Judy Siegel-Itzkovich reports.
The nationalist haredi, ultra-Orthodox (non-Zionist haredi) and national religious Jewish communities have some of the highest birth rates in Israel, while at the same time, gender separation is taken for granted in many frameworks in these communities, even from the age of three. Marital relations are a big secret to many young people until they get engaged and same-sex counselors explain to them the facts of life in a few short lessons. Some national religious schools, especially those with separation of the sexes, have classes on the basics of sex, as many parents are reluctant to bring up the subject.
Dr. Chana Katan approves of gender separation at school, she explains, because people – such as fat or unattractive girls – are often judged for their looks and shamed in a mixed setting. There is also the issue of the breakdown of modesty in contemporary society. Orthodox boys and girls are not completely unaware of each other, she adds, because they live with each other in large families and meet cousins.
One would expect that embarrassment, fear and ignorance about male-female relationships are widespread among observant Jewish couples. In fact they are, says Katan, a noted and experienced nationalist haredi obstetrician, gynecologist, fertility specialist, sexologist, rabbi’s wife, mother and grandmother (many times over), book author, columnist and medical lecturer.
Although she approves of gender separation in the school system, she insists that many young couples need advice – and in fact, many come to her clinics in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak to get it.
In fact, she has just produced her third Hebrew-language book, Beyahad: Madrich Livniyat Intimiyut Zugit Briya (Together: Guide to Building Healthy Married Intimacy). A total of 128 pages, priced at NIS 49 to 69, intentionally without a single diagram, illustration or photograph and published by Jerusalem’s Beit El Press (www.beitel.co.il), the text is preceded by warm endorsements from national religious rabbis Shlomo Aviner, Ya’acov Ariel and Eliezer Melamed (but none from haredi rabbis, whom she did not ask, as she would be unlikely to get their approval due to the subject matter).
“I wrote the book to help people, as information gives them power. If they have problems and there is something wrong, they have a place to turn that suits their way of life.”
Her previous books dealt with the more medical aspects of women’s adolescence and womanhood, including fertility problems, childbirth and menopause. This new volume deals entirely with intimacy and sexual problems and uses “clean language” – intercourse is almost always referred to as hibur (connection) and clothed in modest language.
BORN IN worldly Manhattan, Katan was brought by her parents to Israel as a 15-year-old, studied at the Zionist-Orthodox Zeitlin High School for girls in Tel Aviv, studied medicine at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School and did her residency in pediatrics and ob/gyn at Sha’are Zedek Medical Center. She worked for years at SZMC’s in-vitro fertilization unit and ran the hospital’s sexology clinic.
She established the IVF unit at Laniado Medical Center in Netanya and ran the Meuhedet Health Fund’s women’s health center in the haredi town of Kiryat Sefer.
Katan continues to receive patients and works “10 hours a day” but no longer has to go to hospitals at all hours to deliver babies.
She states in her “Important Introduction” a request that “only married people” read her book, even though she is aware that “some parts could be beneficial also for people not yet married.” While she is aware of the fact that she can’t enforce this limitation, she asks that “responsible readers meet my request and make sure that it reaches only married couples.”
She writes that before setting down to write it, “even relatives and other people close to me” advised her not to write a book on “such a controversial, sensitive subject.”
She went ahead after consulting with her husband, Rabbi Yoel Katan, who works in rabbinical and teaching positions and edits religious books at Moshav Sha’alavim near Latrun – who agreed that the new volume could be very helpful to many people. Just as she consults with him on the religious law of cases she handles, she also consulted with him regularly on the text.
The gynecologist did, however, err when she hesitantly gave an interview about the book to a secular, Hebrew-language women’s magazine that wrote “so immodestly” (she told The Jerusalem Post) that she was in tears for days. “I had taken a risk, but I am still not sorry I wrote the book.”
She asked this writer to be careful in what she quoted as “some things are suitable for a book but not for a newspaper.”
Many intimacy problems faced by observant couples have been solved when they went to a suitable sexologist for advice, “and peace in the home was restored. But from my experience, most couples who have problems involving intimate matters don’t go at all for help because they think it won’t help or out of shame or the unpleasantness of raising a most modest and intimate matter in their world before a third party, even if the third party is a doctor who honors medical confidentiality, both halachically and legally.”
The “main message of the book,” says Katan, is that “the suitable hibur be basically enjoyable, exciting, happy, pleasant and comfortable to both partners, when both together... try to give pleasure, bring happiness and feel their spouse. Thus the intimate connection is not just a momentary matter but enlightens the day and the week of both of them. And if there is difficulty in the joy of the hibur or the desire to upgrade the intimate connection, I am here at your side, and for this I took my pen in hand and went ahead.”
She said she would be glad if Beit El Press decided to translate the work into English for an additional audience of married observant Jews.
ALTHOUGH HAREDI rabbis did not officially endorse it, her book is already in its third printing, and she knows of many ultra-Orthodox couples who went out and bought it, along with national religious and national haredi couples.
Opposite relationships that are carried out “in holiness and purity stands a culture that gives free rein to one’s inclinations, that doesn’t deal with commitment, that has no modesty,” she writes. “Opposite this there are two ways – to avoid evil, to observe clear boundaries at workplaces, control your eyes, protect Internet usage, be loyal to the Jewish law and to do good, to choose holiness.... Our sexuality is something special, holy, elevated and unique to the partners.”
Katan notes that today’s Jewish woman still wants intimacy, but the world is much different than centuries ago. Then, her husband and she might meet up once a month or even less frequently because he worked long days away from home in difficult physical work and even in a different town. Today, couples marry later, meaning that much time – even many years – pass between sexual maturity and a wedding.
Contemporary women have other things to keep them busy, leaving sexual yearning a smaller place than before. In addition, sometimes past experiences (even a visit to a gynecologist) may weigh on their innocence and purity and affect their natural desire, she writes.
In the modern age, she continues, women are “disconnected from their bodies and are not as...
familiar with them or... connected to [their] female organs.” The average woman “is collapsing under her various life obligations, leaves the house and returns, and she doesn’t hear her body’s sounds.”
At the time of the Jewish sages, women used to menstruate for relatively short periods, but today, menstruation begins around 12 and ends around 50, and women are not pregnant most of that time.
There is also spotting (of blood) that causes problems for Jewish husbands and wives.
Today, women work outside the home and participate in supporting the family. The division of roles is different, she writes.
“There is assertiveness and aggression.
The sexual connection and creating intimacy requires the opposite – pleasure, softness, giving and devotion.” But observing the positive commandments of intimacy in marriage “will help us return to the natural life that existed before.”
THE GYNECOLOGIST then goes into a basic description of the sex organs and how they function, how men and women react physically and psychologically in different ways and how they are aroused and feel pleasure. The Torah permits married couples to do most things that are possible and desirable.
There is no mention of homosexuality “because that was not the intention of the book,” she explains.
Every few chapters there are summarizing pages listing “cut and save” advice to help readers in simple language.
“Intimacy,” she advises, “is the ability to expose something and share with someone my internal feelings, such as ‘I’m embarrassed’ or ‘this touch is not pleasant for me.’” The rest of the volume is devoted to patient cases, which, she admits, she mostly “made up” rather than telling personal tales. She begins with soldiers’ wives whose husbands on active duty return home suddenly, not necessarily at times of the month when hibur is permitted but when longing is intense.
Taking hormone pills can make it possible to improve the timing if considered in time.
Premature ejaculation is dealt with in a modest way. So are vaginismus and vulvar vestibulitis, difficulties in achieving a pregnancy, and late-life marriages. Kegel exercises to strengthen muscles in the pelvic floor are explained.
How does one enjoy hibur during pregnancy? How does the husband remain in the delivery room without violating Jewish law? How do women who suddenly are out of shape after having a baby attract their husbands? How does one cope with pain? How does a woman divide her time between breastfeeding and diapering and renewing her intimacy with her husband? Katan offers practical tips.
“Body image is not connected to the body structure,” she explains, “but with how I feel about my body – loving myself and my self-confidence.”
Then there are cases of young married couples, probably with small children, who complain that he or she is not interested very much in intimacy – or wants more than the partner desires. How does one cope with the demands and joys of intimacy with too little sleep due to feeding babies and treating children who get up in the middle of the night feeling sick and crying? Many observant couples are careful not to let even their children view them showing fondness for each other, even when it is modest.
“The desire for touch is existential, at any age, and the more you do it the better. Our dialogue with our feelings of touch begins already with one’s mother’s first breastfeeding in the delivery room. It continues with a father touching the baby in his crib, the mother’s hug, in kisses, caresses, the look in the eyes.
And it continues in childhood and in adolescence; it’s important that from time to time children see signs of fondness between their parents, that they feel their love radiating from their glances, light pats and so on.”
Katan writes about couples married for decades and their intimacy, the effects of heart disease, cancer, depression and other physical problems, the use of erectile-dysfunction drugs (absolutely permitted to married men), menopause, and keeping the cellular phone and laptop out of the bedroom.
“I started a long journey – delicate, complicated and sensitive – when I decided to write this book.... It was with good intentions to help many people who should not be prevented from enjoying the good that God gave us,” she wrote. “I hope that I helped them and that I did not stray to the right or to the left from writing the volume,” she concluded.
It’s a worthy book for clearing the air and talking about an important subject that should no longer remain a shameful, hidden secret in the observant community.