I’ve always wanted to know what goes on during a kallah class, in which observant Jewish brides learn about niddah, the laws of ritual purity, as well as issues of sexuality. I would have gone so far as to borrow an engagement ring to do so, but fortunately, I got to talk to Rori Picker Neiss instead.
Neiss teaches private classes to brides and couples and is a student at Yeshivat Maharat, a pioneering institution training Orthodox Jewish women to be spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities. In addition to founding and running an independent minyan in Brooklyn, she serves as the Rabbinic Intern at the Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk and the Hillels at NYU and CUNY’s Hunter College.
It’s important to note that when we met for this interview, Neiss handed me a red folder containing the materials she gives to the folks she’s teaching about taharat mishpacha, the laws governing menstruation. “It’s usually black or white, but I figured I could give you a red one,” she said. And it was true. The folder contained a chapter from Hila Hutcherson’s “What Your Mother Never Told You About Sex” and another chapter from “Guide to Getting it On”. There were a lot of Talmudic sources on topics such as menstruation, the onset of niddah, virginal blood, getting ready for the mikvah, first intercourse, how to tell if you’re still in niddah, and the implications of men spilling semen. There was also information on contraception and a flow chart (literally) on stains.
THE SISTEHROOD: What exactly happens in your class?
RORI PICKER NEISS: I teach classes that are one on one, two on one, and couples. It’s up to the couple if they both want to meet with me at the same time It’s nice to be able to see their interaction, to say, “Let’s talk about it together.” No two classes I’ve ever done have been the same. I start with what’s in the packet and try the best I can to personalize it: What exactly is niddah and how did it evolve as a concept? How do you go into niddah, what do you do during it, how do you prepare for the mikveh, how this can work in their lives.
We talk about Jewish attitudes towards sex, permitted sex, forbidden sex — that’s one of the biggest areas. I end up playing this role that means I come into people’s lives in this very intense, emotional, fragile time, for many reasons… Sometimes, it’s a practical question, but sometimes it’s anxiety due to something else. Different people are going to react differently to things; you have to not assume what people know. I try to create the space where people can talk about pleasure, but it’s hard to talk about it with everyone. I don’t think I’m the expert, but I’m often the first stop. I want the information to be there for them, in case there was a question I didn’t answer, that’s why I provide the resources.
What was your own experience in kallah class?
There were three of us in the class I took, and it was basically, here’s what you do… I was lucky that I thought to bring pen and paper, but then I realized I didn’t know that I understood what she said. I felt unprepared and alone, like I had no sense of options. I struggled with niddah for a long time, trying to balance between doing it “right” and living a life, and figure out what it means to be married and have a partner. It was a somewhat traumatizing experience. I feel fortunate that I was with someone who’s patient and would help me figure out what was right for me. I try to be aware of what I’m teaching others out of that experience.
What’s challenging about your work?
People have had teachers, friends tell them things — don’t do this, this, this — to give you this impression that niddah is great for your marriage, it’s a second honeymoon. That minimalizes the evolution of a marriage; maybe you don’t always want that. You can’t be actively in love 24 hours a day! Taharat hamishpacha is not the best thing, it just is. You have to decide how to infuse it. For some people it’s really hard.
What do you bring to this work that’s unique?
My goal is empower people. I always want to explain why it’s a more complicated situation. For example, the colors of stains. I can’t tell them how to recognize colors. You might have to talk about this with someone else, but I would never just say to someone, “Ask a rabbi.” That’s reflective of a general discomfort we have about people being able to interpret halacha for themselves. Any good rabbi explains to you why it is you need to do what you need to do, instead of just telling you “how it is.” Otherwise it’s a power trip, and I think it’s unethical.