It was Erev Yom Hazikaron over five years ago. I was living on Mount Scopus and waiting for any form of transportation to take me to the Kotel for the State ceremony. With little time to spare, a taxi pulled up with a Hassid in the back and a seemingly secular man up front. I knew the rules; the seating arrangement was just not going to work and I had no time to wait for another ride. So, we quickly played “magical chairs” and arranged for the Hassid to sit as far away from me as possible during the brief ride to the Old City.
Upon arrival, I began to make my way through the cobblestone alleys of the Jewish Quarter when I noticed the same Hassid was nearly scaling the opposite wall to allow for the most distance between him and I. Too rushed to be bothered by his exaggerated piety, I continued until I heard him speak. I stopped dead in my tracks when I realized that nobody else was around and he was addressing me. The real shock came, however, when I was finally able to decipher the words he was mumbling underneath his heavy beard. The very same man who refused to sit in the back seat of a taxi with me, in the name of modesty, was propositioning me for sex. I was dumbfounded… and terrified. His supposed religious observance didn’t mean a thing at that moment. He was a strange man. I was a petite university student and we were in a dark alley. Alone. I walked as fast as my ballet flats could take me with his cat calls trailing behind, until a group of passing yeshiva boys would absorb him into their sea of black and white and he would vanish into the night… and then all fell silent.
Nearly a year later, after my faith in the good intentions and holiness of haredim was restored, I found myself waiting for a ride on Mount Scopus once again. As my patience wore thin and I cursed Egged’s tardiness in every language I could speak, a yeshiva bochur, with a fresh driver’s license pulled up and offered me a ride. The timid and innocent smile on his acne-riddled face convinced me to accept. I proposed to sit at the back but he insisted that it was okay for me to ride next to him in the front. Five minutes of silence were interrupted by the click of his seat belt and in a series of violent motions, he lunged across the passenger side, with his tongue darting in the direction of my face. “A shanda (shame) ” I shrieked in heavily-accented Yiddish, as I exited the car panicked... and then all fell silent.
Now, ladies and gentlemen: please don’t be alarmed. There is no sexually devious endemic plaguing the Mount Scopus/ French Hill Ultra-Orthodox communities specifically. I’ve read about symptoms of this disease flaring up amongst the men of Monsey, and the women of Williamsburg, as well. And I would venture to say that similar incidents occur in most, if not all sexually repressive communities. If you don’t believe me, ask one of the many boys who have been robbed of their youth by the trusted authority figures who molested them; or the girls who have been raped repeatedly and shamed into silence; or yet still, the young married couples who have difficulty consummating their marriages due to an unfamiliarity with their own anatomies.
On second thought, perhaps they might not be able to tell you because they lack the vocabulary to explain such matters; and even if they belong to the precious few who have a decent awareness of their own sexuality, their shame would guarantee their silence.
Whether the victims be Catholic choir boys or Jewish seminary students, the culprit is almost always silence. The silence in which sexuality is so tightly shrouded within the Ultra-Orthodox community is deafening. Its repercussions are destroying the community from within, as the violators and their crimes earn the support of their community and the victims earn their own exile for breaking the silence.
Respecting the Jewish value of modesty, in light of the nature of human sexuality and the onslaught of vulgarity and temptation surrounding us is no easy feat. However, there is a fine line between religious observance and dangerous ignorance. The denial with which sexuality is treated falls squarely within the latter category. A community’s attitude towards sex and the mores it promulgates has a tremendous bearing on the health, the psyche and the behavior of its members.
Sex is not a subject for discussion within the Ultra-Orthodox community. In fact, sex education (or at least a censored version of it) is not instructed until the 10th or 11th grades; and often, said instruction is delayed only to be conveyed in preparation and leading up to marriage.
Young men and women go through the hormonal rush of adolescence with little to no knowledge in terms of what is happening and why it’s happening. Consequently, the innate curiosity typically attached to this period is inappropriately explored and first-person accounts have shown that this can lead to severe violations of Jewish halacha, including masturbation, homosexuality and pedophilia; all much worse than a cartoon diagram of the human body quickly explained in the classroom.
Furthermore, when a first contact with the human anatomy and sexuality is made only days before the Ketubah is signed, the transition from chastity to marriage can be awkward, difficult and lead to marital problems. Vaginismus, a subconscious spasm that prevents a woman from having penetrative sex, is a by-product of unhealthy and restrictive attitudes towards sex, many cases of which have surfaced within the religious community.
I won’t bother you with numbers and statistics in this regard because the muted mindset promises inaccuracy. I also won’t drop any numbers when I tell you about the rising incidents in sexually transmitted infections among the Orthodox contracted by visits to brothels and other adulterous activities because community leaders have very successfully managed to stifle those statistics as well. Still, they exist.
Desire exists, too. It is strong. It is human. It is undeniable and it can’t be silenced. Attempts to suppress it will ensure it manifests itself in unhealthy, un-Jewish ways, be it with a stranger in an alley, in a car or worse. It will break through the silence and roar louder than ever.
Learning and knowledge, in my mind, are the most Jewish of values. They are the vaccine against most ills. Knowledge of one’s anatomy and sexuality is a human right and responsibility, in my humble opinion.
In the Torah, the word for sex is derived from the root of the word “to know.” (Dalet- Ayin- Tav). From this, we are reminded of the importance of knowledge in the context of sexuality; to know one’s body is consequently to know one’s soul. I maintain that the ultra-orthodox community is doing a disservice to itself and its members by restricting this knowledge.
I conclude this column disappointingly aware that those who could benefit from it the most will probably never have a chance to read it because of the same restriction of knowledge. Still for those who do, may you walk away with a reminder that there is no shame in sexuality. Judaism is a sex-positive religion that encourages the act and recognizes it as a mitzvah between a husband and a wife meant for procreation, but also for pleasure. Your body, mind and soul belong to you alone. May they be treated with love and shared with love.
Margaux Chetrit is the founder and president of Three Matches, an international dating agency. Her insights on love and sex are inspired by a career in diplomacy, a panoply of academic degrees and ex-boyfriends.
For more of her musings, please visit: www.threematches.com or follow her at www.twitter.com/threematches and www.facebook.com/threematches