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Mordechai Langer (1894-1943) and the Birth of the Modern Jewish Homosexual

  • Author(s): Halper, Shaun Jacob
  • Advisor(s): Efron, John M
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation takes up the first truly Jewish homosexual identity, which Mordechai Jiří Langer (1894-1943) created in Prague during the 1920s. It is a study of the historical conditions--especially the exclusion of Jews by the masculinist wing of the German homosexual rights movement in the two decades bracketing World War One--that produced the need for the articulation of such an identity in the first place. It enters the cultural and intellectual world of fin de siècle homosexuals where "Jews" and "Judaism" were used as foils, against which some homosexuals were defining themselves politically and culturally. Langer defended the Jewish homosexual from German masculinist attack in the form of two literary projects: his theoretical study Die Erotik der Kabbala (1923) and his first volume of Hebrew poetry, Piyyutim ve-Shirei Yedidot (1929). Pushed out by German masculinists, Langer turned inward to the centuries-long Jewish experience to assert a distinctly Jewish homosexual identity. He reconciled homosexuality with Judaism, Hebrew culture, and Zionism and introduced the male homosexual experience to Hebrew poetry for the first time. His reconciliation of homosexuality and Judaism involved five constituent elements: the adumbration of a homosexual Jewish history; a homosexual Jewish theology; a Jewish aesthetic of homosexuality in Hebrew; a sociology of Jewish homosexuality in Hasidism; and a homosexual Jewish politics (a Zionist homosexuality).

Langer's was not merely a story of exclusion and apologia; he built his specifically Jewish identity in no small measure on his own Hasidic experience and through an exploration of homoerotic Hebrew source material from a time period spanning antiquity to modern times. He combined this material with distinctly German masculinist categories of thought (which included a psychoanalytic and sexological vocabulary). In his theoretical writing, for example, Langer used the Jewish historical record to prove that "male-male Eros" was not only normative, but was the driving motor of its history, which would culminate in a Jewish state.

Although primarily incited by German masculinist ideological considerations, I show too that Langer also absorbed ideas and forms used by a broader range of homosexual writers beyond German masculinism. As a Hebrew poet, for example, Langer was deeply influenced by forms used by homosexual poets within Decadence and Symbolism. In the second half of the dissertation, I use literary-critical methods to prove that Langer employed strategies of representation that were common among a broad range of contemporary homosexual poets, from Stefan George to Arthur Rimbaud. Still, while the content of Langer's poetry moved beyond apologetic and ideological considerations, I show that he even conceived his poetic project as a corrective to German masculinist attacks on Jewish aesthetics.

Langer can thus be considered not only a man of Jewish and Hebrew letters, as he is known to a handful of scholars today, but a participant in the burgeoning homosexual public sphere of his day. To tell his story, this study bridges Central European Jewish history and the history of homosexuality as never before. It recovers Langer as the first intellectual in Jewish history to seriously engage with homosexuality as a Jewish issue. Langer also offers scholars an alternative model in which Zionism and homosexuality were conceived as compatible. His story is a case study in the role of religion in the formation of modern homosexual identity.

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