Getty Images // An Orthodox bride and groom in Jerusalem*
HalachicallyYours.org is a web site opening the lines of communication about sexuality and intimacy in married relationships in the Orthodox community. I spoke with Sarah Epstein, who has been a sex educator for four years, about her project and why sex ed is still taboo among religious Jews.
Legendary sex therapist Ruth Westheimer is taking Sisterhood reader questions on the next episode of The Jewish Channel’s The Salon, taping this coming Thursday with Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner and Rachel Sklar, founder of TheLi.st.
Send your questions about sex and relationships to firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday night and The Salon will put them to its panel, which will include Dr. Ruth, along with Marie Claire’s deputy editor Lea Goldman and Sisterhood contributor Johnna Kaplan. (Let us know if you want The Salon to use your name or if you’d prefer to remain anonymous.)
I actually must thank Sam-the-Bar-Mitzvah-video dancer and his family for their voyeuristic and strategically-posted video of the burlesque dance routine that’s been making blogosphere news. They have certainly given us Rabbis fodder for our high holiday sermons.
But while many of us are busily typing up diatribes against the excess, the lavishness, the expense and the lack of Jewish focus, and while we are all right in our musings about so many of the wrong messages Sam’s scantily-dressed dancers gave off, I hope we don’t miss seeing it through one more lens: the feminist one.
Imagine you are one of the 12- or 13-year old girls watching the performance, whether live or on the video. What do you see?
You see a riff on all those music videos with hot girls shaking everything they’ve got around a male lead singer (this time a Bar Mitzvah boy). You see a 13-year-old boy hungrily adored by female dancers the age of older sisters, or worse yet, mothers. You see that “women” — in the form of the Ritual Rockettes — want that boy. You see that one guy can satisfy 20 girls. And that they all desire back. You see a boy being welcomed into a gaggle of females vying for his attention. They wait for him and on him. And you no doubt imagine yourself, the skinny, awkward, gawky tween, hoping to be one of those women soon — hoping to have a man to allure the way those women are not-so-subtly alluring and admiring Sam.
When the Oreo became kosher 15 years ago, the kosher-keeping world may have thought the milestone would be the climax of kosherization. As of yesterday, they would be wrong.
Trigg Labs, the vanilla-sounding brand behind Wet sexual wellness products, has apparently spent the last two years undergoing a koshering process, according to the Herald Online, and has now received official kosher certification. In other words, the United States finally has kosher “personal lubricants,” pushing any demands for kosher Skittles out of the spotlight. Under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), almost all Wet products are now kosher certified — just don’t look for the kosher symbol on your bedside bottle of lube.
“We don’t put the symbol on the bottle,” explained Rabbi Yosef Caplan, Assistant Director of Kashrut Services at the RCC, in a phone call. “The product has a back-up letter.”
Sexual assault cases don’t occur in a vacuum, even when they are so egregious that they defy the imagination. For example: the recent Cleveland story involving the long-term imprisonment and rape of three local women by an alleged perpetrator who comes across as a complete sadist. Coverage of this story has been rife with speculation, yet there are few answers available — partly due to the survivors’ understandable desire for privacy.
We can’t examine the details yet, obsessing as we so often do. But we can examine ourselves.
As I noted when I wrote about sexual assault in the military (a scandal which continues to evolve), these kinds of crimes occur in a rape culture. Rape culture doesn’t mean only that there’s a high incidence of sexual assault, but also that sex is treated as a commodity, one for women to withhold and men to take, a commodity that also comes to represent women’s entire value and worth. Pure or defiled. Virginal or slutty — so slutty that consent is implied, not sought.
Sexual dysfunctions within relationships are more common than ever today, with an estimated 40% of women and 30% of men suffering from sexual dysfunctions, according to a new study from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical school. Many women experience pain during intercourse, which could relate to conditions like vaginismus, dyspareunia, and vulvodynia, while common male sexual dysfunctions include premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction and other disorders related to anxiety.
In many Orthodox circles, the essence of a couple’s life revolves around having children. Sexual dysfunctions within a relationship could hurt, and possible even cede, the reproductive aspects. Couples seeking counseling might shy away from the subject, a topic not necessarily widely addressed, and with the laws of family purity weighing in, the pressures seem to tack on.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, a marital and family therapist from Brooklyn who specializes in Orthodox couples, has just released a new book, “Getting Closer,” which offers a glimpse of sexual dysfunction issues — from painful intercourse to erectile dysfunction to desire disorders — within the Orthodox community. He discusses marital intimacy using an approach called Emotionally Focused Therapy to help Orthodox couples through difficulties in intimacy, which can be the underlying issue of much of marital stress. The Sisterhood spoke with him about his new book and some of the unique issues the Orthodox community faces.
It has never been the Jewish way to avoid talking about sexuality. Even the Torah abounds with narratives of sex and desire. Sometimes the eroticism is subtle, as with Jael beckoning Sisera into her tent and covering him with a blanket before driving a stake into his head. Other times it is so blatant that even the least modest must blush. Song of Songs, anyone? “Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes?” And the Talmudic rabbis engaged in vigorous discourse about everything from how to conduct oneself if a woman begins to menstruate during intercourse to whether or not the Yeshiva boy hiding under his teacher’s bed during lovemaking acted inappropriately. But like most good Talmudic discussions, the ones pertaining to sex often remain open-ended.
Today, discussions of Jewish sexuality take many forms. In 1999, Melvin Jules Bukiet published “Neurotica: Jewish Writers on Sex,” which reprints the fiction of superstars such as Saul Bellow, Woody Allen, I. B. Singer, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick. Later, Danya Ruttenberg edited “The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism,” exploring Judaism’s approach to all things carnal. She points out that the Talmud warns against having sex in moments of anger, drunkenness or when one person is thinking about someone else, which reflects the mindfulness with which Judaism approaches sex.
Could Jews be members of the most sexually promiscuous religion on earth? A new study, “Religion and Sexual Behaviors: Understanding the Influence of Islamic Cultures and Religious Affiliation for Explaining Sex Outside of Marriage,” written up in the journal “American Sociological Review,” seems to say so. It also found that Muslims are the most conservative when it comes to matters of sex.
While the focus of the study was on Muslims, it compared the pre-marital and extra-marital sexual behavior of Muslims in a wide range of countries to that of Christians, Hindus and Jews in those countries. The authors, Amy Adamcyzk, associate professor of sociology at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Brittany Hayes, a doctoral candidate there, looked at studies of people in some 30 countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Haiti to Zimbabwe, most of them not places with very large Jewish populations. They assessed data collected between 2000 and 2008 by the Demographic and Health Survey, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The study’s authors found that Muslim women were least likely to report having had sex before marriage, while Buddhists and Jews reported being most likely, followed by Christians, who were trailed by Hindus.
Each month, Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner hosts The Salon, a conversation with Rachel Sklar of Change the Ratio and other Jewish women about life, love, politics and everything in between. In the latest episode, Sisterhood contributor Sarah Seltzer discusses lessons from Hurricane Sandy; Amy Webb, author of “Data, A Love Story,” talks about how she gamed JDate to meet her perfect mate; Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, co-author of “Et Le’ehov: The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy,” about sex education in the Orthodox community, and all five chime in on the Jewish vote and election 2012. Check out all of the clips here.
This post is the eighth in “Feminist, Orthodox and Engaged,” a series by Simi Lampert on love, sex and betrothal in the life of a Modern Orthodox woman.
I got a text the other day from a friend: “Try not to become one of those mundane married people like everyone else.” He and I had been talking about marriage, vaguely, so it wasn’t necessarily out of the blue, but it really hit home.
I wasn’t so much offended by the implications of the message as I was worried about the potential accuracy of the prediction. Will I become one of those boring married people? The type of woman who never leaves the house and whose only Facebook posts consist of pictures of the food she made that night for her husband? I have too many Facebook friends blocked from my newsfeed for doing just that to think it’s just a stereotype. This happens. And I’m dangerously close to becoming That Woman.
I could already see it happening, and I wanted to take future married Simi and shake her by the shoulders and shout, “Go out! See your friends! Do something immature and stupid that you’ll regret in the morning, and for God’s sake don’t come home before midnight!”
Many of my friends are college students, and from their perspective even the most boring night includes visiting friends all over the dorm, so married life probably seems the height of dullness. Where was the adventure, the carpe diem that couples had before they got married? Why do married people all talk about cooking and new dishes and work? How could they be satisfied just curling up at the end of the day and watching TV when there was so much to do outside? (And then, eventually, the horror of becoming the couples who only talk about their kids!)
Not all married couples are like this, and even when they are, who’s to say they’re boring and not happy with the simple pleasures in life?
If there is one thing I regret on my journey to Jewish adulthood, it’s that I passed up the opportunity to go to sleep away camp. Why do I lament this more than forgetting to fast on Tisha B’av? More than not spending a year in a yeshiva? Because while I was taking ceramic classes at my local JCC each summer, thousands of my peers were learning how to French kiss at Jewish sleep away camp.
Those of you wise enough to have attended camp know that it isn’t just about the tennis, hiking and campfires. It’s about girls, guys and raging hormones — about a period of discovery and letting loose with other members of the tribe. Still, not everyone is hooking up, let alone enjoying or even embracing this culture. Scattered between the campers making out in mess halls and going to second base in the dugout are girls and boys who feel alienated by the hookup culture of Jewish sleep away camp.
I was lucky enough to peek behind bunk doors and learn about the Jewish sleep away experience through a series of interviews with several camp alumni. While hookups in the woods, bunks and basketball courts abounded, an underbelly of pressure, exclusion and isolation also reared its head.
As The New York Times magazine recently noted in a mini-article titled “50 Shades of Oy Vey,” the popular romance novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” has been, shall we say, a hit in the Orthodox Jewish world, with its tale of erotic submission.
Gavriel, owner of the website Kosher Sex Toys, has gotten requests for the fetish-filled book, and has seen “a spike in sales of some of the BDSM (for bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) items we have on the site” since it was published, he told The Sisterhood.
“I wonder if since frum people are more restricted and “square” in their public lives there may be more of a need to ‘step out of line’ in their private lives,” he said. “Especially with a spouse when there is absolutely nothing wrong with it from a religious perspective.”
When I first came to Israel as an American college student in the 1980s, I was frequently drawn into long discussions comparing Americans and Israelis. Back in the old days, before cable television and the Internet, many Israelis were exceptionally defensive about being viewed as a member of a primitive Third-World culture, and eager to point out ways in which they were superior to Americans.
If, during the course of these inevitably pointless conversations, I dared to describe Israelis unfavorably — as rude or intrusive, say — I received a lecture that went something like this: “Well, we may be in each other’s faces, but at least we care about each other in Israel. You know that if you are hurt or in trouble, someone will step in to help you. In America, everyone is focused on themselves. You can be lying on the sidewalk bleeding, and no one will do anything because they won’t want to interfere and will just mind their own business.”
To a large extent, this remains the image Israelis have of themselves. That is why reports of bystanders cheering while a group of young men had sex with a woman who appeared to be mentally ill on a public beach in the heart of Tel Aviv has grabbed national headlines. It is one in a series of incidents in recent years in which people have refrained from interfering in criminal behavior — making it difficult to argue that Israeli society is more caring than any other.
Is marriage a legitimate prerequisite for a university course?
That is what some female students are asking at Bar-Ilan University.
The controversy surrounds a course in “marital communications,” which we told you about here. It requires those who enroll be married for at least one year. The course is intended for those who want to become “bridal counselors,” the women who explain ritual Jewish law related to marriage to Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The course is offered under the umbrella of the university’s “Midrasha” — an advanced Torah study program for women, one of several Bar-Ilan programs that merge academic and religious study.
The university justifies requirement by saying that since the course is meant for the women training to be bridal counselors, it makes sense that experience in marriage is necessary. The problem with that answer is that the class is also open to female Bar-Ilan students who are not in the bridal counseling program, but who wish to receive credit for it toward the university’s Jewish study requirements.
Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld is equally at home teaching a page of Talmud and showing women how to use a vibrator. Dr. Rosenfeld, 31, who co-authored the book “The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy,” which the Sisterhood weighed in on here, is also an Orthodox Jew, and her expertise in sex education is aimed at an Orthodox audience. The book, which the Jerusalem resident wrote with sex therapist David Ribner of Bar-Ilan University, explores the most intimate topics with no restraint, topics such as female orgasm, masturbation, and varieties of sexual positions. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood.
Elana: Sztokman: Why did you decide to write this book?
Jennie Rosenfeld: My work at The Tzelem Project, which I cofounded in 2005 with Koby Frances in order to address sexual education in the Orthodox community, convinced me of the need for such a book. … Running training conferences for chatan and kallah [grooms- and brides-to-be] teachers and rabbis, hearing the questions that were asked, I saw the need first-hand: Seeing the outpouring of people that came to our conferences, wanting to learn from medical and mental health professionals so that they could do a better job at preparing their students, seeing the way that often the teachers don’t know anything about sex beyond their own experiences, and speaking to young couples who simply weren’t given enough information or accurate information about how to begin their sexual relationship. This was the real tragedy for me.
What were the greatest challenges in writing about sex for the Orthodox community?
As a Stern College alumna, I feel the need to explain why the recent Beacon sex essay that described a premarital sexual encounter was received negatively by many Yeshiva University students and alumni.
Despite what the media seems to believe, YU students and alums are not afraid to discuss important and uncomfortable topics; we know full well that some Orthodox college students have premarital sex. However, Yeshiva University is a place where — unlike most American colleges campuses — this is not the norm. Many students and alumni have chosen YU, over schools widely deemed more prestigious, because they value a religious educational environment.
That some students personally violate Jewish law, or halacha, does not ruin this ideal. But a student publication publicizing someone’s decision to do so in order to represent the voice of all those who act similarly does great damage.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is among the most well-known and prolific contemporary Jewish writers of erotica. Her work has appeared in more 100 anthologies, as well as in numerous online and print publications. She is a senior editor at Penthouse Variations, a contributing editor at Penthouse, and is the series editor for the “Best Sex Writing” anthologies. Her latest editing endeavor is “Obsessed: Erotic Romance for Women,” released earlier this month by Cleis Press. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood about stereotypes of Jewish women in the bedroom, why she doesn’t see feminism and submissiveness as mutually exclusive, and the good advice that she says applies to both writing and sex.
Chanel Dubofsky: Do you think Judaism — religiously, culturally — influences your work?
Rachel Kramer Bussel: I do think some of the best sex and best relationships I’ve had have a spiritual, though not necessarily religious, component, but I don’t know that Judaism directly influences my work. I have my own struggles with religion and faith, and am not the biggest fan of organized religion … but I think what Judaism has taught me is to always question the world around me and to believe in my own answers — just as much as any dogma.
What do you think about the stereotypes about Jewish women and sex that pervade mainstream culture — stereotypes like the JAP and the Jewish mother?
The sexual lives of religious women will be a major topic of discussion at a panel at the upcoming conference organized by the religious women’s forum Kolech. Naomi Marmon Grumet, who has conducted research on the intimate lives of religious women, will be examining the differences between Orthodox men and Orthodox women in preparation for marriage.
This is just one of many juicy subjects that will be addressed at the upcoming Kolech gathering, scheduled for July 3–4 at the Keshet School in Jerusalem. (Kolech, which was founded in 1998 by Hana Kehat, works within a religious framework to promote gender equity in Israel.) Other conference topics include feminism in the Haredi community; Jewish and Arab women fighting for tradition; gender and Judaism on the Internet; single mothers by choice; gender segregation in public spaces, and sex-ed for religious boys.
This Forward article about Yeshivat Hadar and its attempt to lead students toward a sexual ethic based on classical Jewish texts omits one central question: What about mikveh?
Hadar Dean Rabbi Ethan Tucker says, in the piece, that he and his colleagues are trying to create a community “that discusses current sexual norms while taking rabbinic concepts of sanctity seriously — all within a gender-egalitarian environment. Necessarily, this involves wrestling with traditional texts and with members’ own lives.”
The piece opens with an anecdote about two current Hadar fellows who live together in Manhattan but, during a Hadar retreat, are forced to sleep separately because Hadar’s students (all recent college graduates) are required to sleep in gender-segregated quarters at the retreats.
The most relevant question here is how do you take rabbinic concepts of sexual sanctity seriously outside the context of marriage? Would the rules be the same as those for married couples? Should they be? If so, would it not involve setting aside part of the month for abstinence, and separating the non-sexual part of the month from the time of sexual engagement by mikveh immersion?
Two courses are underway to teach the teachers of Orthodox brides, grooms and married couples how to better prepare their students for healthy sex lives.
In Israel, a course for male teachers of grooms is currently being held at the Puah Institute and in New York, a course for female teachers of brides will be held for the second time by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.](http://www.jofa.org/).
According to this article the Puah course, run in conjunction with Bar-Ilan University, is training marriage counselors and rabbis to address sexual problems among married Orthodox Jews. The JOFA course is titled “Demystifying Sex & Teaching Halakha: A Kallah Teacher’s Workshop,” and is being held in conjunction with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Yeshivat Maharat. March 13th-16th.
But as I wrote in this New York Times piece, there has been a growing embrace, in recent years, of the need to address — or even prevent — such problems.