Who said academia was boring? Whoever uttered that thought clearly was  not invited to “Sex and the Shtetl,” a conference taking place this week at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Professors, graduate students and independent scholars are gathering to talk  about marital infidelity, cross dressing, clandestine encounters, and sex out of wedlock in Jewish communities during the 19th century.

Do you find this notion hard to believe?

Well, take the case of Jacob Frank, an 18th century Ukranian Jew who encouraged wife-swapping. His ideas became popular enough that his followers are considered part of a cult. Now academics are studying his writings.

Molly Picon is another interesting gender-bender. Picon was one of the biggest stars of the Yiddish Theater, both on stage and on-screen. Picon apparently donned men’s clothing for many roles.

“She played one cross-dresser after another” Naomi Seidman, the director of GTU’s Center for Jewish Life, told the J, San Francisco’s weekly newspaper. “The ‘Yentl’ theme is everywhere in Yiddish film. In high culture, you have ‘The Dybbuk.’ What does it mean when a woman is possessed by the soul of dead lover? That’s a weird, transgender thing.”

Conference details can be found here. It continues through Tuesday.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...