Will my friend think it’s weird that I don’t sleep with my husband on my period?
From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to [email protected]
My husband and I are visiting a friend of mine from graduate school next weekend, and we’ve been looking forward to the trip for a while. (My country went into lockdown pretty early, which means we’ve been less limited by the pandemic in terms of travel, but it has still been tough.) She and her husband have a beautiful house in a more rural area, and my kids are staying with my in-laws for the entire week, so we plan to be there for three nights.
My friend is not Jewish, and when we meet up, I try to not make everything I do or say sound Jewish, because I worry it seems exclusive. She’s really one of my only non-Jewish friends at this point, and I think she is a little touchy about how much of my life revolves around Jewish community. I’m not worried about the weekend on that front. My husband and I are pretty easy guests, in the sense that while we eat vegetarian and won’t use our computers or phones on Sshabbat, we can otherwise be pretty accommodating in non-Jewish settings.
My big worry is that I’m pretty sure I’ll be in niddah for the weekend. For reasons I won’t go into, my husband and I decided a few years ago to take this part of our lives more seriously. We really don’t share a bed. I know my friend will put us in the guest bedroom of her house, but I also know she has a bedroom that her two sons used to share (they’re both out of the house) and which has two twin beds.
How do I tell her she should put us in that room without upsetting the whole house of cards and explaining why?
Ed. note: Niddah is the ritual period of withdrawal that observant Jewish couples maintain during, and for seven days after, a woman’s period. At minimum, it demands a cessation of physical intimacy between the couple, but its full observance includes sleeping in separate beds, no casual touching at all and other forms of physical distancing.
Upsetting the whole house of cards? That sounds dramatic. How lucky it is she has that extra, two-bed bedroom! This would be a much trickier question if that wasn’t an option, so whatever you do, count your stars and definitely take advantage of the set-up.
Your friend sounds pretty unsupportive of your Judaism, which I don’t love. But you also don’t seem that invested in changing the dynamic, which suggests that even if she is a beloved friend, this might be more of an occasional, at a distance, friendship than one that is worth deeply reimagining.
In that case, you basically have two options: Lie, or tell the truth.
If you wanted to lie, you could invent any number of medical issues that make splitting beds desirable. People tend to back off being too nosy when it comes to weird medical stuff. You could say you’re on some new allergy medicine that makes you run very hot, or that your husband is having nasal issues which makes him snore very loudly, or even that you’ve been having cramps and pains which make you thrash around at night. If you don’t often talk about pain and bodies with this friend, you can open your request with a classic, “I know this sounds very weird, but would you mind putting us in the boys’ room? Adam is seeing the doctor next week, but he’s developed this weird nasal issue at night that is making him snore very loudly, and the only way I get any sleep is if I’m wearing ear plugs and at least four feet away.”
Good hosts like to be accommodating, and it sounds like this is a request your friend can easily meet. (If you’re worried about being questioned, make it an issue that popped up recently and will be addressed soon by a doctor, so you don’t have to invent medications or treatments.)
The deeper question is why lie at all. You very well could say, “Would you mind setting us up in the boys’ room? While I’m on my period, Adam and I like to sleep apart, for religious reasons.”
Unless your friend is openly hostile to religion, she’ll take her cue from you. I know some people really like to promote niddah as this ideal way to regulate intimacy, and if you are in that camp, just know that such rhetoric can often invite more questions from skeptics than it answers. This line of thinking stresses how the monthly forced distancing keeps sex “fresh and exciting” for observing Jewish couples, which is true for some people, but not for all. If you want to have the conversation about why this practice is meaningful for you, go for it, but if you want to avoid any questions, then express the request as just another religious thing you do, and not a big deal, either positive or negative.
Within Jewish circles, of course, there are active and living debates over what this area of Jewish law means for feminism, sex positivity, people in sexual relationships outside of marriage, couples that aren’t hereto, etc., but don’t bring all of that into your conversation with your friend unless you want to. Just tell her what you need!
And truly don’t feel obligated to disclose. First off, you are discussing a very private thing. As you know, there is a deeply embedded culture in Judaism about being discrete around niddah and mikvah use. Not because periods or sex are shameful, but because it’s all considered pretty intimate. Announcing to the world the sex status of your marriage can be awkward!
So, go for the truth if that feels right, but keep it simple, or make up a small lie in the time-honored tradition of many Jewish women before you.
(And if your friend is mean about it, please write back and let us know. But let’s hope not!)
Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected]