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After Bubbe Illustration by Tine Modeweg-Hansen

After Bubbe

When Jess Goldman's grandmother died, her grief was matched only by her horniness.

I’ve been thinking about my bubbe’s body. That is, her lust. When my Aunt Sondra was clearing out my bubbe’s drawers she found a dildo. She asked the family if any of us wanted it. We all said no. I declined out of some kneejerk reaction to the notion of inheriting any dead person’s—let alone my bubbe’s—sex toy. Now, her dildo sits in a garbage dump somewhere and I regret not saying yes. 

It seemed fitting that my aunt had found it. Sondra was the first person to tell me, with utter frankness, what a blowjob was. I was about twelve at the time. We were at my bubbe and zeyde’s rental home in Boynton Beach, Florida, getting ready to go to the pool. Within the salmon pink walls of the guest room, I remember feeling titillated, nervous and a little depraved. It was the perfect environment to learn this life lesson—Florida itself is a little titillating, nerve-wracking and depraved. 

Later, I wanted to at least know what my bubbe’s dildo looked like. So, over the phone, Sondra described it to me: it was translucent and magenta, filled with tiny cream-coloured balls not unlike pearls, and equipped with bunny ears and a shaft that rotated to three speeds. I would expect nothing less from my bubbe. The woman dressed in Florida-chic and wouldn’t be caught dead in any shirt that wasn’t covered in rhinestones or some sort of sequin.

Picturing this disembodied body part, this fabulous rubber shlong, her body comes pulsing back to life. Warm, wanting, alive. You couldn’t find a more powerful tool for a séance. If I had this dildo now I would place it on an altar and hope that her ghost wraps her legs, now free of all their pain, around it. 

But I don’t have it. And I wonder how to honour her spirit, to summon her chutspeh, her steel wool laugh, her vitality for life through chronic pain and a ruptured colon and an induced coma and a thousand back surgeries. For all the pain she experienced in life, I am so glad she also had pleasure. 

I have never been hornier than I was during the weeks after my bubbe’s death. All I wanted at the time was to be dommed. I have never been more of a body, and I was burning, burning, burning for it. People don’t tell you that wild horniness can be one of the side effects of grief. But lust was the only feeling that could come close to matching my sense of loss, or lift me out of grief’s lethargic pull.

I guess we don’t really know how to grieve, let alone talk about it.  We’re squeamish about death. Much like the way we treat sex, we have all sorts of euphemisms to avoid addressing it directly: she’s passed on, she’s resting in peace, she’s in a better place, she’s kicked the bucket. How I wish there was a word with the equivalent force of cunt for death. Only a word like that could truly capture the viscerality of loss and the mourning that accompanies it.

The taboo element of lust makes desire a perfect vehicle for grief: its shock value, its resistance to rationality. Death is shocking and absurd, but euphemisms seek to tamp down the shock, to make death quaint and quiet and mundane, to tell death to shut up. Euphemizing is a way to control the world’s chaos, but we have as little control over what we desire as we do over when we die. Cumming can be corpse cosplay–a kind of playing dead, a way to understand what it means to be scooped up wholly by another force. 

When people die, maybe it’s not only their souls that are released back into the world, but their lust too. Imagine all that lust out there, licking the wind, rattling fruit from the trees, making the ocean wave, stirring the soup pot. When my bubbe died, did her lust enter me? 

My bubbe, Ruth (Rivka) Goldman, died from Covid-19 in March 2020 at the age of eighty-five. I feel her ghost as I write this, a cloud of warmth and love, and the way her body was somehow always bigger than her physical borders. Just after she died, I saw her face through my dad’s phone screen. He was the only one allowed in the hospital. Her wrinkled mouth was agape, lopsided, her green eyes vacant and cold, the muscles in her face stiff. That was the last time I saw her face. Her body had never been more of a body and she was somewhere far off, gone. 

My family couldn’t go to her funeral because of the new public health measures. We watched her coffin lower into the earth through a computer screen. She went from a body in a hospital bed to a body in the ground without any chance to say goodbye, or kiss her cheek and feel how life had fled her skin. Dying was the most natural thing, and yet without an embodied ritual, without a series of physical actions to mark her transition, it was impossible to understand.

That summer, I stood in front of the full-length mirror in my studio apartment, staring at the first strap-on and harness I’d ever purchased. The dildo was turquoise, semi-flexible, smooth and a little bent at the tip. The size: substantial. The harness was made of thick, matte leather and held together with big butch rings of metal. I turned left, then right, noticing how my thighs bloomed and dimpled under the harness’s grip, and how the dildo bounced and bobbed. I was giddy. Turned on. 

I didn’t date again until the beginning of winter. By February, I’d had a series of distanced snowy park dates, one ending in my apartment to get away from the cold. I kissed my date but couldn’t feel a spark. My body was switched off, and the strap-on remained shut away in the dark of my drawer. 

Months later, as plants tentatively unfurled from the ground, I was holed up in the same apartment, rain pelting the window. I was making a tiny papier-mâché turquoise dildo for my turquoise dildo. Building puppets had become a way to temper my pandemic loneliness. Finding a therapist was too intimidating. Puppets were the next best thing, delirious fragments of myself wrapped in papier-mâché and strewn around the apartment. This puppet was particularly needed—there were things only it could say. I drew its face on construction paper and wrapped it around the tip, so it could speak. It, or rather, she had big, full, blowjob lips and was smoking a cigarette. 

I made the dildo out of dead women. I cut her arms out from a graphic in Lilith, a Jewish feminist magazine that has been around since 1976. The graphic was of Adrienne Cooper, the revered Yiddish singer and klezmer revivalist, belting out a tune with her arms wide open. Her arms, these flamboyant, joyful, bottom-heavy, Yidishe arms, looked exactly like my bubbe’s arms when they unfolded every time I saw her. I remember the feeling of my bubbe’s thin, silky skin shifting against mine, the wetness of her wrinkled lips when she’d kiss my cheek, the waxy smell of her lipstick mixing with the tuna salad she ate for lunch. I have a recurring image of her picking tuna salad out of her teeth with her long, painted fingernails. 

I wonder why it felt so right to enliven my dildo puppet with the souls of Cooper and my bubbe. But then again, I wonder why great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mothers are cordoned off from the sensual, why the heymish, the domestic-familiar, the cozy-homemade are never considered erotic—that eroticism somehow exists outside of the kitchen wafting chicken soup. As if the erotic doesn’t bleed into everything, as if everything isn’t a potential orifice, a potential pleasure centre. 

I’ve been feeling this need to link the sexuality of my Jewish women elders to my own, though I don’t yet know from where this urge stems or what, exactly, I’m trying to find. Maybe I don’t want to go it alone. So many of us have been isolated from our communities, forgetting the warmth of another human’s touch, our natural gestures of intimacy—a hug, a kiss on the cheek, a tender touch of the elbow—suddenly so unnatural. When the gathering of live bodies threatens to be fatal, when physical unease has become a global feeling, maybe it feels safer to call on the dead, who are unconstrained by time and space, to help me explore my sexuality. Maybe by digging up their desires, I can find the roots of mine.

I feel a similar urge to know about all the queer ancestors who silently run through my lineage. It’s soothing to find out that someone who came before me also felt like me. But sharing desire across generations is also an act that resists isolation in linear time. Desire condenses history into clusters rather than straight lines. In this sense, desire is not unlike Jewish prayer and ritual practices, which, from Passover to Purim, involve storytelling that constantly invokes the yearning for freedom across Jewish generations. These stories are meant to place us side-by-side with our ancestors through that same benkung, that same yearning. 

Many of the most important Jewish ritual practices, such as the mourner’s kaddish, are meant to take place in community. Prayers are most holy when they are recited by ten or more adults. This quorum is called a minyan. It is through this collective that the prayers—and the desires they so tenderly hold—gain their spiritual strength. 

Though I’m not religious, queer community is my minyan, made stronger by every person who joins it. When I can’t physically be in community, I feel myself clinging to the dead women who gather around me, beckoning me into their quorum. My lust is made sacred and powerful in their company, all of us stewards of our collective pleasure. But what could this look like in practice?

During sex, I often end up topping my partners, preferring to give them pleasure rather than deal with the impossible task of feeling, of being present in my body. It feels good to give pleasure to someone else, but sometimes the inability to receive it makes sex so lonely—as if I’m not even there. It’s partly the pressure to be in the moment that ghosts me from my body in the first place. But what if I leaned into the ghosting? I’m imagining a moment in which I take agency by letting go, giving myself over to the dead and offering my body up for possession, my minyan of dead women crawling in. 

There’s a word for this kind of thing in Yiddish: dybbuk. A dybbuk is the wandering soul of a dead person who possesses the living. Lost in the spirit world, they look for warm flesh to cling to. What could be warmer than aroused flesh? Dybbuks, after all, are known to prefer dark, wet places. In Jewish folklore, there is also often a sexual element to dybbuk possessions. Female hysteria (read: women who were openly lusty or failed to follow gender norms) was often blamed on dybbuks. 

I wonder, then: is a corpse done with sex? Do the dead really stop desiring? If not, can we commune with the dead through desire? 

Celia Dropkin, the erotic Yiddish poet of the 1920s and thirties, looked like my bubbe, with her wide nose, full eyebrows and almond-shaped eyes, her tan skin and wiry brown hair. A generous, twinkling smile. And like my bubbe, she also left behind a legacy of sensuality.

Dropkin was born in Bobruisk, Belarus in 1887. In 1912, two years after Dropkin’s husband fled Russia for New York to escape persecution for his leftist activities, she joined him there with their first son. Dropkin was also a leftist and in New York she became part of the Yiddish avant-garde. Her poems are about women’s bodies and desires—unruly, contradictory and untamed by intellectual discourse. 

In her poem, “To a Young Poet”, she writes: “You must love / without reason or pride; you must / love to death. Then, when you / acknowledge the death in love, / write love poems.” Dropkin connects the love drive to the death drive. Both are felt through a sort of destruction—a swallowing up of self by total feeling. Maybe desire, love, death and grief all exist along the same spectrum, all cling to the same eternal umbilical cord.

Dropkin was a hundred years ahead of her time. She was writing when male Jewish writers across the diaspora were trying to make Yiddish ‘respectable.’ This meant actively distancing Yiddish literature from its historical associations with the feminine world. In Eastern European Jewish communities, gender roles were often reversed. Ideally, women were the breadwinners, attending to the daily necessities, while men were to learn the divine texts, attending to the spiritual necessities of family and community. 

For centuries, Yiddish—also called the mameh-­loshn or ‘mother-tongue’—was considered the argot of women, the crass language of everyday life, of the market and the home. Only men were allowed into the yeshivehs, the religious schools where they learned Hebrew—the loshn-koydesh, the sacred language of intellect—needed to study Torah and Talmud. Though almost all Eastern European Jewish men spoke Yiddish both within and outside the yeshivehs (religious texts were read in Hebrew but interpreted in Yiddish; also, many men never learned Hebrew since they couldn’t afford not to work), Yiddish maintained its association with women, and Hebrew with men.

By the early 1900s, however, many Jews had become secular, abandoning their religious educations entirely. Secular male Yiddish writers wanted to elevate Yiddish literature to the dignified status of other European literatures. To gain this prestige, the endeavour had to be perceived as a primarily male one. Dropkin, with her unflinching focus on the female body, was the total antithesis of this. For her, the body was the source of truth. Like anything liberatory, her words were powerful and sometimes uncomfortable, especially for the male writers of her time.

These male writers controlled the Yiddish publishing industry. It’s no surprise then that Dropkin self-published her first collection of poems, In Heysn Vint (In the Hot Wind), in 1935. Reviewing this collection, one frustrated male critic, Baruch Rivkin, wrote: “even her illusions can’t get away from her body—her body won’t let up.” This phrase captivates me. It implies that Dropkin is possessed not by a spirit, but by her own body. Dropkin, who wrote about her connection to the sensuality of her ancestors, how her body is a conduit for their unfulfilled desire, surrenders to this possession. 

In her poem, “My Mother”, translated from its original Yiddish into English, Dropkin writes: “And now her holy, / latent lust, / spurts frankly from me.” For Dropkin, orgasm was a way to connect to her feminine ancestry. And not only that, but a generational fulfillment. A way to honour her dead by letting them live through her. To feel with her dead and feel for her dead. It’s this surrender to her intergenerational desire that attracts me to her and makes her so radical for her time. 

Like Dropkin, I’m realizing I’m in subterranean kinship with my dead. The spirits of my ancestors—both blood-related and chosen—have the potential to provide not only roots, but space and support for my benkung, my yearnings, desires and thirsts that, in the presence of another person, have often felt elusive, like flickering ghosts. In a way, it’s a problem of translation. I’ve had difficulty translating my desires from the individual to the shared. 

Translation is the process of shepherding meaning from one world to another. So maybe it’s about imagining new worlds. Or just one world. A world in which my desire is not sustained by me alone, where, instead of transactional exchanges, a shared desire can flourish. Western heteronormativity teaches us that women’s pleasure isn’t important, your value lies in your ability to please your partner, sex is obligatory, good sex always ends in orgasm, if you feel sexually dissatisfied it’s your fault alone, and something that is broken in you. 

It’s easier to resist these teachings through a collective voice—not just one voice, not just mine, but many. Voices of the present and of other times, other paradigms. The voices of both my living community and my ancestors. 

In a world dominated by male conceptions of legacy, based in land ownership, prestige and the accumulation of wealth, how could something like sensuality reorient or queer our relationships to legacy, especially for those who cannot access land, prestige, or accumulated wealth? What if sex toys became family heirlooms? What if they were considered ritual objects? What if the passing on of pleasure was considered more important than the passing on of wealth and property? How might our relationships to one another change? 

If we reoriented our relationships and our systems toward desire, maybe one day we could live in a world as unruly, contradictory and untamed as the women’s bodies in Celia Dropkin’s poems, a world of everywheres and in-betweens in which pleasure is the thread that ties us to our lovers, families, communities and our dead.

Perhaps I’ll remain cold until I warm my ancestors up. The dead need foreplay too, you know. Maybe writing this now, committing my bubbe’s pink dildo to the page, is a sort of foreplay. Its own pleasurable touching. But it’s also a way of archiving her desire, preserving it for future lust-hungry generations. I want me—them, us, you—to know that desire, in all of its glorious complication, is passed on just like our traits, transcending the border between life and death. ⁂

Jess Goldman is a queer Jewish writer from Tkaronto who is based on the traditional territory of the Sḵwxwú7mesh, Tsleil-waututh and Xwméthkwyiem peoples. Her writing has been published by the CBC and Room Magazine. She's currently working on expanding SCHMUTZ, her collection of queered Yiddish folklore.