Warren Hoffman: “Passing as a Modern Jew: The Cross-Dressing Films of Molly Picon”


April 21, 2010 | 5:00-6:30 PM | Free & Open to the Public
Humanities 1 Building, Room 210, UC Santa Cruz
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Warren Hoffman

For almost 50 years, Yiddish American actress Molly Picon spent her life on stage and screen performing in trousers. Why did Picon spend so much time in cross-dressed roles and what might such roles reveal about Jewish American identity in the first half of the 20th century? What might Yiddish-speaking audiences have thought about this phenomenon, especially given the biblical prohibition against cross-dressing? We’ll look at Picon’s films East and West (1923) and Yidl Mitn Fidl (1936) to discuss the role that cross-dressing plays in these films and how such acts connect to what it means to be a modern Jew. In both films, cross-dressing becomes a signifier of “passing” as it allows Picon’s characters and other individuals to pass through and into society along a variety of gender, racial, and ethnic lines.

Warren Hoffman received his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz where he worked on Jewish American literature, theater, and queer studies. His book The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture was published by Syracuse University Press in March 2009. Warren has taught at Hunter College, Rutgers University, the University of Delaware, and currently teaches at Temple University. He is the author of two plays, the most recent of which, The Last, won the National Foundation for Jewish Culture Theatre Development Award.

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One Comment

  1. I thought you might like to know about a recent film produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive called “Making Trouble”, which includes archival footage of Molly Picon in trousers. It also includes footage and history of Fanny Brice, Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers, Sophie Tucker, and Wendy Wasserstein, as well as commentary by four modern Jewish comediennes.
    Cross-dressing, sexual innuendo, body image, and sexual power are all addressed in this documentary. For more information about the film, go to http://www.makingtrouble.com.
    GOod luck with your course.

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