Learning To Be Orthodox Bride From Romance Novels
“When you get out of the mikveh, you should put on make-up and lotion for your husband,” the kallah teacher instructed. “He will be waiting for you.”
This was my last “kallah lesson,” two weeks before my wedding, and my kallah teacher was finally talking about sex — or at least a watered-down version of it.
Every engaged-to-be-married Orthodox girl attends kallah (Hebrew for bride) lessons before her wedding to learn about the Jewish laws of Taharat HaMishpacha — family purity. The Torah forbids intimacy between a husband and wife during, and a short time after, the woman’s menstrual cycle. A woman who is menstruating is called a niddah, which literally means separated, referring to the separation between husband and wife.
After waiting for a period of five to seven days for the menstrual cycle to end, the woman is required to keep another seven “clean days” in which she checks herself daily to ascertain her cleanliness. After the seven clean days, the woman can go to the mikveh, the ritual bath, and resume sexual relations with her husband.
Orthodox women are introduced to these laws in the weeks and months leading up to their wedding. The kallah teacher is tasked with teaching young girls about the laws of family purity, and often — as with many Hasidic girls — she teaches them about the birds and the bees.
So there I was, two weeks before my wedding, listening to my kallah teacher explain the technicalities of sex, in Yiddish peppered with English. She drew diagrams and used her hands and fingers to demonstrate the point she was trying to get across.
She referred to his (my groom’s) “aiver,” (literally, body part), and my “place” a lot. She said men have irresistible urges that women cannot understand. “His pleasure is your pleasure,” she said. That was the only mention of “my” pleasure that I recall — pleasing my husband. Luckily for me, I knew better.
I snickered silently, fearing that my knowledge of the act would raise questions, and, somehow, expose the books and DVD player stacked neatly between my mattress and box spring.
I was perceived as a goody two-shoes throughout my childhood and teenage years. I was a girl my future mother-in-law considered a “catch.” I was equally modest and “yunchy” (Yiddish slang for nerdy/nebbishy, but with a pious connotation), I worked in a prestigious place, and I didn’t hang with the wrong people. The people pleaser in me worked tirelessly to maintain that persona, to not disappoint anyone.
Yet I also had skeletons in my closet, like the trashy romance novels and romantic comedies a friend and I covertly bought at Wal-Mart and hid under our big, frumpy shirts to get to the checkout aisle (I’ll bet store security was intrigued).
I was an avid reader growing up, and I would read anything I could get my hands on — mostly Yiddish material. I wasn’t exactly a child who questioned authority; my curiosity was content within the approved boundaries. But when a close friend discovered a Reader’s Digest at her more modern aunt’s house and shared it with me, my curiosity of the unknown intensified. My friend and I snuck over to Wal-Mart and started our reading marathon of Nora Roberts romance novels, swapping illicit details as we went along.
And that is how I learned of the birds and the bees, and of love and affection.
Reading a much-circulated blog post by Elana Sztokman, the former Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, I was struck by the parallels with my own experience with the kallah teacher and that which Sztokman describes as her Modern Orthodox experience.
Yet something about these parallels perplexed me; the assertion that girls in mainstream Orthodoxy need kallah teachers to teach them about sex seems absurd. Much like teenagers in the secular world, girls in mainstream Orthodoxy learn about sex from sources other than school-taught sex-ed, or “kallah lessons,” for Orthodox girls. Furthermore, the study Sztokman cites, “Observant Married Jewish Women and Sexual Life: An Empirical Study,” clearly indicates where participants, more than half of whom were affiliated with Modern Orthodoxy, learned about sex: friends, written material and the media, followed by family members, kallah classes or high school classes, and experimentation.
However, in the very insular yeshivish and Hasidic communities where secular materials are not readily available, or outright banned, and where movies and TV is non-existent, some brides-to-be are relatively clueless about sexual matters and really depend upon their bridal instruction for even basic knowledge.
As someone who discovered her sexuality through five trashy romance novels and a rotation of seven romantic comedies, I don’t believe kallah teachers are — or should be — the primary source for sex-ed for Orthodox girls. Waiting for two weeks before the wedding to tell a young, innocent girl what will happen on her wedding night and the years ahead is a terrible way to introduce her to sex and intimacy.
I agree with Sztokman that we need to reform the way Orthodox women are socialized into sexuality and intimacy. To that, I will add, sex-ed is absolutely necessary in Orthodox schools, and parents should take an active role in teaching their children about sex. Parents are experienced, and hopefully have formulated a set of values they can impart to their children.
For a peek into in how Hasidic kallah and chosson (groom) lessons are conducted, listen to this mockumentary I produced last year. These staged lessons are based on my own and some friends’ real-life experiences. It is meant to produce some laughs, but as my friends and I agree, it’s only just so slightly more absurd than our own experience.