"You must be doing it wrong": Sex lessons from the Hasids

Our Hasidic leaders all wanted to know why there was no baby. Their advice countered most of what I'd been taught

Published June 7, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

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Excerpted from "All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir"

Six months had passed since we were married. “Is there any news yet?” the rebbe would ask when Gitty and I went for one of the sixty-second audiences granted village residents in the days before Rosh Rashanah and during the nights of Chanukah. Gitty would watch from the far wall as I would shake my head, no news, and the rebbe would say, “Nu, may God help, it should be soon.”

We had settled into a routine. In the mornings, I would go off to the yeshiva and Gitty to her job at the offices of the Monsey Trails bus company, where her father was the general manager. From a window in her office, above the bustling garage at the entrance to the village, Gitty could see down to where mechanics worked on buses raised onto enormous lifts. I didn’t think it an appropriate place for a woman to work, with exhaust fumes and grime everywhere, a male world. But Gitty enjoyed being out of the house, along with the light secretarial work she was given.

Over dinner, we would sit mostly in silence, punctuated with polite inquiries about each other’s day. I did most of the talking, with Gitty listening carefully and only very occasionally offering words of her own. When she did, it came first in a whisper, and then, after clearing her throat, a croak. her face would flush, and I would look away as she battled her anxiety within the strangeness of this new relationship.

Our interactions felt dictated, most of all, by the laws of family purity, the fear of forbidden contact hovering over us at all times. Once every month, I would come home to find that Gitty had moved the small bouquet of silk flowers from the kitchen counter to the table— this was the agreed-upon sign: it was that time of the month. During the two weeks that followed, the small space of our home would be overwhelmed by the presence of something invisible to me yet mysterious and forbidding, a spiritual bacterium more noxious than any physical substance. A single moment of carelessness could lead not only to great sin but generations of tainted souls.

“Can you take something to the dayan?” Gitty would ask at times during the Seven Clean Days, during which she did her twice-daily inspections. The blood would rise to her face as our eyes met, her expression at once determined and tortured, and as much as I hated these requests, I had no doubt that she hated them more. On the bedroom dresser she would lay a small plastic bag, inside of which was a two-inch square of inspection cloth, or occasionally an undergarment, which I would place inside my coat pocket and hope to find the dayan in his office on the first try.

“Let’s take a look at this, shall we?” the dayan would say, always too loudly, clearly audible to passersby behind me. At the window, he would hold up the item for examination by sunlight, while I looked away, anxious to be done with it all before the next man came knocking. Would his ruling be “kosher,” or “not kosher”? For those extended seconds, I felt like a patient dreading a physician’s diagnosis. If “not kosher,” I would have to tell Gitty to begin counting her seven days all over again, which she would accept in silence, although her expression of dismay would be hard not to notice.

A woman’s hair is nakedness, says the Talmud, and so, once married, she must never expose any of it. According to the Zohar, the primary text of the Kabbalists, this applies even in her own home. During the last of her seven clean days, Gitty would take the set of electric clippers from above our bathroom sink and shear her entire head, leaving only several millimeters of growth, though even I, her husband, would rarely see those; a head-covering was required at all times. Indoors, or for casual visits and quick errands, a turban, green or blue or purple on weekdays and pristine white on the Sabbath. Outdoors, a short wig of synthetic hair covered with a hat—a pillbox during those early years of our marriage, though this would change with the fashions of the times.

After the seven clean days, Gitty would head to the ritual bath at the edge of the village, and return with her face glowing and her manner unusally serene. It was in those hours, between her return and the stroke of midnight, when we would retire for the special mitzvah of that night, that I would feel the first charges of eroticism, and an occasional spark of passion, so very distinct from the primal lust of previous years, though not yet fully recognizable. Over the next weeks, Gitty would be considered clean, and slowly we would get to know each other, though these early progressions felt infinitesimal.

Sometimes, Gitty would withdraw into herself for reasons I could not discern. “Are you upset about something?” I would ask, stiffly, and she would look away and say nothing.

“It is improper to call your wife by her name,” Avremel had warned during one of his sessions, and I was careful to follow his guidance. To get Gitty’s attention, I would clear my throat and say, “um,” or “You hear?” Among friends, we referred to our wives using only coy and oblique euphemisms. “The household informed me of a wedding next week,” my study partner said, when notifying me of a pending absence. Yitzchok Schwartz was fond of speaking of his yiddene, his “Jewess,” causing heads to turn at such bold language.

“Is there any news yet?” Avremel asked when I ran into him one day outside the study hall. When I told Avremel that there was no news, he fixed me a look with his dark, scolding eyes. “There should be news by now,” he said. “Why is there no news?”

I didn’t know why there was no news, although Avremel came up with a reason soon enough.

“You must be doing it wrong,” he said.

He asked for details, and I gave him the rundown of our routine, parroting the directions I’d been given: We performed the mitzvah every Tuesday and Friday night after midnight, exactly as I’d been taught, always with “holiness and purity” at the forefront of our minds. We said the necessary prayers. We covered the windows with a quilt. We told stories of righteous men. We kissed twice. And then we did it quickly. As if forced by a demon—the vividness of those words proved extraordinarily effective in keeping the act sacred and devoid of pleasure.

Avremel looked confused, and then angry. “If that’s the way you do it, then a slice of noodle kugel is more pleasurable!”

I remember feeling confused. Wasn’t that the point, not to experience pleasure? “No,” Avremel said. That was the point but also not quite the point, because if there was no pleasure, it wasn’t the real thing. I was still confused, as he stood there making wild, wordless gestures and shook his head in exasperation. When he spoke again, it was with palpable irritation.

“For a woman’s body to respond,” he said, bringing his five fingers together opposite his nose, “in order for her to create a child, there must be liebshaft.Liebshaft is the Yiddish word for love, and it was a strange word to hear, applied to a woman, from a man who was otherwise obsessed with guiding me on the path to holiness and purity. I did not know how Avremel knew this medical fact, but I had no reason to doubt him. Yet the idea made me angry.

Love her?” I asked. The notion seemed ludicrous. “How?”

“If the love isn’t there,” Avremel said, “then you have to create it.” He shook his head and closed his eyes, as if thinking through a complex problem, and then opened them again. “You just have to find a way.”

Later  that evening, as we ate our dinner of roast chicken and breaded egg noodles and spoke quietly about the things we’d done that day, I looked at Gitty and wondered if I could love her. When she stood up to clear our dishes, I noticed the curve of her hips as they swayed gently when she walked. As she stood at the sink and washed the dishes, I leaned on the counter nearby, and noticed the color in her cheeks, the gentle way she looked at me when she spoke, the softness of her voice when she asked what to prepare for lunch the next day.

The next evening, after my last study session, I made my way to the Mazel Tov Gift Shop, a small basement store that sold everything from Rachel’s Tomb needlecraft kits to sterling-silver menorahs to diamond rings. One night a week, after ten, the shop was open for one hour, for men only. The proprietor, Reb Moshe Hersh, a stocky man in a yellowed and grease-stained tallis katan, laid several trays of rings and earrings on the counter. I looked at the selection, and then looked at Moshe Hersh, who stood with his hands resting on the counter, waiting for my decision.

“What do you think?” I asked. I had never bought a woman a gift before, and the selection in front of me was a baffling array of gold and silver and glittery gems, like a field of pebbles glittering in the sunlight.

Moshe Hersh shrugged. “You’re the customer,” he said.

I studied the items in front of me. As Moshe Hersh stood breathing heavily, I inspected the pieces one by one and slowly began to notice their differences: silver and gold, sleek and intricate, chunky and subtle. I settled on a silver ring with a scalloped pattern and tiny diamonds inlaid across the top. I liked its understated elegance and hoped that Gitty’s tastes weren’t dissimilar.

I left the ring in a box on Gitty’s pillow when I left for yeshiva the next morning. Under the box I placed a folded sheet of plain white paper on which I wrote what seemed like appropriate sentiments, using the same Hebrew script I used for jotting notes on the Talmud or for transcribing the rebbe’s talks. I hope that our love will grow and last forever. As if the love was already there, and needed only to be tended and nurtured. As with faith, Avremel had declared it something one might will into existence.

When I returned home that evening, Gitty was at the kitchen counter, her back to me, putting our dinner onto plates. She said nothing, and so I thought perhaps she hadn’t discovered my gift. I checked the bedroom, but the package was not on her pillow. “Did you find . . . the thing?” I asked when I returned to the kitchen.

She nodded without turning, and then, almost as an afterthought, said, “Thank you.” She made no more mention of the gift, and neither did I, and I wondered if she liked it, if I was making any progress toward creating love.

Several days later, she turned to me bashfully as she laid our dinner plates on the table. “I’m two weeks late,” she said, her face aglow with a brighter than usual smile. It was almost as if she were suppressing a giggle, embarrassed by her own giddiness. I wasn’t sure what she meant, until she said, “I’m not certain about it yet. But I think there’s a test I can take.” The test could be purchased at the pharmacy. She was going to ask her sister, and if she was right, we would know tomorrow. Later that night, as we prepared for bed, I noticed, on her left hand, the polished silver ring I had bought, with its scalloped patterns and tiny diamonds sparkling against the soft light of the bedside lamp.

Finally, there was news. There were so many questions and so many things to talk about—it was as if we were suddenly new people in an entirely new relationship. The reticence that had hovered for six months in the tiny apartment at the end of Roosevelt Avenue was now gone, almost as if it had never existed. We talked of baby names and upcoming doctor’s visits. We also disclosed to each other how little we knew about what it meant to be parents.

One night, as we lay in our separate beds across the room, I turned to her. “Can I ask you a question?”

She propped herself up on one elbow.

“How does the baby come out?” I asked. I immediately thought, what a foolish question, and tried to explain. “I mean, where does it come out from?

This was before Gitty had gone for her first doctor’s appointment, before we’d had a chance to read any of the books and pamphlets she would bring home and point excitedly to charts and diagrams and drawings of ovaries and Fallopian tubes, before I’d had a chance to go to our local bookstore and whisper to the cashier that I needed one of the books from beneath his counter, where they lay hidden from the prying eyes of teenage boys who made the bookstore their evening hangout.

“I don’t know,” Gitty said. “I wondered about it myself.” She looked at me from across the room, a sliver of light from the edge of our window shades casting a thin white glow across her face, and in her expression I saw a touch of anxiety. “You don’t think it requires surgery, do you?” she asked. I did not know what to say, because that was exactly what I had thought.

When I asked, hesitantly, before her first doctor’s appointment whether we would see the doctor together, Gitty burst out laughing. It was a ludicrous thought, she said. Men did not accompany their wives to the doctor. “But I’ll let you know what I learn,” she said.

Gitty made an appointment at the Refuah Health Center, an imposing building with a beige Art-Deco facade at the entrance to the village. A five-doctor practice from Manhattan sent one doctor every Wednesday afternoon to attend to all the pregnant women of New Square. It was an arrangement worked out by the wizards of Hasidic politicking, through which patients on medicaid were provided with world-class medical services. The exams typically lasted only a few minutes each, most of them for ordinary and uncomplicated pregnancies, so the doctor was able to see many women in a short time slot, for maximum efficiency.

“See the head here?” Gitty pointed breathlessly one day, showing me the photos of the first ultrasound scan. “See the hands? The feet?” I saw nothing but blurs of blacks and grays, and felt a distinct pang of envy for the attachment between mother and child, an attachment I realized that I could never fully share.

Excerpted from "All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir" by Shulem Deen. Published by Graywolf Press. Copyright 2015 by Shulem Dean. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Shulem Deen

Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious.com, a journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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