In order to get your driver’s permit — in order to get on the road and operate a vehicle 300 times your weight with the terrifying ability to crush another human being if handled improperly — all you need to do is sit in a classroom and learn the theoretical rules of handling that vehicle. Of course, if you’re like most American teens, you’re probably not even paying attention in the class, but even if you do, as soon as you hit the road you realize something: All the studying and memorizing in the world cannot prepare you for the actual experience of driving. You have to learn by doing, and that’s terrifying because you’ve never done it before.
This is just like marriage. You can read every single book out there to prepare you, but it just isn’t the same as being married. Marriage is a scary thing for many people; it can’t crush another human, at least not literally, but it inevitably will change your life and the life of the person you marry. And marriage presents, at least for the Orthodox Jew, a plethora of new experiences that have remained hitherto on the pages of books or spoken about among peers and in classes.
Among others topics, I’ve written about on this blog: niddah, mikveh, and yes, sex. I learned and heard and spoke and read about the topics and their details before I got married, but many things didn’t really click until after I had experienced them for myself.
Let’s take, for example, living with another person. Every single book I’ve ever read talks about how hard it will be to live with a spouse — and I’m not even talking advice books here, I’m talking novels. That message is thrown at you in every possible way. I read about it so much I thought I knew what was coming. “Well, marriage will be tough, but we love each other and we know what’s coming, so we’ll work through it.” Easy peasy.
But then we got married and a few months in I noticed that whenever Jeremy puts the knives back in our fancy little knife block, some are turned around the wrong way. They come all facing one way. They’re clearly supposed to go the same way. It’s so obvious and so easy to me.
But for some reason, Jeremy just shoves them in helter skelter, throwing off my OCD need for organization and pattern. It’s really the smallest thing, and I can — and do — just turn them back around myself, but it bothers me in a way I never thought was possible.
And in the middle of the night, when Jeremy reaches for the blankets and I’ve got them all wrapped around me, I have no doubt that he thinks to himself that I’m more bothersome than he ever thought I could be before we lived and slept together. (Or, since it’s the middle of the night, he probably thinks something more like, “Grnnnthh” but that roughly translates to the same thing.)
Sometimes we get so annoyed with each other that we need space. But we live together. But we knew that living together would be hard and we loooove each other, right? Yeah. But it’s so much harder than either of us could have pictured in our pre-wedded bliss. And here’s the secret reason why: In the middle of whatever drama is ensuing, thinking about how much you love your spouse just isn’t going to make the problem go away. Trust me. I’ve tried.
The same rule applies for hundreds of other aspects of marriage, many of them a lot more difficult to contend with than backwards knives, such the constant need for communication, or the hardships of niddah. You can read about it all day long for every day of your engagement, but the reality doesn’t hit until it’s, well, real. Only then can you turn around and say, “Oh, that’s what they meant when they said that.”
You can and should prepare — don’t go in blind — but a lot of what you hear and see won’t hit home until you’re in the moment, handling that vehicle, and hoping to God you’re doing it right.
I went to the mikveh recently, and it was the first time that I didn’t cry. For married women, going to the mikveh comes at the end of the niddah, or the length of the menstrual cycle, plus seven days. It concludes niddah; after a woman dunks in the mikveh she can touch her husband for the first time since her period began.
From everything I was told in high school, the mikveh is supposed to fill a woman with a spiritual feeling; it’s a magical experience, a sensation of rebirth and renewal and possibly, just possibly, unicorns will fly above your head during the process. (It’s highly possible that I’m a tiny bit bitter about what I was told.)
The truth is, the actual experience of dunking in the mikveh waters has so far been fine, if not downright pleasant. It’s kind of like swimming in a heated pool, only naked and with a woman politely watching you. So, weird, yes, but not exactly something to cry about. But the first time, I didn’t know that. All I knew was what I’d been told, and magical rebirth was a lot to live up to.
A lot of women find the mikveh a spiritual process. They spend time in the water after the ritual dunking, praying or praising or requesting. To me, the mikveh was scary. I’ve been practicing Judaism my whole life, and to suddenly have a new law thrust upon me was overwhelming. Before I went for the first time, my kallah teacher, or bridal coach, guided me through the process. But I was still afraid I would forget something or do it wrong. The mikveh process has a lot of steps, including intense cleaning. You have to remove all dirt, which is a lot harder than it sounds. You are supposed to dunk twice, with every part of your body submerged, and if even a hair floats above the water, you have to dunk again. There is also a blessing to say inbetween the dunks, and though the blessing is on the wall, I wasn’t allowed to wear contacts, so I wouldn’t be able to see it; I’d have to remember it. If only I could have had a practice run.
The first time I went was a few days before my wedding. Having a new law to suddenly practice, the weight of all these expectations of wonderfulness that I might not live up to, and yes, probably the fact that my wedding was two days away and I was due for a good cry, all hit me in the private waiting room. I ended up sobbing on the floor, calling Jeremy to calm me down. Suffice to say it wasn’t all that pretty, and certainly wasn’t what I expected to happen. My mother, who had brought me for my first time, came in to hug me and tell me it would be okay. By the time I went in the water, I was calmer, and the experience wasn’t so bad. I didn’t feel reborn or closer to God, but I survived and I did it right on the first try.
The next time I went wasn’t ideal either. I was in a different state, and wasn’t able to go to a mikveh that I was comfortable with. I cried again, yadda yadda. By this time, I was sure that it was just how I would do mikveh runs for the rest of my life: I’d cry, go in, and be done.
But this time, for the first time, I was excited to go to the mikveh. As the niddah time was coming to a close, I looked forward to the end. Jeremy was taking seriously the suggestion from our chatan/kallah (groom/bride) teacher to romance me on mikveh night, and I’m quite happy to be romanced. I still didn’t fully believe that I wouldn’t end up crying beforehand, because clearly that’s what I do, but at least then it would be over.
Finally, though, I didn’t cry. In fact, the mikveh was, if not a rejuvenating, spiritual experience, at least a neutral one, even leaning toward the more positive side of neutral. I prepared for the mikveh with anticipation, not dread. I knew this time what was required of me, and though I was slightly apprehensive about doing it in my community mikveh for the first time, the knowledge that I will be doing it in that mikveh for many years to come helped assuage my nerves. I dunked eagerly, still slightly worried that I would mess up. But it was over quickly, and as I showered and dressed to leave, I was excited. I felt the nervous excitement that I used to experience when I would go meet Jeremy for a date; I was tingly and happy and nervous all at once, and above all, I was happy that niddah was once again over, something that always feels so frustratingly long.
In fact, the analogy of the mikveh night to the wedding night was not perfectly apt but much more understandable to me. I felt a bit like a blushing bride. The mikveh may not have given me the opportunity to reach higher spiritual planes, but it inserted a spark into our relationship. It made the night exciting and thrilling, and the prospect of coming home to my husband was infinitely more electrifying than it usually is.
I’m not entirely surprised that I’ve been getting pregnancy jokes — and less jokey queries — ever since it’s been halachically possible for me to be pregnant. After all, I used to be one of those girls who would stare down a newly married woman’s belly, itching with curiosity to know when it would swell. In the Orthodox community, the sequence of events really does follow that childhood rhyme: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage — in that order and in short order.
Jeremy didn’t believe me when I told him that I would be getting questions about babies — even if they were mostly teasing questions — as soon as we got married. But that was back when we were engaged, and now he sees that I wasn’t exaggerating. Sure, most people mean it in good fun, but it’s like being from Baltimore when “Hairspray” came out: The first person who sings “Good Morning Baltimore” to you is bearable, but the 20th person is being annoyingly repetitive. You don’t want to be rude, so you smile along with the joke.
I had some sort of stomach flu over Pesach, and I couldn’t eat much for a few days. I turned down wine. I even threw up. So you can imagine how many of those pregnancy jokes I heard. And I didn’t mind them, really, individually. But taken as a whole, it was overwhelming to deal with. A married woman can be nauseous without being pregnant! My sister mentioned a time she was sick in high school and I had a bizarre twinge of envy — remember the days a girl could just be sick and not be suspected of imminent motherhood?
It’s not the personal nature of the topic that bothers me. As anyone who knows me has figured out, I’m not a very private person. It’s the underlying — and I’m sure unintended — pressure behind the words. “Are you pregnant?” really means “Are you pregnant yet?”
It’s true that the Orthodox philosophy of marriage centers around procreation, but it’s also true that the Modern Orthodox community emphasizes the importance of love, and healthy relationships. For myself and many of my peers, this means spending time together before having children, not only to build a strong foundation for the future family, but also to establish careers and financial stability with which to provide for those children.
No one is sincerely requesting intimate information about when I plan on having kids, but the implicit pressure in the lighthearted jokes make the humor dissipate before the questions reach my ears. So, no, I’m not pregnant, and I probably usually think you’re funny, but please stop winking at me when I turn down a cup of Kiddush wine. We’ll have kids when we’re good and ready, and in return for your prudence and respect for our personal space, I’ll probably even let you touch my stomach when the baby kicks.
A few weeks ago, one of my engaged friends was asking me for marriage advice and I told her that she should allow her husband to have his own opinions and respect him for them. Also, she should be able to give in every now and then.
This advice isn’t something I came up with out of thin air. It was based on a conversation, almost a fight, I had the night before with Jeremy with regard to an article I had read about teenage criminals.
In short, Jeremy and I disagreed over whether or not teenage criminals are to be pitied because their crimes are part of their permanent records. I believed that if they did something heinous, then they got what they deserved. Jeremy took a kinder approach; he thought if they did something terrible, they were not to be forgiven, but the fact that they were young means they probably didn’t fully understand the ramifications of their actions until it was too late. He felt bad for them.
I was livid. These teens are guilty. So what if their lives are forever altered? That’s the cost of doing something atrocious! I couldn’t understand Jeremy’s perspective, and I should have walked away and cooled off. But instead I sat at my desk fuming, wondering how I could be married to a person who didn’t feel that way.
It took me a few minutes, but then I reached into my own brain and stabilized myself. I told myself that this reflected really well on Jeremy, actually. He didn’t condone their actions, but he didn’t think they were terrible people either. As someone studying school psychology, his ability to see these teenagers as people who did something bad — instead of intrinsically bad people — was actually an admirable and necessary trait. So I took a few deep breaths, went back over to Jeremy, and told him so.
I’ve mentioned before that Jeremy is usually the first one to end our fights. By usually, I mean about 90% of the time. And this wasn’t a fight, nor did he have anything to apologize for, but it took a lot of courage for me to go over to him and admit that I was wrong, and in fact I respected his opinion, even though I didn’t agree with him. It was a heady feeling, in the end.
Too often, we get trapped in our own stubbornness. We won’t actually care what our opinions are, just that we prove the other one wrong. We get caught up in the rush of the argument and refuse to see the larger picture: that we love each other, and being right isn’t nearly as important as maintaining respect in the relationship.
I have no doubt that we’ll disagree again, and I’ll need to be right again. In fact, it will probably happen before this article is even posted. But now I know what it’s like to admit to being wrong, and not just because I wanted a fight to end, but because I was able to force myself to see things his way. And that’s a game-changer.
I feel cheated.
I was in the ninth grade when I first learned that when I was to get married, I would only be able to touch my husband for about half of each month. I had known about sex for about eight years at that point, and no one had cared to mention to me that, oh by the way, you know how you’re supposed to wait until marriage to have sex? Right, well even then you can only have it two weeks a month. I went into shock, and I insisted that my classmate repeat what she’d said. As time went on, hilchot niddah — or the Jewish laws pertaining to marital ritual purity — were explained to me.
Essentially, a woman enters a state a ritual impurity when she starts her period, and that lasts for as long as the period (at minimum, five days) plus an extra seven days. After that, the woman goes to the mikveh and cleanses herself ritually, thus completing the niddah time. Not only is a married couple not supposed to have sex during that time (excuse me, have “marital relations,” as my teachers called it) but the couple can’t touch at all. It felt like a total scam to me. Every month? Two weeks a month? That’s half your marriage, until you hit menopause.
“It’s difficult,” my teachers admitted. “But it’s actually a beautiful mitzvah.”
We were taught that those two weeks a month were days when we would be able to communicate with our husbands on a higher plane, without the complication of touch. Niddah would help our relationships grow stronger, and plus, coming back from the mikveh at the end of every niddah cycle would be a magical night. Our husbands would do something special — sprinkle the bedspread with rose petals, say — and it would be like the wedding night all over again.
“This is actually wonderful for marriages,” we were told. “Most couples get tired of marital relations after a few years. But by not having it every two weeks, you appreciate it much more, and it never gets boring.”
Basically, niddah was depicted as a boon to marriage. Not only that, but the rabbis somehow must have known about ovulation, because the niddah cycle corresponds with the ovulation cycle, easing conception. So yes, it would be hard, but there were so many positives as well. At the time, I was shomeret negiah — I didn’t touch boys at all — and the lack of touch in my life altogether made it a lot easier to believe all that I was told.
Maybe it really is that way for some people. Maybe some couples experience two weeks a month of harmony and communication and meaning. But so far, I’ve discovered that niddah is incredibly difficult.
Thankfully, I don’t have niddah every month; my teachers neglected to mention the wonders of three month birth control pills, in which I have my period just four times a year. But niddah, for me and Jeremy, is not a meaningful experience, and it’s all the more disappointing and difficult for having been told otherwise. We were told by a rabbi that sex should never be used to resolve a problem, and for us that’s never been an issue. In fact, when we fight we each need our own personal space; we don’t want to touch. Then we talk about our fight, working towards resolution and understanding, a compromise. At the end, we kiss, like we’re sealing the deal; we feel united once again. We don’t use touch to solve our problems, but it helps us feel close once the problem is solved. And during niddah, we can’t have that.
Everyone told me that niddah would help us communicate with words what we usually communicate with our bodies. But there’s no way to communicate an understanding touch on the arm, a sympathetic squeeze of the hand. There’s no way to say what touch can say; it’s why we have touch, to communicate in ways that words cannot. People made it seem like niddah was a way to both rise above sex and appreciate it all the more when we had it; they neglected to talk about hugging or holding hands.
No one told me that being unable to hug my husband would make me feel as if he was angry with me. No one mentioned that after reconciling after a fight, even the smallest kiss would help me feel comforted — and that its absence would make me unsettled. No one mentioned that those 12 or so days would be tense and feel endless. No one told me that, more than anything, I would miss curling up next to him at the end of each day, our bodies fitting around each other as we read our own books, that I would wake up and miss putting my arms around his sleepy body so we could wake up together.
As Jeremy said, keeping niddah only helps you communicate in that it helps you communicate during niddah better. At no other time would I need to tell my husband, standing right in front of me, “If I could, I would hug you right now.” Keeping niddah helps us keep niddah better.
Maybe I feel this way because we’ve only done it once so far. Maybe I won’t always feel like a woman who’s sworn to cut chocolate out from her diet, only to spend all day with a delicious fudge cake right in front of her.
We intend on keeping niddah in spite all the negative aspects of it. We’re not keeping it because it builds our relationship or helps us communicate or whatever comforting reasons we were told to make us feel better about it. We’re keeping it because it’s halacha, and it sucks and it’s hard and I could very much do without it, but not every halacha needs to feel good. Knowing how hard it is won’t stop us from doing it in the future, and it wouldn’t have stopped us from doing it to begin with.
But it would have been nice to know.
Simi Lichtman is documenting her first year of marriage as a young Orthodox woman for the Forward. Follower her on Twitter @SimiLichtman.
Marriage brings out the best in me and it brings out the worst in me. A commenter recently remarked on a blog post of mine that I painted too much of a “fairy tale” picture of marriage:
Although I understand that you are only sharing your impressions of married life after a month, you paint a distorted picture of marriage. As you noted, marriage also takes work. It is not “one big sleepover” nor is every night is “exceptional couch potato living”. Sometimes, it can be frustrating and disappointing. You wont always want to just “watch movies and eat all night together”.
Your single and married friends and many others will be reading this blog. Marriage is about compromise, communication, and mutual respect. This takes hard work. Your fairy-tale portrayal is not only false; it’s dangerous. It contributes to many of the difficulties couples have adjusting to married-life and recent trends of newly-weds separating because their marriage is more work than they expected. Also, what about the friends of the newly weds? They deserve to know that after the wedding, when you forget to call back it’s because not every day is a honeymoon.
So for the record, I agree: Marriage is hard. Not exactly mind-blowing, I know, and you’ve heard it before, but that doesn’t change the truth of the statement. Marriage is not easy.
I can feel Jeremy making me a better, stronger person. Even in small ways — when he’s standing next to me, I feel fuller, more confident, more sure of who I am and what I want to say and do. He truly is my better half. But being married is also a constant struggle not to give into the smallness of my worst self. Jeremy and I fight. We always have. It’s part of our relationship, and we always try to fight fair and to communicate afterwards.
But sometimes you just wake up earlier than the sun, and you’re grumpy, and he moves a smidge too slow for your snippy mood, and suddenly you’re deeply, strongly pissed for a reason you can’t really articulate. And you don’t want to be mad. You know there’s no reason to grunt at him when he tries to talk to you, but you can’t help it.
And then there are the real fights, the ones that take your perfect blissful first-year bubble of love and shake it, hard. The ones where you can’t see there ever being a resolution, and you’re both right, and you’re both trying, and it just seems like everything is wrong and maybe this marriage won’t work, because who’s to say we’re smarter than everyone else who gets married and ends up splitting up?
But then one of you takes a breath and invites logic back into your emotional turmoil — usually him — and you can suddenly think calmly and lovingly. He’s not the enemy, he’s the partner, and you need only to remember that to figure things out. And you might disagree, in fact your track record shows you probably will, but you can respect each other and make up and feel your love even more strongly because of it. And then he’s brought out the worst of you and the best of you all within a half hour, or even three times in one day, and you know you’ll be okay.
Marriage is not a fairy tale, though it is wonderful and beautiful and with my whole two months of experience, I find it utterly fulfilling. But it’s not simple by any stretch of any imagination.
Marriage is hard. It’s messy and sticky and there are bumps and tears and real, scary moments where you look deep into your soul and you’re not sure you like what you see. But it’s worth it.
On the way back from our honeymoon, Jeremy’s back was hurting so much that I carried his backpack — much to his chagrin (he’s chivalrous) — and I had nine sea urchin spines embedded in my left foot from a minor altercation with the Caribbean coral reef. But when our parents sympathized at how our honeymoon must have been affected by these physical ailments, we were baffled. It simply hadn’t occurred to us to let silly things like pain and immobility get in the way of our good time.
Jeremy and I decided to go to St. Lucia for our honeymoon, more because of the sunny weather and a LivingSocial deal we’d found than anything else. It turns out the Jewish bargain gods had pointed us in the right direction, because St. Lucia was an island paradise beyond our expectations, where everyone is happy all the time — and it’s easy to see why. The resort we stayed at was all-inclusive. (Of course, as kosher-observant Jews, the delicious-smelling free food was there just to tempt us. We trekked back to our room twice daily for a meal of bread and vacuum-packed deli.) We spent a large part of our honeymoon sitting next to the pool or beach and reading, occasionally making use of the water to cool ourselves us from the sun. The rest of the time we enjoyed water sports, took a day sailing trip around the island, and, of course, slept a whole lot. As weeks go, it was not a bad way to spend one.
For better or worse — one could argue either way — our honeymoon, like most Orthodox honeymoons, was not immediately after the wedding. Instead of the hopping in a car right after the wedding and rushing off to the honeymoon, we Orthodox Jews like to do a little thing called killing the fun. For a week after the wedding, we spend every night having dinner with a different group of people, many of whom we don’t know.
The Orthodox call this weeklong celebration Sheva Brachot, and it’s designed mainly, I gather, to exhaust the couple so much that they don’t even want to have sex that first week, which, did I mention, we can’t have anyway. (That’s right: after the marriage is consummated, Orthodox Jews enter a state of ritual impurity, in which the couple is not allowed to touch again for a number of days.) So a honeymoon right after the wedding would be pretty lame even without Sheva Brachot.
Jeremy and I were both raised in Modern Orthodox households, spent two years in Modern Orthodox yeshivas in Israel, and attended the flagship of Modern Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University. You’d think that it would be relatively smooth sailing when it comes to settling on the religious outlines of our household.
But even though we don’t have to decide between a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah bush during winter season, merging our separate, ingrained traditions is still a task. It comes down to details, but details make up our everyday lives, and they can’t be overlooked, especially if children are in our (very eventual) future.
Jeremy has spent his life following the opinion that, unlike bread, eating pizza doesn’t require him to wash his hands and say the blessing of “hamotzi” before eating. Instead, he says “mezonot,” a no-washing prayer for a snack, and digs in. I, on the other hand, have gotten used to ordering pizza, trudging to a nearby sink, washing my hands, remaining silent until I’ve made the blessing, and only then taking a bite of my delicious slice. Considering pizza is one of our favorite foods, this is a bigger deal than you might think.
Since we started dating, I would wash for pizza, and he would wait patiently (usually) at the table until I was seated to start eating with me. Now that we’re married, though, it’s become a bit odd for us to make different blessings on our pizza.
Like most women, I found engagement to be a journey. Unlike most women, I decided to share that journey with the readers of the Forward. Over the latter part of my six-month engagement to Jeremy, I blogged for the Sisterhood (using my maiden name, Lampert) in a series called “Feminist, Orthodox and Engaged.” I wrote about going on birth control in advance of my wedding, getting genetic tests with Jeremy to ensure that our future children weren’t at risk for disease and my excitement at getting to live with Jeremy for the first time after our wedding.
For the most part, I loved being engaged. I loved the excitement my readers seemed to share over my impending nuptials. I loved being able to use the word “nuptials.”
But it was also stressful. I knew I wanted to spend forever with my fiancé, but because of practicalities like wedding rings and marriage documents, forever couldn’t start just yet. It was like waiting in line outside to get into a concert you’ve paid for: It’s thrilling, and the anticipation is building, but the fun hasn’t really begun. I guess what I’m saying is, marriage is like seeing Nicki Minaj live, every day. Minus the loud crowds. (My guilty pleasure music secret had to come out sooner or later.)
Then again, I’ve only been married for a month now. I’m only just starting out on a path that I hope will end up like my grandparents’ marriages — five or more decades together, learning and living and growing and loving. This first year, that so-called honeymoon phase, will be its own journey, one that I’m excited to again have the opportunity to share here in the Forward’s new blog, Just Married. It’s a journey that had its birth way back when Jeremy and I met, and that truly began on the day of our wedding.
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