I’m (Halachically) Yours

Now I can’t get that tune from Jason Mraz out of my head

I decided to write about a website called, Halachically Yours, that states it’s purpose as being:

“…a workshop and collection of resources for strengthening physical intimacy in the halacha-observant community…this need has also become apparent through conversations with individuals from a range of observant communities who expressed a wish that there was more education, more conversation, more openness, and fewer assumptions. “

I mentioned this website in the comment section of my post about going to the mikvah, or the lack thereof, and it sparked an interesting conversation.

Basically, Halachically Yours is an attempt to get frum couples to have open and explicit conversations about what goes on their bedrooms.  Their seminar materials would probably be eye opening even for non-religious couples.  It doesn’t seem that the organization is being run under any particular rabbinic guidance, but rather, the advice is to AYLOR (ask your local orthodox rabbi) as to whether any of the suggested activities are permissible.

The seminar is intended to be conducted with a mixed gender group of married couples, with the allowance for separate sex breakaway sessions for some of the more sensitive topics.  Men and women are to gather together again at the end of the seminar to share what they found to be most helpful, and come up with questions to be addressed at future seminars.

Some of the discussion topics are admirable, such as discussing the right to say no and what constitutes abuse.  They also discuss female and male sexual dysfunction and provide some suggested resources.  There is also a list of books and organizations on sex education topics. The guide also discusses the shame factor that many people have if they are turned on by something unconventional, and how it’s important to learn how to be open with your partner.

The curriculum opens the door for this kind of sharing by providing an “Intimate Exploration Sheet,” where couples can tick off boxes of various sexual scenarios to let each other know what they would be open to trying.  The one obvious factor that’s missing in this sex seminar for the halachically observant community, is any discussion of taharat mishapacha, and how that observance affects the sex lives of frum couples.

While I applaud the effort, I don’t see this becoming mainstream in the orthodox community, especially in haredi communities. I can’t even imagine my modern orthodox shul, for example, giving this kind of seminar in mixed company. I can’t even see them giving this seminar to separate sex classes either. I think there should be a happy medium, and the right time to discuss some of these issues is in chosson/kallah classes. Maybe those same teachers could give refresher courses for married people.

In my community there are classes for taharat mishpacha and communication within marriage, but nothing about what role sex plays (other than the platitudes about husband and wife becoming as one in the “holy act,” yada yada). There is a discussion about the Halachically Yours seminar on a frum women’s forum I look at, and none of the women think something like this would take off in the frum community. Most of them laugh at the idea that this seminar is coming from an orthodox perspective, indicating that the suggested activities are not kosher, which is kind of sad too, in a way.

One commenter wrote –

“Wow, just read the seminar outline download.

It is pretty full on. Even while saying it can be done separately, it encourages the leader to bring the men and women together at the end for a joint discussion.

I’m guessing the suggestions for exercises such as taking your clothes off and looking at each other and in the mirror are supposed to be in private by couples, rather than at the workshop, although it isn’t 100% clear.

My problem with this is, while I do think that couples should talk about and explore/ enjoy their sex life, I find it shockingly untznuis to be discussing it outside the marriage, unless you are talking confidentially to a rav or therapist about a problem.

Normal, non Jewish people grow out of sharing and discussing their sex lives at around the time they start having serious sex, ie when it is all experimental stuff in high school and college, they talk a lot, when they start having a serious relationship, it all stops.

Normal married people don’t sit around in workshops discussing sex. Too intimate, too embarrassing.

And if it is too embarrassing for the relatively open society that surrounds us to discuss, except in the swinging 70s, it is definitely not ok for a community who prides themselves on living a more modest lifestyle where some of us won’t even share that we are pregnant even when it is obvious.

My husband and I are pretty laid back, we hold hands in public, we are ‘obviously tahor’, we aren’t bothered by bodily functions and talk openly to each other in private , which we are comfortable with. I guess most people would call us liberal minded, albeit in private.
But we’d never ever discuss sex with anyone else, however close the friendship.

There is a role for some resources for people who need advice to be able to seek it. Their collection of pamphlets and books they list sounds good.

But no way ever would I condone group discussions or workshops on this subject.”

Her viewpoint was echoed by the other women on the board.

There isn’t much in the way of sexual intimacy education in the orthodox community.  The kallah classes that I took before my wedding were completely focused on the mechanics of how to observe taharat mishpacha and the harchakot.  There was no discussion at all about sex. what to expect, or what was permissible.

After I was married 1 or 2 years, I went to a taharat mishapacha refresher course for young married women.  In that class, there was more explicit conversation about sex within marriage.  There were even discussions about masturbation, oral sex, and the halachic issues.  Actually, it was a great class with lively discussion, as you might imagine!  The rebbetzin who gave the course is married to a rabbi who gives a similar shiur for married men.  However, this was many years ago, and it was an informal class that wasn’t widely advertised.  I know this couple continues to give chosson and kallah classes, but I don’t know if they do their “refresher course” on a regular basis.

I have also been to lectures on “How to Make Your Great Marriage Even Greater!” or something similarly titled.  Those classes mainly focused on the “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars” discussion on the different communication styles between the sexes.  These talks never spelled out how men and women view sex differently, or what kinds of sexual activities are halachically permissible, or how the laws of taharat mishpacha can sometimes throw a monkey wrench into the works (instead of being the set of laws that supposedly keep intimacy fresh and exciting within a marriage).

I do think that the issues addressed in the Halachically Yours curriculum guide are important.  Certainly, husbands and wives should be able to talk about their most secret desires.  After all, frum married couples only have one outlet for their sexuality.  If there is a discrepancy there, it can lead to problems outside the bedroom as well.  I doubt that this exact seminar will become popular, but I do think that chosson and kallah teachers should be expanding their roles beyond the mechanics of taharat mishpacha by learning how to openly discuss sex with both brides, grooms, newlyweds, and older couples.

Chosson and kallah teachers should use their roles to encourage couples to talk openly to each other about their wants, needs, fears, and frustrations.  Alternatively, chosson and kallah teachers could pair with licensed sex therapists so that their courses have two components – both the halachot and the intimacy education – each taught by the relevant professionals.  More importantly, there should be parenting classes that help parents discuss some of these sensitive issues with their children.  If we teach our kids that it’s ok to ask questions about sex, and we are willing to speak openly with them, they will have a better chance at being able to openly communicate with their future spouses.

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If Mamma Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy

cast

I never realized how lonely I feel without hugs until now.  I’ve had inklings of it before.  However, for the past 17 years of motherhood, more often, my problem has been too much contact.  Too many little people hugging, hanging, pulling, grabbing, and basically fusing themselves as an extra appendage onto my own overly harassed body.  When my husband would come home during those early years of parenthood, I often didn’t want yet another person, hugging, hanging, pulling…well, you get the picture.

These days, I have to chase down my kids for hugs.  All, except for my youngest who is quickly outgrowing snuggles, merely tolerate my stolen hugs and kisses.  One of my sons will only allow me a knuckle bump.  It’s gotten that bad.  I say all of this to preface the point that, these days, my husband is my main source for any kind of physical affection.   When I was getting lots of kisses and snuggles from my young kids, I didn’t mind as much the times of separation when my husband and I couldn’t cuddle or kiss.  Now that he is once again almost the sole source of my cuddles, as he was during the BC era (before children), I miss it when we can’t touch.

It’s been a difficult few weeks for me, in more ways than one.  On the surface, it’s been tough because I broke my leg in a biking accident about 3 weeks ago.  Beneath the surface, it’s been hard because I’ve been a niddah (not permitted to my husband) since before my accident and will continue to be until I get my cast off and can go to the mikvah again.  You see, I can’t go to the mikvah with my cast on, and by the time my mikvah date came and went this month, I had already been injured.  It will probably be at least 7 or 8 weeks total before I can become tahor (permitted  to my husband).  Practically speaking, that means that I can have no physical contact with my husband, whether that means sex, hand holding, hugs, or passing the salt, for at least two months.

Sometimes I have to wonder, is this really what the halachos of niddah are trying to accomplish, keeping husbands and wives apart for weeks or months on end?  This is a problem that I haven’t really seen discussed much.  This is because your state of being niddah or tahor is supposed to be kept private.  However, in my case (does the big purple cast that’s been on my leg forever give it away?), as with the case of a woman who has just given birth, your niddah status is pretty much assumed.  You see, after giving birth, a woman automatically becomes a niddah for varying amounts of time depending on the sex of the baby and how long she continues to bleed.   I have seen discussions on forums that talk about how difficult this extended niddah period is for husbands.  However, for the woman, well, let’s just say most of us aren’t keen on trying for another baby within the week after we’ve popped out the last one.

Of course, I have heard stories from women who, after 6-8 weeks, still could not stop staining.  You must check for 7 clean days of no spotting before going to the mikvah. Therefore, they might not have gotten to the mikvah for 3, 4, or even 5 months after giving birth (yes, I know one woman that this happened to).  Of course by the 3rd or 4th month, both partners are sick and tired of their enforced separation.  I remember reading an anonymous blog, where a pregnant woman lamented that she kept staining during her pregnancy, rendering her a niddah throughout most of it.  She talked about her need for a hug and physical affection from her husband during a difficult and emotional pregnancy, and her inability to have that closeness.  How do couples bridge the distance caused by lengthy niddah separation and feel close again?

Of course, there are all kinds of happy platitudes that I could comfort myself with.  I could think of how joyful our reunion will be once I can go to the mikvah again.  I can think about how much I appreciate my husband and not ever refuse him hugs, kisses, or plead a headache ever again.  I can look forward to having a “honeymoon” all over again (this monthly honeymoon business has been a touted benefit in every book I’ve ever read about taharat mishpacha).  All I can think about right now, is how nice it would be to have my husband hold me, massage my aching back (crooked and sore with the effort of hopping and holding my bad leg out at an odd angle), and make me feel like I am not so alone.  I’m sure he’s thinking it would be nice to do other things.  That’s the way these things go.

However, wishing is all that’s going to happen right now.  It’s kind of like being both married and single.  I’m married, yet my husband and I are not permitted to live fully as husband and wife.  We must be shomer negiah, like a dating couple – but without the fun dates! The sad thing is that when I finally can return with my mangled, deformed, and castless leg to the mikvah, instead of feeling as joyful as a new bride, I’ll probably be feeling resentful.  Well, resentful and fearful that I’ll fall on the slippery tiles while tottering into a pool on a leg that hasn’t been used in over 6 weeks.  Sigh.

Consider This

You grew up a good girl.  You were a ray of sunshine to your family, who delighted in your curls and the cute way you pronounced your R’s as W’s, until the age of five.  You loved fashioning challah blobs next to your mother as she wove elaborate braided creations.  You put a dish towel on your head, waved your tiny open palms, and mimicked the bracha over candles at your mother’s side as she would bentch licht before Shabbos – a little wife and mother in the making.

Life progressed and you were the embodiment of Kibud Av V’Em itself.  Your parents and grandparents sang your praises.  Your teachers and classmates only had good things to say.  You excelled at chesed, tzniut, and won tefillah awards for your exemplary davening.  It was no surprise to anyone when you were one of the first girls in your seminary class to become engaged.

You did everything right and now Hashem was blessing you with your zivug.  With all the talk about the shidduch crisis, you knew how lucky you were to have found such a baal middos at such a young age.  Though you would never admit it, the thought of becoming (nebach) an older single woman, childless and alone, and a shame to your family, coated your flesh with goose bumps.  BH”, you avoided that sad fate through your middos and compliance.  Do and the rewards will follow. Your ticket to a golden future was sealed at the wedding.  Such happiness is contagious and the night spun out in a trail of white tulle, flowered arches, and wild dancing that almost toppled the mechitza.

The next night at sheva brachot had a decidedly different atmosphere.  The exuberance and triumph were still there on your family’s part.  The mazel tovs were not only for the wedding, but for the fact that your parents had avoided the calamity of having a daughter left out of the parsha, as happens to so many good girls these days.  The mazel tovs on his side had a deeper meaning.  BH” the wedding went through without a hitch.  The kallah’s family didn’t find out about his explosive temper, about his tendency to talk with his fists instead of his mouth, about his ability to cut people with words like a saber cuts through tissue paper.

Only, you had found out.  You spent 1 hour in front of the mirror that morning trying to cover up the fact that you had found out.  You told your first lie to your sister, asking her to bring over her heavy duty concealer because you had slipped and banged your eye on the counter that morning.  You greeted your parents at the sheva brachot with an aching grin, your new sheitel in a viselike grip on your head, and your new ring like a tiny golden handcuff.

The bruises accumulate throughout the years; your anniversary album made up of medical records and X-rays.  You were never this accident prone as a kid.  Pregnancy throws you off balance.  Caring for newborns makes you sleepy and careless.  Everything can be explained away.  You did everything right, this is a nisayon that Hashem is challenging you with right now.  Remember Job and don’t abandon your faith.  Keep believing and Hashem will soften your husband’s heart and make him into the good man you were promised on your wedding day.  It’s all in your hands.

Then you meet He.  He is stuck in a lonely and hopeless marriage like you.  He has a number of young children and can’t risk losing them too.  He is in an abusive marriage where his wife and in-laws bully him and make him miserable.  He understands you.  He loves you.  He wants to build you up where your husband tears you down. He makes you happy.

Your husband finds out when a nosy neighbor tips him off that you and He were seen alone in a coffee shop together.  Your husband beats you bloody in front of the children, threatens to divorce you.  Is it a threat or a promise?  Your children are crying.  Your husband calls your rabbi, parents, siblings, and anyone else who you wouldn’t want to know.  You don’t stick around to find out what will happen next.  You pack a bag before your parents can arrive and leave.  You have nothing, you are nothing.  He is not answering your calls.  He is in trouble too.  You are persona non grata.

You are also pregnant.  Mamzer!  The word rushes through the community like wind howling through a gutter pipe.  You can’t come into the neighborhood without people staring at your belly.  Should you tell the truth?  No.  Better to walk away and save the one.  This baby is no mamzer, but the sotah ritual is no longer performed as proof.  People will think what they will think.  It’s better this way.  Who could know that being labeled a mamzer could save a life.  Being a sotah could save a life.  The labels bought you and your unborn child freedom.  You sacrificed the others in order to save the one.  Selective reduction.  A mother’s bitter pill.

I took great liberties in telling this fictionalized account of a very real story, posted by My Derech.  This courageous woman is sharing her pain for a reason.  What can we learn from her story?  How can we help her and those like her?  What kind of a messed up world do we live in, where we have to pretend to live with a stigma in order to break free from abuse?  Where an abusive spouse is embraced and the victim is vilified? If nothing else, please leave her a comment of encouragement and give this mom the support she doesn’t have in real life.

The View From Here

As I’ve been convalescing at home with a broken leg, I remind myself more and more of L.B. Jeffries (Jeff) in Rear Window, played by the acclaimed late actor, Jimmy Stewart.  Jeff, a photojournalist accustomed to busy days tracking breaking news stories, is now confined to his home with a broken leg.  Jeff’s active mind has nothing to pursue except the dramas being played out in the apartment complex across from his rear window. He parks himself for hours by his window each day, convincing himself of mysterious and evil dramas to which he is the only witness.

I too, used to a busy schedule with a lot of time spent outdoors, have been confined to the view of my own “rear window.”  In my case, that window is that of the internet, opening up to a panorama of people in pain.  I peruse their struggles and torment in the daily news, with nothing to offer except bearing witness to their anguish.

First, the tragic Deb Tambor story happened, highlighting the plight of parents who choose to leave the religious community.  Then, a poignant blogger, My Derech, currently in a similar situation to Tambor, began sharing her tumultuous story.  I expressed my fear on Twitter that hers was another Deb Tambor story in the making, but she assured me she is still holding on strong, due to her daughter.  However, her ex, family, and community continue to try and chip away at whatever remnants of self respect, emotional health, and strength she has left.

Twitter was just supposed to be a place where I bookmarked and shared articles of interest to readers of this blog.  How do you form meaningful connections in 140 characters or less?  I can tell you that I have had interactions with people on Twitter, including the blogger from My Derech, who reveal pain, confusion, and the leading of double lives.  I have found people, like me, who are starting to liken their online front row seats to this communal genocide as being similar to the Jewish equivalent of Alice Cooper’s audience ripping live chickens to pieces in ’69.

I can read about these travesties and I can write about them.  Is this enough to make a difference? To take it further, am I becoming desensitized to stories of bullying, beatings, and suicides in my own backyard?  How long can someone read about horrors happening and do nothing, before they become part of the problem?  I left Facebook a few years ago so that I could live my life offline.  Now, although I still am holding out on returning to Facebook, I am creeping back into an online venue I’m not sure I want to attend.

I am not a therapist, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a politician, nor am I a social worker – what can I possibly do to help alleviate the pain of those who have been abused, ostracized, and condemned by the very community that once promised unconditional love?  How do you help someone to survive being unceremoniously thrust out of their cocoon before their wings were ready to fly solo?  How do you save a newborn butterfly from the predator’s snapping beak?

Strength in numbers is not just a cliche.  Even unworthy causes have historically carried the day (German Nazi Party, anyone?) due to buy-in from the masses, regardless of the scattered voices of dissent.  Even in prison, it’s common knowledge that loners don’t survive – you must seek out a group for protection.  It’s the same in our society.  Those within the dominant group have the financial, medical, legal, political, religious, and societal backing.  Those cast out of the group, either through their own will or those of others, have no power to stand alone against a tide whose numbers keep crashing forward against any rebel or interloper who dares defy them.

If my life really were a movie patterned after Rear Window, the culprit would be caught and brought to justice.  Oh yeah, and my other leg would also be broken!  However, the vindication would make the pain worthwhile.  Unfortunately, life isn’t a scripted movie, and the sacrifices made for the causes I speak of can’t be healed nor rectified.  How far am I willing to go, how far are any of us who care willing to go, to make sure that no other lives are lost for the sake of religious freedom?  Sometimes things need to be broken, to be rebuilt stronger.

Mourning the Mother I Never Knew

I’ve had some incredible things happen to me during my lifetime, but the story I am about to tell has truly been the most awe inspiring.  It’s taken me some time to absorb everything that has happened, and I think it will probably be quite a long time before I come to terms with the wonder of it all.

My story started when I wrote a post about being adopted a few months ago.   I received an email from a lovely woman who had been adopted in the Chicago area many years ago by a Jewish family.  She is now in a position where one of her children wants to marry in the Orthodox tradition, and the rabbi needs more information about this woman’s background in order for her child to get married.  After reading my article, she reached out for help in finding local information about Jewish adoptive services and beis din conversion records.

In the end, as she went along on her journey to discover her heritage, she mentioned to me that the laws in Illinois had changed regarding closed adoptions.  It seems that all adoptees in Illinois now have the right to a copy of their original birth certificates; the certificates containing the names of their birth parents and not their adoptive parents.  In the past, this information was sealed.

I realized that this was the slight crack in the dusty window of my past I had been waiting for.  Now it was up to me to find the emotional strength to push through the rusted latches and let the sunlight in.

I knew that there was a good chance that the birth certificate would come back with the names blackened out.  I had read that the birth parents can request, in writing and for a $40 fee, that their names be omitted from the document.  I prepared myself for disappointment.  I also prepared myself for a long wait until I received the birth certificate.  This is an Illinois state department we’re talking about!

On August 1st, I mailed off the application for my OBC (original birth certificate).  My family and I went out of town a few days later, and I hoped the certificate wouldn’t arrive before our return.  I didn’t want it to get lost in my absence after waiting for this information for so many years!  I returned home to nothing.  In the back of my mind, I did fear that my OBC had gotten lost by our trusty postal service workers.

Another week or two went by, and finally on August 27th, a thin envelope arrived from the Illinois Department of Public Health.  With shaking hands and some inner trepidation I opened the envelope.  Her name was there!  The woman who gave birth to me, spelled out in black and white.  My father’s name was legally omitted, but it was my mother that was and always has been my focus.   Her address was there too; at least her address at the time of my birth.  She lived in a town not three miles away from where I now live.  How could this be?

There were discrepancies.  The street name was spelled wrong.  I only knew this because I am familiar with her neighborhood.  It was one letter off.  I looked up the owner’s name associated with the property, and it didn’t match her last name.  However, it was similar enough to possibly be a shortened and more Americanized version of the name listed on the property title.

I made assumptions, I drew conclusions, and I put together pieces of a puzzle that I wasn’t sure would come together in the end.  I did all this with the background of a librarian who was often asked to find a needle in a haystack and make sense of a myriad of different information sources that didn’t seem related.  It wasn’t unusual to have clients come to me to find answers to questions made up of misinformation and faulty facts.  Many times I had to back track and find the real question in order to get to the real answer.  No research question had ever been more important to me in this life than the one I now faced.  If my education and experience as a researcher were only meant to have led me to this one final search, it would have been worth it.

I ran searches for the local schools affiliated with the address given on the birth certificate.  I looked up the high school on Facebook and Classmates.com for any reunion information or yearbook photos.  I struck gold by finding a 1972 yearbook photo of a girl who looked nothing like me, but was listed under the same name as my mother.  I could find very little information about her, and certainly no current information.  She was on the list of missing alumnae for her 40th class reunion on Facebook.  I realized that it was likely she had married, moved away, and changed her last name.

Women are harder to locate because so many change their names upon marriage.  Men are easier to find.  I knew she had an older brother.  That brother probably went to the same high school.  I went back to searching older yearbooks online and found him.  He was listed under the same last name as my mother, but in parentheses, he had listed his former name – the name he had shortened into an Americanized version of his parent’s last name.  The same name of the residents of the address listed on my birth certificate.

A Google search revealed his business website with an email address.  I wrote –

“Mr. _____,

I am hoping you might be able to help me connect with a long lost relative.  On the slim chance that you might be related, her name used to be ______ ______ and she lived in _______, IL. If you can be of any assistance, please email me at kolbishaerva@gmail.com.  Thanks so much for any help you can offer!

Regards,

Sharon Shapiro

My email was answered in quick succession –

“Sharon,

I have current information on ________. Please call me. (phone number included)

_______”

What followed was an emotional conversation filled with tears and validation.  This was my uncle, his sister was my mother, and she had died about two weeks earlier.  In fact, she had died about 1 week after I sent off for my OBC.  Stunned, I immediately said that I was sorry for his loss.  The fact that it was also my loss hadn’t yet occurred to me.  I would never meet my mother in this life.

My grandmother still lived at the same address with a younger sister I never knew I had.  In fact, after my mother passed away, my grandmother thought about telling my sister about me, but hadn’t done so yet.  She had given up hope of ever meeting me, but throughout the years would express her concern and curiosity to my uncle over how I was faring.  She always wondered about the lost granddaughter she had counseled her teen daughter to give away, in order for both to have a chance at a better life.

After this incredible telephone reunion, my thoughts went back to a friend who I had been trying to reach in New York to pay a shiva call.  Her mother had been niftar a few days earlier.  I had been unsuccessful thus far in reaching her.  It suddenly occurred to me that I might have some type of obligation of aveilus (mourning), as detached as I was from my birth mother.  I called my rabbi and told him my amazing tale.  He informed me that indeed, I did have an obligation not only for a year of aveilus, but also for 1 week of shiva!  Since I had been informed of her death within the month of her passing, as her daughter, I had the obligation to sit a full shiva.

My birth family is not religious, and as such, no one sat shiva for her, nor was kaddish being said for her.  I have had the privilege to sit shiva in her memory, say the Yizkor prayer over yom tov, and have a wonderful friend take on the task of saying kaddish for her three times a day.  I am now in the year of aveilus (mourning), which practically speaking means I can’t wear new clothes, dance at weddings, go to parties without divrei torah involved, see movies, plays, or live concerts.  There is more involved, but so far, those are the prohibitions that have practically impacted me.

This is where my belief in Hashem comes into play.  It’s not rational or logical, it’s just a feeling.  The timing seems too coincidental.  I feel like my mother was taken, but somehow I was given back to my family in her stead.  I feel like her neshama needed to have someone davening for her to have an aliyah in Olam Habah (the world to come).  I have hopefully been able to help do that for her.  This experience has taught me the importance of kibud av v’em (honoring your parents) in a very real way.  It’s such an important mitzvah, that one must even honor a parent that they never knew.

I still don’t know what this all means, but do I know that an entirely new world has opened up to me in the way of my birth family.  Happily, they have welcomed me into their lives with open arms.  I know that years of wondering, self-doubt, and feelings of alienation are steadily starting to scar over.  The memory of the wounds will always be there, but the pain is subsiding and the healing is building a thicker skin that will hopefully protect against future hurts.