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Sex in the City - on Fifth Avenue, No Less

Lawrence Bush
November 15, 2003

by Pamela Vassil
We New Yorkers think we’re hot stuff. We’ve done everything and seen everything. As Jewish New Yorkers, we’re even hotter than hot. We have Gus’ Pickles and Mayors Beame, Koch, and Bloomberg. We are right up there, in-your-face Jews. We have contributed to almost every single industry. Yup, we’re the trendsetters, all right.
And now there’s a Museum of Sex. Woo woo. And there are hot Jews there, too.
Located on 27th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, curiously positioned right next to the Gershwin Hotel in case you want to run in for a “quickie,” Museum of Sex has a Fifth Avenue Address (233 Fifth Avenue) but charges Park Avenue prices to keep out the gawkers. Get there before 2:00 p.m. and pay $12. At 2:01 you can reach into your wallet for an additional $5. It’s worth every penny. The museum is beautifully designed, and when you affix the big red “X” to your shirt (no metal clip-on buttons here), you see that people with a sense of humor had something to do with creating the place.
The premiere exhibit, “How New York City Transformed Sex in America,” walks you through the entire sex industry, going back to 1836, in an informative, lively, and witty way. Click on an interactive map and find out what brothels existed on the street where you live. Newspapers called The Weekly Rake, New York Sporting Whip, Brevities and The Subterranean provide plenty of reading material along the way.
It is impossible to wander through this phallic-shaped museum and not think about your own feelings regarding sex and eroticism. The nooks and crannies provide private spaces in which to see films of strippers, fan dancers and what was then hard-core porn, and to find a quiet place for rumination.
Rear WindowEveryone says they were just clicking through the television channels and “stumbled” upon a porn movie — which, for stumblers, they can oddly describe in great detail. Well, I confess. I do more than stumble. I occasionally choose to watch them. They’re the closest that I get to sex since I sadly stopped getting any a while ago.
I begged my friend John to take me to see Deep Throat when it opened back in the 1970s. It was the first mass-distributed porno movie, and I was titillated about taking my maiden porn voyage, but was sorely disappointed and left early. I don’t know what I was expecting to see, but I sure as hell didn’t see it.
Today’s porn is harsh and ridiculous. In a nutshell, here’s the plot: Man is married. Man has secretary. Man screws secretary. Wife screws someone else. Sometimes they all screw each other. Sometimes the wife screws the secretary. Then they all exchange partners. There’s absolutely no foreplay, and all the women have implants. Like The Matrix, it’s all about special effects and enhancements. Ultimately, it’s the viewer who gets screwed because it’s all very unsexy. Who could possibly be turned on?
I’d like to be turned on.
At the Museum of Sex you can see the early porn. The good porn. The porn that turns you on. There’s a sweetness about it. The women have bodies that are real — plump and lovely. They look like people you know, only naked. Oddly enough, these early 20th century films are very explicit in their sexual antics, with actual body parts in action — much more than you see on 21st century television.
When I was twelve, I went rummaging around in my parents’ drawers and found a few French postcards on my father’s side of the dresser. I was curious about the women in those postcards because I didn’t find them sexual at all. Then again, I was twelve and not yet sexually active. I was much more curious about why my dad owned them. I had always thought that Jews were not terribly interested in sex. I had already heard jokes like: How do you stop a Jewish woman from having sex? Marry her! How do you know when a Jewish woman has an orgasm? She drops her nail file.
Shows you what I knew.
There are lots of Jewish names included in the descriptions on the walls at this museum, proving that we have been and are still pretty interested in the subject. Another industry in which we have had our finger, so to speak.
The Jews as sexual trendsetters! Can you imagine?
Forget about Freud or Einstein. We owe so much to Julius Schmid, a polio-stricken German Jewish sausage-maker who became the king of condoms. His company, Ramses, made it possible for Julius to die a millionaire, having devoted a good part of his life to stuffing a lot more than pork. An exhibit case, perhaps my favorite at the museum, is filled with early condom tins. The packaging is graphically pleasing and the names are clever: Trey-Pak, Sovereigns, Three Chesters, Tally-Ho, Kamels, Thins, Hercules, Merry Widows, Champ (displaying sports figures in golf and boxing), Feather-Tex, Saf-t-way and Nunbetter.
Other Jews in the exhibit include Hollywood vamp Theda Bara, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (Louise Ho-vick), burlesque house kings the Minsky Brothers (grandsons of the chief rabbi of Minsk), photographer Irving Klaw (of Bettie Page fame), porn star and sexologist Annie Sprinkle (aka Ellen Steinberg), Xaviera Hollander (the “Happy Hooker”), “Plato’s Retreat” owner Larry Levenson, and Screw publisher Al Goldstein. Early brothel madams Polly Adler and Rosie Hertz probably offered very unusual ways to usher in the yontif.
So, for a real good time, visit the Museum of Sex. Explore your Jewish heritage. See footage of strippers in action. See sexual paraphernalia and photos. Look at the exquisite Vargas illustrations used on pinup calendars and have a great old time. There’s something for everyone — gays, lesbians, transvestites, transsexuals, sadomasochists and plain old straight folk. On the way out, stop at the gift shop. I bought a tin of “Pert Peppermint Nipples — fresh and frisky.”
Don’t be surprised to see how many Jews played a part in the sexual history of New York City and America. As if Jews don’t have enough to worry about these days. But then think about our contributions — birth control, entertainment, publishing and the appreciation of the flesh. Is this so awful?
As my friends Myrna and Paul said, “Don’t blame us. It would have happened anyway.”

Paulie and Pearlie, both eight, are “playing house.” Pearlie says, “I’ll show you how to make a baby. First, we close the door.” They close the door. “Then we turn off the lights.” They turn off the lights. “Then we sit on the bed.” They sit on the bed. “Then we hold hands.” They hold hands.
“Now what?” Paulie says excitedly.
“Now we speak Yiddish,” says Pearlie.

Pamela Vassil is National Communications Director for a large Jewish women’s organization and a co-editor of Jews. magazine.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.