The “Gross, but Great and Powerful” Schmutz: An interview with Jess Goldman

Rain was coming down on Jess Goldman as she launched the release of her chapbook Schmutz, with a reading. Standing under a tree at the Parc Jeanne-Mance in Montreal, the pages in her hand became increasingly “soggy and sticky.” Let’s just say, the launch of Schmutz turned schmutzy.

In the chapbook’s glossary, Goldman defines schmutz as an “oily and greasy substance that soils.” By queering Yiddish folktales and through queer protagonists: Eve in “Evelilth”, Reb Avreymaleh Ben Yankl in “Goylem Nation” (a retelling of Isaac Lieb Peretzl’s Der Goylem), and Blumeh in “Blumeh’s Pleasure Quest”, what defines schmutz changes. It becomes an allegorical device to explore facets of queerness, politics, religion, and heritage. Goldman chose schmutz as the title because she wanted these stories to embody “something kind of gross, but great and powerful,” thereby shifting schmutz away from fact and into a contradiction of adjectives reliant on internal and external perceptions.

At the end of “Evelilith”, Eve is willingly “wrapped up in Lilith’s wings until the red waves washed over their bodies and swallowed them”. Lilith’s wings metaphorically wrap in and around the two following stories set in a shtetl—under the attack of pogroms—called Beygl Bergleh. Movement is intertwined with mythology as the Reb lives in the motion of clouds, escaping societal expectations until he creates the destructive and malleable Goylem; while Blumeh tumbles in and out of pleasure, spaces and times, and identities.
But no chapter ends resolutely, mirroring the journey we all go on as we explore our identities. Which Goldman, herself, can attest to.

Similar to Blumeh’s “admiration and repulsion” about her Jewishness, Goldman grew up with conflicting feelings about the Jewish religion. Goldman is half-Jewish, and save for the High Holidays didn’t really grow up around Jewish people and wasn’t involved in the community. For the longest time being Jewish was only something that defined her in “certain ways, it wasn’t part of my surroundings.”

Goldman spent a lot of time “trying to figure out those [conflicting] feelings” and where they came from. She credits meeting the right people, reading Yiddish works, and thinking about her grandparents as to what made her see the fascinating parts of her culture and history.

When her grandparents started getting older she wanted to create a space to “save her [familial] traditions”. Now, she may still be conflicted but she knows these feelings “can coexist and that’s okay.” However, her interest in Yiddish started long before she settled into the complexities of identities.

Growing up, Goldman heard Yiddish words spoken around her, mostly by her bubbe and zayde. She loved the “sounds” and how the words felt “in my mouth.” To her there is a tangibleness and grittiness to the textures shaping how the mouth, tongue and lips move. What she categorizes as a “marginal language,” and many ways “an endangered language” prompted her to see it alongside queerness.

Before she applied for the grant to work on Schmutz at the Museum of Jewish Montreal, or went to KlezKanada’s retreat last year, she was already working on “Evelilith”. After attending the retreat, her readings continued to deepen the intersections she saw between “queerness and Yiddish” or “anti-Semitism and homophobia.” These musings reiterated her desire to preserve her heritage, yet funnel them through her own experiences, thoughts, and ideas.

“I didn’t want things [thoughts and perspectives] to be super clear cut, I think also, because they’re not for me, I don’t even know if that’s possible. So I did want things to feel on some level, like a sort of complicated reckoning with history and with what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be queer, the good and the bad, and the messy,” she explained.
Goldman doesn’t need you to agree with her criticism, for example, of hegemonic systems, or even how she employs the Yiddish language, she wants to start discussions where different opinions can be expressed.

With the grant she received from the Canada Council she will continue to expand the world of Schmutz. Just as the photographer, sculptor, and writer Claude Cahun—and Blumeh’s pleasure guide— once said “under this mask another mask; I will never finish removing these faces,”[1] neither will Goldman. She still has more identities and storiesfrom werewolves, to Eve Adams, to Paul Shams—to dissect and queer.

Interested in receiving a physical copy of Schmutz? Find out how on Jess Goldman’s Instagram page. To view a pdf version visit the Museum of Jewish Montreal’s website.

[1] Claude Cahun, Disavowals, London 2007, p.183

Header design image by Orly Zebak. 

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