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I read a secret transcript of Hasidic sex advice. I’ve read worse.

TV shows like ‘Unorthodox’ skewed my understanding of a real Hasidic wedding night

All first-time Hasidic grooms prepare for their wedding night by getting blow-by-blow instructions from a rabbi. But one young man did something unique: He recorded their conversation.

The 25-minute Yiddish recording, made in Williamsburg around 2017, found its way to Frieda Vizel, a formerly Hasidic tour guide of the area. Vizel translated the lesson to English, changing just enough details to preserve the anonymity of the groom and his teacher.

“Instead of seeing Hasidic sex as abusive or as perfect and pure, this is just the experience in a very raw form,” said Vizel in a phone interview.

To me, the raw form was a revelation.

My knowledge of Hasidic sex begins and ends with the TV shows “Shtisel” and “Unorthodox.” 

“You have a hole inside you, leading to a hallway, leading to a little door,” Esty, the young woman in “Unorthodox,” is told by a “bride teacher” in advance of her wedding night. “When the man enters the hallway with his…”

“No!” Esty interjects, horrified — and scene. Esty’s experiences in the marital bed turn out to be physically painful and emotionally miserable. Ultimately — and not just because she dreads having sex with her husband — she ends up fleeing the Hasidic community.

But the real lesson taught pre-wedding night, as translated by Vizel, struck me as far more sensitive. It is still a man Hasid-splaining a woman’s feelings to another man. But the groom teacher began well before the actual sex — which was the first pleasant surprise. He detailed what the groom should do in the yichud room, where traditional brides and grooms go for a bit after the wedding ceremony.

“You say to her, ‘Mazel tov, Libby!’ shaking her hand with both of yours. Okay?”

He told the groom what blessing the couple must recite. 

“As soon as you finish this with ‘Amen,’ let go of her hand, embrace her. Give her a good kiss here and here. Okay? On the cheek. Not on the mouth. Okay. And as soon as you are done kissing her, you let go of her and you say: ‘Wow! Libby, your gown is BEAUTIFUL! It came out so gorgeous! It came out so stunning! Very, very nice!’”

There’s usually no sex in the yichud room — another urban myth busted. Instead, the teacher instructed his pupil to slow down and talk to his bride.

“‘Libby, how was your day?’” the teacher told the groom to ask. “‘When did you come to the wedding hall? When did you say the afternoon prayers? Were you able to sleep last night?’ But you won’t ask everything because she is going to be asking you back: ‘Yossi, How was your day?’ You’ll say how your day went, and so it’ll go one after the other.”

After the festive meal, the teacher said, Yossi is to escort Libby through the women’s side of the celebration to the men’s side, where she stops. 

“When you get to the men’s side, tell your bride, ‘Libby, be well! Enjoy the wedding, I will see you later!’” 

The lesson picked up in the apartment after the wedding. 

“Say to her, ‘Libby, please come. Let me help you take off your gown because I want you to be more comfortable.’ Then you go into the kitchen, eat a little, chat a little. Then you go get ready to go to sleep. You’ll recite the Shema and take a shower.”

After the shower, more talking.

“‘Libby, do you want me to be comfortable?’” the teacher instructed his student to say. “‘When you are comfortable, I am comfortable. Please, make yourself comfortable, the wig, whatever, but just be comfortable.’”

The rebbe continued with advice for conversation: “‘What do you think of the wedding music? What do you think of the pianist? What do you think of the singer?’ You talk about the wedding.

“After a minute, you’ll take your hand and put it on her shoulder, wrap it around her. And you tell her: ‘You know Libby, I was in here in the apartment today, and you did such a beautiful job.’ And as you say the word ‘such’ you embrace her with both arms. And you are going to give her a few deep kisses on her cheek; here two-three, there two-three. But now, FOR SURE, she returns the embrace.”

There was, in this instruction, a lot of what a therapist would call checking in. The groom’s teacher knew his pupil would be nervous. As Vizel pointed out to me, while Hasidic men may get pointers from their siblings or peers, it’s not like they have any hands-on experience. And the point the teacher kept pressing was: Speak with her. Listen to her. Take your time. 

It was all very un-”Unorthodox,” where the man swung himself on top of the shaking bride without a how-do-you-do.

“And you talk to her very sweetly,” the teacher continued. “Tell her how much you love her, and how beautiful she is, and how beautiful she looked at the wedding, you can talk to her! Tell her how beautifully she set up the apartment, and how beautiful it is set up inside, in the cabinets. You’ll take your arm off her, you’ll give her a piece of cake, give her something to drink, give her a chocolate. You eat, you schmooze. What do you talk about? You talk more about the wedding.”

Up to this point, it was all, “How to be with a partner,” and not, “What to do in bed” — and is that such terrible relationship advice for any two people? 

Eventually, after kissing the mezuzah and undressing — without looking — the two are to lie down in bed. The teacher’s description of what to do there started out, again, very un-”Unorthodox,” a kind of choreography. One step leads to another and before you know it, you’re dancing. 

“So what you’ll do is, you’ll touch only her face,” he said. “Stroke her face. Her face, her forehead. You can give her a kiss on her forehead. And you kiss her, and you stroke her face, and tell her how delicious it is, tell her how much you waited for her, tell her how much you love her, tell her how beautiful she is.

“Tell her how much you enjoy her. Tell her how delicious it is to be lying next to her.”

“And tell her that you only want one thing: that she should be happy. That this is your single mission in life.”

“How long will you lie with her? However long you want! A half-hour, an hour, an hour and a half. I don’t care. However long you want. Okay?”

“Now. When you feel ready, you want to go, you want to do it, what do you do?”

At this point in the transcript, there’s … an ellipsis.

Vizel herself was married at 18 years old in the Hasidic tradition, and, like all brides, first met with a bride teacher. The sex descriptions in the recording brought back traumatic memories, she said, without going into detail. 

“It was,” she said, “a very intense emotional experience.”

So Vizel couldn’t bring herself to include the actual sex instructions which, she said, was “like a medical guide. ‘You spread her legs and you lift this and —” Vizel added some far more graphic terminology — “You’re done. That’s all.”

She did pick up the translation immediately after. 

The moment you feel that it is finished,” the teacher said, “you must jump out of bed. Jump out of bed. OK.”

This is because the Jewish laws of family purity dictate that any physical touch between husband and wife is forbidden after their first sexual encounter until 12 days later. Vizel explained that the groom must check the sheets for her blood, the presence of which requires a 12-day separation. 

If the sex and its immediate aftermath described by the groom teacher are far from what we think of as romantic or satisfying, Vizel said the entire translation offers some sort of corrective. 

The groom teacher, she said, has the challenge of “making sure that a couple gets off on the right start. You know, they can figure out sex, they can figure out what’s allowed later. It will be fine as long as they don’t have this terrible wedding night where they’re traumatized by not knowing if they did it right.”

She said many husbands will continue to consult with the groom teacher after the first night, and the brides with their teacher, a kallah teacher.  

Vizel translated the instructions because, judging by the questions her tour participants ask, people are fascinated by the sex lives of Hasids. I read it intently, because, well, so am I. It’s a culture at once so close and so foreign, us but not us. 

It’s also a culture, judging by this transcript, that popular culture tends to caricature. The groom’s teacher transcript shows another side, bound, maybe warped, by an antique and male-centric set of rules, but still far more nuanced than I was led to expect.

“It’s an effort to try to get  people to really give each other a real chance. That was my experience. It’s awkward and painful and beautiful,” Vizel said. “And it’s much more complicated.”

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