Eventually
he was convicted of tax evasion and other crimes and died, disgraced, in prison
in 1997. His son, David, continued running the family business.
contemporary incarnation of Sturman is 43-year-old Jewish Clevelander Steven
Hirsch, who has been described as ‘the Donald Trump of porno’.
The link between the two is Steve’s father, Fred, who was a stockbroker-cum-lieutenant
to Sturman. Today Hirsch runs the Vivid Entertainment Group, which has been
called the Microsoft of the porn world, the top producer of ‘adult’
films in the US. His specialty was to import mainstream marketing techniques
into the porn business. Indeed, Vivid parallels the Hollywood studio system
of the 1930s and 1940s, particularly in its exclusive contracts to porn stars
who are hired and moulded by Hirsch. Vivid was the subject of a behind-the-scenes
reality TV show recently broadcast on Channel 4.
Jewish girls and boys
accounted for most of the leading male performers as well as a sizeable number
of female stars in porn movies of the 1970s and ‘80s. The doyen of the
Hebrew studs is Ron Jeremy. Known in the trade as ‘the Hedgehog’,
Jeremy is one of America’s biggest porn stars. The 51-year-old Jeremy
was raised in an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Flushing, Queens, and
has since appeared in more than 1,600 adult movies, as well as directing over
100. Jeremy has achieved iconic status in America, a hero to males of all
ages, Jewish and gentile alike - he’s the nebbischy, fat, hairy, ugly
guy who gets to bed dozens of beautiful women. He presents an image of a modern-day
King David, a Jewish superstud who supersedes the traditional heroes of Jewish
lore. No sallow Talmud scholar he. His stature was recently cemented with
the release of a pornomentary about his life, Porn Star: The Legend of
As probably the most famous Jewish male porn star, Jeremy has done wonders
for the psyche of Jewish men in America. Jeremy has also just released a compilation
CD, Bang-A-Long-With Ron Jeremy. For £7.99
(including delivery), the lucky listener gets to enjoy Jeremy’s hand-picked
favourite porno grooves along with narration by ‘the legend’ himself.
As the publicity blurb gushes, ‘Out of the brown paper wrappings and
into the mainstream’.
Butts, aka Adam Glasser, is everything that Jeremy is not: young, handsome
and toned. Glasser, a 39-year-old New York Jew, opened a gym in 1991 in Los
Angeles. When no one joined, he borrowed a video camera for 24 hours, went
to a nearby strip club, recruited a woman, then headed back to his gym and
started shooting. Although the movie stank, with a bit of chutzpah and a few business
cards he wangled a deal with a manufacturer and started cranking out films.
Within a few years, ‘Seymore Butts’ – his nom de porn
which is simultaneously his sales pitch – became one of the largest
franchises in the adult-film business. As the king of the gonzo genre (marked
by handheld cameras, the illusion of spontaneity and a low-tech aesthetic
meant to suggest reality), he is today probably the most famous Jewish porn
mogul. Seymore Inc., his production company, releases about 36 films annually,
most of them shot for less than $15,000, each of them grossing more than 10
times that sum. Glasser employs 12 people, including his mother and cousin
Stevie as respectively genial company accountant (and matchmaker for her single
son) and lovable but roguish general gopher. Glasser currently even has his
own reality TV show (also broadcast on Channel 4), a ten-episode docu-soap
called Family Business,
whose opening credits show Glasser’s barmitzvah photo.
search of a buck
became involved in the porn industry for much the same reasons that their
co-religionists became involved in Hollywood. They were attracted to an industry
primarily because it admitted them. Its newness meant that restrictive barriers
had not yet been erected, as they had in so many other areas of American life.
In porn, there was no discrimination against Jews. During the early part of
the twentieth century, an entrepreneur did not require large sums of money
to make a start in the film business; cinema was considered a passing fad.
In the porn business, it was similarly straightforward to get going. To show
‘stag’ movies or loops, as they were known, all one needed was
a projector, screen and a few chairs. Not tied up with the status quo and
with nothing to lose by innovation, Jews were open to new ways of doing business.
Gertzman explains that
"Jews, when they found themselves excluded from a field of endeavour,
turned to a profession in which they sensed they could eventually thrive by
cooperating with colleagues in a community of effort . . . Jews have for a
very long time cultivated the temperament and talents of middlemen, and they
are proud of these abilities".
adult entertainment business required something that Jews possessed in abundance:
chutzpah. Early Jewish pornographers
were marketing geniuses and ambitious entrepreneurs whose toughness, intelligence
and boundless self-confidence were responsible for their successes.
course, the large number of Jews in porn were mainly motivated by the desire
to make profits. Just as their counterparts in Hollywood provided a dream
factory for Americans, a blank screen upon which the Jewish moguls’
visions of America could be created and projected, so the porn-moguls displayed
a talent for understanding public tastes. What better way to provide the stuff
of dreams and fantasies than through the adult-entertainment industry? Performers
did porn for the money. As ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman commented,
‘Those Jews who enter the pornography industry have done so as individuals
pursuing the American dream.’
their mainstream counterparts, Jews who enter porn do not usually do so as
representatives of their religious group. Most of the performers and pornographers
are Jewish culturally but not religiously. Many are entirely secular, Jews
in name only. Sturman, however, identified as a Jew - he was a generous donator
to Jewish charities - and performer Richard Pacheco once interviewed to be
a rabbinical student.
few, if any, porn films have overtly Jewish themes, although Jeremy once tried
to get several Jewish porn stars together to make a kosher porn film. The
exception is Debbie Duz Dishes, in which Nina
Hartley plays a sexually insatiable Jewish housewife who enjoys sex with anyone
who rings the doorbell. It has sold very well, spawned a couple of sequels
and is currently very hard to buy - perhaps indicating a new niche to exploit.
Indeed, according to an editorial on the World Union of Jewish Students website,
"there are thousands of people searching for Jewish porn. After things
like Jewish calendar, Jewish singles, Jewish dating, and Jewish festivals
comes ‘Jewish porn’ in the list of top search keywords that GoTo.com
there a deeper reason, beyond the mere financial, as to why Jews in particular
have become involved in porn? There is surely an element of rebellion in Jewish
X-rated involvement. Its very taboo and forbidden nature serves to make it
attractive. As I written in these pages before, treyf signifies ‘the whole world
of forbidden sexuality, the sexuality of the goyim, and there all the delights are
imagined to lie . . .’ (‘Reel Kashrut: Jewish food in film’,
to one anonymous industry insider quoted by E. Michael Jones in the magazine
Culture Wars (May 2003), ‘the
leading male performers through the 1980s came from secular Jewish upbringings
and the females from Roman Catholic day schools’. The standard porn
scenario became as a result a Jewish fantasy of schtupping the Catholic shiksa.
Furthermore, as Orthodox Jew and porn gossipmonger Luke Ford explains on
his website (lukeford.net): ‘Porn
is just one expression of [the] rebellion against standards, against the disciplined
life of obedience to Torah that marks a Jew living Judaism.’ It is also
a revolt against (often middle-class) parents who wish their children to be
lawyers, doctors and accountants. As performer Bobby Astyr put it on the same
website, ‘It’s an “up yours” to the uncles with the
pinky rings who got down on me as a kid for wanting to be musician.’
religious influences waned and were replaced by secular ones, free-thinking
Jews, especially those from California’s Bay Area, viewed sex as a means
of personal and political liberation. America provided the freest society
Jews have ever known, as manifested by the growth of the adult industry. Those
Jewish women who have sex onscreen certainly stand in sharp contradiction
to the stereotype of the ‘Jewish American Princess’. They (and
I’m speculating here) may have seen themselves as fulfilling the promise
of liberation, emancipating themselves from what feminist Betty Friedan in
1963 called the ‘comfortable concentration camp’ of the household
as they set out into the Promised Land of the porno sets of Southern California.
It signified their economic and social freedom: they were free to choose to
enter, rather than coerced into it by economic and other circumstances. Once
they had lain down, they could stand on their own two feet, particularly as
female performers typically earn twice as much as their male counterparts.
Extending the subversive thesis, Jewish involvement in the X-rated industry
can be seen as a proverbial two fingers to the entire WASP establishment in
America. Some porn stars viewed themselves as frontline fighters in the spiritual
battle between Christian America and secular humanism. According to Ford,
Jewish X-rated actors often brag about their ‘joy in being anarchic,
sexual gadflies to the puritanical beast’. Jewish involvement in porn,
by this argument, is the result of an atavistic hatred of Christian
authority: they are trying to weaken the dominant culture in America by moral
subversion. Astyr remembers having ‘to run or fight for it in grammar
school because I was a Jew. It could very well be that part of my porn career
is an “up yours” to these people’. Al Goldstein, the publisher
of Screw, said (on lukeford.net),
‘The only reason that Jews are in pornography is that we think that
Christ sucks. Catholicism sucks. We don’t believe in authoritarianism.’
Pornography thus becomes a way of defiling Christian culture and, as it penetrates
to the very heart of the American mainstream (and is no doubt consumed by
those very same WASPs), its subversive character becomes more charged. Porn
is no longer of the ‘what the Butler saw’ voyeuristic type; instead,
it is driven to new extremes of portrayal that stretch the boundaries of the
porn aesthetic. As new sexual positions are portrayed, the desire to shock
(as well as entertain) seems clear.
It is a case of the traditional revolutionary/radical drive of immigrant
Jews in America being channelled into sexual rather than leftist politics.
Just as Jews have been disproportionately represented in radical movements
over the years, so they are also disproportionately represented in the porn
industry. Jews in America have been sexual revolutionaries. A large amount
of the material on sexual liberation was written by Jews. Those at the forefront
of the movement which forced America to adopt a more liberal view of sex were
Jewish. Jews were also at the vanguard of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse and Paul Goodman replaced Marx, Trotsky and
Lenin as required revolutionary reading. Reich’s central preoccupations
were work, love and sex, while Marcuse prophesied that a socialist utopia
would free individuals to achieve sexual satisfaction. Goodman wrote of the
‘beautiful cultural consequences’ that would follow from legalizing
pornography: it would ‘ennoble all our art’ and ‘humanize
sexuality’. Pacheco was one Jewish porn star who read Reich’s
intellectual marriage of Freud and Marx (lukeford.net):
"Before I got my first part in an adult film, I went down to an audition
for an X-rated film with my hair down to my ass, a copy of Wilhelm Reich’s
Sexual Revolution under my arm and yelling about work, 'love and sex'."
Rabbi Samuel H. Dresner put it (E. Michael Jones,
‘Rabbi Dresner’s Dilemma: Torah v. Ethnos’ Culture Wars,
May 2003), ‘Jewish rebellion has broken out on several levels’,
one being ‘the prominent role of Jews as advocates to sexual experimentation’.
Overall, then, porn performers are a group of people who praise rebellion,
self-fulfilment and promiscuity.
are we ashamed of?
brief overview and analysis of the role and motivations behind pornographers
and performers is intended to shed light on a neglected topic in American
Jewish popular culture. Little has been written about it. Books such as Howard
M. Sachar’s A History of the Jews in America (New York:
Knopf, 1992) simply ignore the topic. And you can bet that the 350th anniversary
of the arrival of the Jews in the United States did not include any celebrations
of Jewish innovation in this field. Even the usually tolerant Time Out
New York has
been too prim to deal with it, although the more iconoclastic Heeb
plans an issue on it. In light of the relatively tolerant Jewish view of sex,
why are we ashamed of the Jewish role in the porn industry? We might not like
it, but the Jewish role in this field has been significant and it is about
time it was written about seriously.
is a Lecturer in Modern American History at the University of Aberdeen. He
has just completed a book on neo-conservatism in the United States.