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.
I’m thrilled to introduce myself as the new editor of the Sisterhood blog. As the deputy culture editor of the Forward, I’ve been covering gender and Judaism for the past two years, writing about topics like halachic infertility, Hasidic feminism and transgender Jews.
But my path to the Sisterhood actually began long before my time at the Forward. In middle school English class, I was given an assignment to instruct my peers on a topic of my choosing. Initially, I thought I would “teach” my classmates why girls are better than boys. (My logic at the time was that girls can grow up to have babies, an argument that today strikes me as rather sexist.) But in the end, I decided to go with a less controversial lesson: How to insult someone in Yiddish. (“Gai kaken oifen yam” or “Go poop in a lake” is still my favorite.)
From a tender age, it would seem, I was ruminating on gender and Judaism and the interplay between the two. Now, some two decades later, I finally have the opportunity to share my views in the public sphere. (I guarantee they’ve evolved beyond “girls are better than boys.”)
Of course, I’ll be joined by a talented bevy of freelance writers who will share their personal stories, analyze breaking news and, in the words of founding Sisterhood editor Gabrielle Birkner, “break ideas” on the blog. Speaking of Gabi, I have some big shoes to fill. Gabi and Abigail Jones, the immediate past editor, populated the blog with thoughtful prose and meaningful series, like “What Jewish Feminism Means to Me” and “Women in Mourning.” I am indebted to both of them — and their hard work and vision — as I helm the blog moving Forward.
In the midst of a news month filled with political sex scandals both old and resurrected, you might have missed a bizarre court ruling out of Iowa.
The decision basically said: You can be fired for being too attractive, if you are a lady, because your attractiveness has nothing to do with your gender.
A young woman, Melissa Nelson, working as a dental assistant, was fired by her boss, James Knight, because he and his wife basically saw her as a seductive threat to the sanctity of their marriage. From pretty women to gays, there are so many threats to the sanctity of marriage, isn’t it funny how ego and poor self-management is never listed?
Most women would do or pay anything to be that beautiful blonde in the bar, the one getting attention from all the men. And most women probably would not understand being blonde and voluntarily giving it up — covering up the blonde hair with a headscarf, voluntarily shedding the sexy outfit in favor of a long skirt and long sleeves, and wiping off all the makeup. But at least one woman, Lauren Shields of Atlanta, recently did just that.
“A lot of men approach me and start random conversations about nothing,” Shields told the Sisterhood in a recent phone interview. “Generally they’re trying to get my phone number, and that’s nice and everything, but I don’t actually want that kind of attention anymore.”
Shields, a film-editor-turned-seminary graduate, did not, at the age of 29, suddenly become a Haredi Jew or a religious Muslim. She didn’t turn Quaker or fall ill. She didn’t decide it was her responsibility as a woman to decrease men’s attraction to her by covering more skin. She was simply tired of feeling the need to dress a certain way, as dictated by society, fellow working women and her own rigorous standards.
“I had started to feel like the way I looked was not as much up to me as I would like,” Shields said. “I was starting to feel like it was a requirement to have a trendy haircut, to make sure that if I showed my arms or legs, they had to be super toned. If I showed my feet, they had to have nail polish on them. It started to feel like it wasn’t me anymore, it was me trying to look like everyone else.”
In a recent post on Slate’s DoubleX, Katherine Goldstein provides tips for female summer interns on what exactly is appropriate to wear to a workplace. The advice on how to avoid looking like a “skintern” includes avoiding see-through anything, concealing undergarments and leaving the four-inch heels at home. Goldstein ends the post by telling women that by following these rules and focusing on impressing everyone with their “hard work” and “keen intellect” they will be sure to break the glass ceiling.
Was this sexist?
Sure, this is set of codes and rules that only apply to young women, or more specifically, their bodies. It told them that some parts of their bodies are considered vulgar and that wearing a pair of high platform heels might give others the wrong idea about their, well, purity. It is putting the responsibility on them to cover up, instead of on men to stop gawking. As another DoubleX contributor put it a few months ago in response to a call for longer skirts at a middle school, “If you don’t want girls judged by their hemlines, stop judging them by their hemlines.”
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.
As someone whose patient base includes a not-insignificant number of ultra-Orthodox Jews (I don’t particularly like that title for the right wing of the Orthodox community, but it’s a shorthand I can live with so let’s just go with it), I am thrilled that someone created a clear, concise and accurate book on sex for this population.
Mind you, sex for this population is not fundamentally different from sex with any other population. Slightly more limited, perhaps, but the fundamental principals remain the same for most of us.
It seems that sex is on everyone’s minds this week. (“Just this week?” The cynic replied.) It’s not just on The Sisterhood that sexuality in Jewish life became a focus, but also elsewhere on the Jewish Web.
Asimon, “Israel’s Women’s Site,” for example, announced that in honor of “May is Masturbation Month,” they are holding a raffle to give away a free vibrator. Meanwhile, on Unpious.com, a rather funny post about financial pressures and family planning turned into a talkback debate about women’s sexual pleasure.
I read with interest Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s post about the struggles of Sara Diament, author of a book on sexuality education for young girls — a book targeted towards Orthodox Jews. I’ve had religion and sex on the brain this week.
“Religious sex” was the name of a now-departed fetish boutique on St. Marks place, whose windows my friends and I used to ogle in middle school. But religious sex —that is, figuring out how to have and enjoy sex within the confines of proper worship — is also a growing trend among the seriously devout. This week, A New York Times article about a Christian porn-addiction recovery group made waves, while The Guardian offered its own piece about online sex shops for observant Muslim and Christian couples. Interestingly enough, the porn-recovery group, which treated essentially treated female interest in sex as sinful, had only a handful of members. Meanwhile the online stores, ranging from tame to tantalizing, were absolutely mobbed with visitors.
All this reminded me of the long-ago media frenzy around the “Kosher Sex” empire created by Rabbi (and rent-a-talking-head) Shmuley Boteach.