Chatting About Jewishness with the Greatest Jewish Porn Stars

Does a background in Judaism make you a better adult actor?

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17 december 2014, 6:00am

James Deen. Photo via ​Doc Johnson/Wikimedia Commons.

​James Deen is going out to the desert to fuck, but first, he has to make his way to the bank.

If you have a "Jews love money" joke in mind, now would be the time to make it.

The crown prince of porn is totally OK with jokes about his Semitism. You would be too if your nice, Jewish, boy-next-door looks had made you arguably the biggest (heh) male porn star of all time.

By now, his bio is well known. Born in Los Angeles County to successful engineer parents, he grew up in an upper-middle-class household in Pasadena. Rather than following in his parents' white-collar footsteps, however, he says he made the decision to go into porn while still in kindergarten. His slight build, smile, and tendency to somehow communicate an innate sweetness while balls-deep in a colleague's asshole gained him legions of female fans, rocketing him to porn star fame, and eventually, real fame. But before the blowjobs, the profiles in GQ, and ​the time he costarred with Lindsay Lohan in a crowdfunded film, Deen was just Bryan Matthew Sevilla, a boy who went to synagogue on the high holidays like all the other Yids.

"I don't know if I'm the only [Jewish porn star]," he says in a voice that recalls every overly excited Jew-boy I ever went to summer camp with. "But I'm definitely the loudest one about my Jewish heritage."

He's part of a long and proud tradition of porn stars who are not just Jewish, but whose Judaism can be considered a defining trait. Ron Jeremy may be notorious for his homeliness (despite the fact that as a young man, he was one mean, lean hunk of a dude), but the Hedgehog is fugly in a very stereotypical old-Jewish-man way: excess body hair, a prominent nose, a physique that's definitely had more than its share of kuegel and knishes. 

Seymore Butts (a.k.a. Adam Glasser) transcended his fame as the pioneer of vaginal fisting porn to gain mainstream recognition in the early 2000s Showtime series Family Business, which featured both his impressive Jewfro and showed how his tight-knit Jewish family helped him run his porn empire. The appeal was that this could be the family next to you at any Reform synagogue service.

So what's with all the chosen people doing the no-pants horah in front of the cameras, already?

It's here that an important distinction needs to be made. There's Jewish and then there's Jew-ish, and the difference between the two is massive. "Jewish" implies that you follow a religious belief system and way of life based on faith and participation in rituals. A rabbi is Jewish. My parents are Jewish. Joseph Lieberman is Jewish. Jew-ish is a collection of personality and physical traits that border on the stereotypical. Seth Rogen is Jew-ish. Larry David is Jew-ish. So are Gene Simmons, Lizzy Caplan, and, of course, James Deen.

Take this tweet: "Got a boner while in the ​bank. #Jewproblems #bankboner." The self-deprecating humor is a hallmark of being Jew-ish, but even more telling is that it was sent on September 26, a.k.a. the second day of Rosh Hashanah, one of the three holiest days in the Jewish year. It's a day when, for the Jewish, tweeting and banks are verboten (boners are still permitted).

Deen puts it more succinctly: "More than anything, I identify with Judaism as a culture."

Of course, that culture influences the religious aspects of Judaism. Among the porn stars I spoke to, there's a weird consensus that there's a lower moral barrier to entering porn for Jews. We've got our neuroticism, but we don't have the Catholic guilt or Protestant moralising. Deen talks at length about a liberalism inherent to Jewish thought regarding sexuality, and he's not wrong. In the Jewish religion, fucking is a mitzvah. Yes, there are a lot of rules that come into play – rules that involve words like mikvah and iggeret ha-kodesh. But those rules are in place to reinforce the idea that sex should be frequent, fun, and clean (albeit between a husband and wife).

And yet I grew up in a typical Montreal Jewish household and I was terrified of putting my dick anywhere near a vagina until I was way past puberty.

We celebrate the beauty of sex, and that's great. But not without a ton of caveats and paperwork, sometimes literally. Pretty much anything goes within the confines of marriage, but outside of that, it's all sin. Fucking someone you don't love? That's a sin. Doing it for money? Oh yeah, that's a sin. Doing all that on camera so other people can sploosh more easily? Obviously that one is a pretty big sin. As far as rebellion against rules goes, becoming a porn star is a pretty emphatic statement.

Angel Cassidy and Seymore Butts. Photo via ​lukeisback.com/Wikimedia Commons

Of course, that shouldn't really bother the Jew-ish Deen. While Deen is the face of kosher dick, he grew up mostly secular. That wasn't the case for either Howie Gordon or Joanna Angel, two porn stars separated by decades in terms of active involvement in porn, but both of whom grew up in Orthodox Jewish households.

Gordon was a superstar of his time, catching the tail end of the Golden Age of porn in the 1980s. He starred under the nom de porn Richard Pacheco in films with titles like Sex Wars (he played Mark Starkiller) and Sensual Encounters of Every Kind. But before that, he was just a kid in a religious household with his parents and brother in Pittsburgh.

Talking on the phone from his home in Berkeley, Gordon embodies the gift-of-gab stereotype befitting the rabbi he was at one point destined to become. What was supposed to be a 20-minute interview quickly became an 80-minute schmooze, filled with wildly digressive (but insanely entertaining) stories. Several times, he flipped through a copy of his memoir Hindsight: True Love and Mischief in the Golden Age of Porn to read favorite anecdotes verbatim. For instance, there was the time his life changed because a wild hippie woman introduced him to the wonders of ass fucking, which kicked off a string of events that ended up with him winning multiple Adult Video News Awards and got him a place in the X-Rated Critics' Organisation's Hall of Fame.

Gordon lost his taste for Judaism after the death of an uncle, when a rabbi eulogised him as a soldier during the middle of anti-Vietnam fervor. He still identifies with Jewish culture, but going into porn was just a small part of a total life overhaul he undertook in his 20s.

When asked why he thinks so many of his colleagues were fellow Jews, he reads a quote of his from a 1984 Screw magazine article titled "Jew Never Had It So Good."

"'It's Pacheco's theory that being Jewish allows for more possibilities, so that fucking on screen for a living can be tolerated,'" he reads. "'"There are so many striations of Judaism," he points out, "That you can be anything you want to be and nobody is going to throw you out of the fold."'"

"There's no pope," he elaborates to me. "If in the orthodox sect that you're in, the rabbi goes, 'You're a gunaf, you're scum, you're filth, get out of here,' you turn around and you go to the next one."

Joanna Angel at the AVN floor show. Photo via Flick​r user Ryan Lackey

​Joanna Angel (née Mostov) has a slightly different theory. She had a traditional upbringing – kept kosher, kept Shabbat, did some time in Jewish day schools and summer camps. After switching to public school, she gradually kept fewer and fewer Jewish customs, and eventually fell into the punk scene at around age 15. To this day, she fasts on Yom Kippur and refuses to eat bread on Passover and heads home to New York City to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. She's also become the darling of the alt-porn scene, running her own website, Burning Angel. She's a testament to the fact that whether it's the shmattah business or threesomes, there is a cultural drive to be the best.

"I think with Jews, failure is not an option," she explains. "Of course that's part of who I am. I've basically done all the wrong things and managed to make a name for myself. I haven't done anything you're supposed to do to be a famous porn star... There's definitely been times I felt the world was telling me to give up, but that's not what Jews do. We don't give up."

Follow Adam Kovac on ​Twitter.