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Let’s Talk About Sex…or Not?

A new book deepens the Orthodox Jewish community’s conversation around female sexuality

Tova Cohen
October 20, 2020
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Shutterstock
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Shutterstock
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Shutterstock
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Shutterstock

It was, perhaps, a perfect convergence of events to have heard Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s new song “WAP” the same week I received a copy of the new book Monologues from the Makom, a collection of essays and poems about intimacy and female sexuality written by observant Jewish women. Wherever I turned, it seemed, women were testing the limits of what could be openly discussed and explored. The element of the taboo was the same; the depth of boundary pushing, wildly dissimilar.

Not that the majority of topics covered in Monologues from the Makom should be taboo. Some more sensational subjects, like female same-sex attraction and masturbation, obviously encroach on the delicate communal values of Orthodox Judaism, if not exactly Jewish law. Most entries, however, are thoughtful and restrained treatises on periods, birth control, postpartum recovery, negiah (Jewish laws of touching), inclusion in ritualistic Jewish life, and consent. But in a community where few of these topics are explored beyond the Halachic boundaries in which they exist, the unmentionable could be mistaken for offensively proscribed.

“The Orthodox community has this idea that we all have the exact same life trajectory of dating, marriage, keeping Halacha to a tee, and everything is great,” said Sara Rozner Lawrence, 26, who spearheaded the book. “The reality is obviously more complex. If people aren’t discussing their diverse experiences, then there’s a lot of people thinking they’re atypical. I’m not trying to debate what is and isn’t Halacha. I’m trying to broaden the conversation of what’s normal.”

Lawrence modeled the concept on which the book is based after Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues (in case you never attended a yeshiva high school class taught by a skittish rabbi, “makom” is a reference throughout Jewish texts to vagina).

As a freshman at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, Lawrence saw a friend perform in Ensler’s famous play. Because she saw no equivalent in the Orthodox community, she created it. Non-YU-sanctioned, the 2016 performance of Monologues from the Makom in a Washington Heights living room saw a throng of more than 60 women read and listen to stories about periods, body positivity, sex education, masturbation, and gender identity.

Lawrence parlayed that initial show into a performance in 2017 at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Association conference, where Orthodox sex counselor and JOFA’s then-president Bat Sheva Marcus told Lawrence to turn her idea into a book.

Three years later, the publication of Monologues comes on the tentative heels of other signs of Orthodoxy’s growing fluency in intimacy and sexuality: the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, podcasts, and social media “influencers” who speak candidly to these topics on widely accessible platforms; the proliferation of yoatzot, female Halachic advisers; and more formalized sex ed in more yeshiva high schools. But these developments happen slowly and amid careful weighing of the value of speaking openly about these things in a community for which tzniut, modesty, is a sacred value.

Jordyn Kaufman, 25, penned an essay in Monologues about the debilitating period pain she suffered for years before she braved a visit to the gynecologist to learn that wasn’t normal. Birth control pills mitigated that pain so she could function. For Kaufman, any quibbling over modesty is trumped by concerns for women’s physical and mental health. “A lot of the issues like mine discussed in this book are, in my opinion, pikuach nefesh (saving a life), so to me, that overrides tzniut, a perspective that Halacha makes room for,” she told me.

For others, it isn’t only a question of saving lives, but saving marriages. Sandra Hoenig is a Bergen County-area family medicine physician who specializes in women’s health issues. She’s seen a number of Jewish women in their 50s and 60s who hesitate to speak with her about their sexual health but, after being carefully prompted, reveal years of sexual dysfunction.

“They think it’s normal so they never said anything before,” said Hoenig. “This issue touches younger women, too, who never got actual sex education.”

Hoenig has spoken with community yoatzot about the need for kallah (bride) classes to touch on more than just the Halachic intricacies of sex.

“I’ve long wanted to offer my own classes for young Orthodox women that discuss consent, how to derive and receive pleasure, and different types of sex,” Hoenig said. “I think education needs to start well before marriage, and as early as girls start to want to discuss what womanhood means.”

Hoenig speaks candidly with her own nearly 15-year-old daughter, who also began relaying questions from her friends seeking answers from a trusted source of information. But not every teen has a mom like Hoenig who is so comfortably articulate about these issues. Many parents rely on high schools to appropriately convey the information—but perhaps they shouldn’t, according to Rebecca Zimilover, a Monologues editor who attended a co-ed yeshiva high school on Long Island. “My mother trusted that my school’s health class would teach me the basics, but it was an abstinence-only education that didn’t even mention the concept of abstinence,” she said. “I left the class thinking I can’t sit on the same couch as my husband for half of the month. Any meaningful education on sex or Jewish womanhood was nonexistent.”

Ora Weinbach is a Planned Parenthood University-certified sex educator and Yale Divinity School student who works with yeshiva high schools and day schools to build sexuality education curricula, often with Jewish law and values at the fore.

“Schools often want me to be the one teaching the class, and I always say no because it should come from an educator the students already know and are comfortable with,” said Weinbach. “When teens learn this critical material in a safe environment with an adult they trust, it sets the tone for how to relate to their bodies, self-images, and relationships and marriages. The goal is to help them lead better lives. And when I’ve talked one-on-one with parents even from more right-wing Orthodox settings, that’s all they want for their child.”

“I’ve seen more Orthodox high schools recognize that they have to at least offer something, especially with the #MeToo movement,” said Weinbach, whose own paltry sexual educational experience at her more right-wing all girls’ school in New Jersey helped motivate her life’s work. “When my friends and I got married, the huge gaps in our education led to real challenges in our relationships. But I think faster progress will happen when all of us who lacked sexual education call our alma maters and explain to them how damaging that was—not only for our marriages, but for our sense of self.”

Rivka Schwartz, one of the educators at SAR High School in Riverdale who teaches this topic to sophomore girls (this is the only class aside from gym that SAR separates by gender), agrees that teaching sexuality to Orthodox students encompasses more than just teaching about sex. “Students have exposure to the highly sexualized world in which we live, but that gives them little understanding to what human relationships are actually like,” said Schwartz. “So we focus on our relationships with ourselves, our bodies, with our friends, and the broad range of human interactions they can have to prepare them for when they’re older.”

Detractors of open dialogue and early education decry that bringing these issues to light only normalizes them, leading to less-than-ideal Halachic implications in many instances. But as anyone with experience parenting and educating young people knows, what we might like our teenage children to do rarely jives with what they actually do. “There has to be a reckoning with reality at some point,” said Lawrence.

And at any age, there is frequent dissonance between religious and cultural norms and people’s actual lived experiences.

As the clinical director of one of the country’s largest centers for women’s sexual health, Marcus—profiled as “The Orthodox Sex Guru” by The New York Times in 2015—knows well the ramifications of the community’s avoidance of publicly discussing sexual behavior. She sees many clients from across the spectrum of observant Judaism whose deficient education and communally imparted fears regarding sex led them to seek her help in regulating or in some instances, sparking their sex lives.

“People who are uncomfortable with discussing critical issues concerning women’s sexuality use Halacha as a smokescreen to avoid them entirely,” said Marcus. “While it’s hard to say that anything is distinctly not a Halachic problem, people are experiencing these things and some people are suffering because of the lack of communication. And silence breeds shame.”

For a sex therapist who works in a community that prizes healthy sexual relationships between spouses, sexual shame is anathema to Torah.

Shame is also a common theme for many of Monologues’ authors and the women who contribute to the conversation.

It’s why Shira Lankin Sheps founded The Layers Project, a photojournalistic enterprise, in 2016. Debilitated by chronic illness, the typically Type A overachiever was embarrassed and frustrated by her new circumstances. “To be different in the Orthodox community is to be othered, and I wanted to put it out there that I might not be living the life I envisioned, but that’s OK,” she explained.

She immediately received a plethora of messages from other women in the Orthodox community who felt stigmatized in different ways, and knew she touched a communal nerve.

Sheps, a trained social worker, consciously runs a more judicious forum for female Orthodox experiences. She gives voice to things like infertility, divorce, and BRCA testing, but steers clear of some of Monologues’ more sensational themes about sexual mores, desire, and attraction. “The first thing they teach you in social work school is to meet your clients where they’re at, and so I take the lead of my religious community in what they are ready or want to talk about,” she explained. “I spend a lot of time thinking about how to inch the line of progress forward. But I think the best advocacy is done from within, and that can take time.”

Zimilover points to Layers more generally temperate Orthodox audience who shun Monologues’ more aggressively open attitude as growth. She credits the recent Haredi and yeshivish trend of removing images of women from public life, an example of modesty being taken to the extreme, for that development.

“I don’t think The Layers Project would have existed 10 years ago,” said Zimilover, “but the erasure of women in the ultra-Orthodox community created a backlash and opened a space for people who would normally never be involved in JOFA and similar conversations to fight for women to have more of a voice. These people might not be interested in a conversation around sexuality, but they realize at the very least that it’s an issue for women to be seen and heard.”

“And that,” she continued, “is beneficial for all of us invested in more female voices.”

For her part, Marcus is optimistic that changes will reverberate outward. “I’m hopeful that anything we do in the more modern corner of the community has ripple effects everywhere else,” said Marcus. “Nobody used to have bat mitzvahs, and then modern Jews started to and now it’s common among yeshivish families. And just the fact that I hear from so many women in recent years that they want to become sex therapists specifically for the Orthodox community is telling.”

Monologues caters to a narrowly specific audience for now. It was published by Ben Yehuda Press, a small operation that, according to editorial director Larry Yudelson, operates by the mandate of “all kinds of books for all kinds of Jews.” Monologues sold 700 copies online in its first two weeks. “That’s our bestselling book since a 2008 memoir written by a Jewish screenwriter for Groucho Marx,” Yudelson said cheerfully.

Wondering if Marcus’ steadfast belief in “trickle down progress” has penetrated more circumspect circles yet, I called a few Jewish bookstores in the frum strongholds of Flatbush, the Five Towns, and Lakewood, to see if they’re at least stocking the book for any interested parties. After being transferred several times by confused-sounding men, I confirmed these stores did not. One chattier manager at Judaica Plus in Lawrence told me he keeps select books, like The Guide to Intimacy and Sexuality: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Parents, in his back office for interested customers who expressly ask for it.

Would he consider adding Monolgues to his office’s secret stash, I inquired. He paused, and lowered his voice. “I might but … I think it would be best if you got a big rav to sign off on this first.”

Tova Cohen is a fundraising communications professional and freelance writer. She lives with her family in New Jersey.