By Rivka Cohen
Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community, I did not encounter open or positive discourse about female sexuality. Besides the quick basics of reproduction covered in biology class, little or no effort was made to ensure that the women in my all-girls high school were familiar with our bodies, in touch with our sexuality, or aware of the nuances and debates around reproduction. We didn’t discuss common conditions such as vaginismus, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, or postpartum depression. We didn’t talk about all-too-common premarital activities such as masturbation, sex, and everything in between. We did not explore the complicated dynamics of premarital relationships, and we did not discuss consent.
This lack of discourse has bred shame, confusion, and loneliness for many women who grew up as I did. In an effort to open up this conversation, a group of observant Jewish women have bared their souls through poetry, prose, and stories, producing a new anthology, Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity.
Discussion of Sexuality = Immodesty
The Orthodox community often deems discussion of sexuality—and especially women’s sexuality— immodest. “Relations that happen in the bedroom” should stay within the confines of a marriage, and should neither happen nor be spoken about outside of a marriage. It is assumed that kallah classes, which are given just weeks before a wedding, are enough formal instruction to learn about all of the intricacies of sexuality and reproduction within halakhah. However, as one writer in the anthology points out,
I spent the first two and a half decades of my life being told that sex—that any touch between the sexes—was bad and shameful. It’s hard to flip a switch on that mentality just because I had a ring on my finger. (“Growing Pains,” pp. 91–92)
Education about sexuality and reproduction, and open discussion within the community about these topics, need to happen long before the weeks leading up to a wedding.
With regard to the biology of reproduction in particular, matters such as infertility, childbirth, and breastfeeding are sorely missing from public discourse. For most Orthodox Jewish women, these topics come up only when they are already experiencing them. Many are uninformed or misinformed, and feel lost, alone, and ashamed when their expectations aren’t met. One of the contributing authors writes:
Several months after the birth of my son, I went to an OB/GYN who specializes in VBAC deliveries—a vaginal birth after cesarean. I did not go because I wanted to have another baby anytime soon. I went because I needed someone in a white coat to tell me that what I had gone through was not my fault. (“One Day This Scar Will Be Beautiful,” p. 93)
Of course, such stigma surrounding reproductive difficulties also exists outside the Orthodox community. But in a community that deeply values marriage and family, silence about fertility and reproduction can make women feel a strong sense of failure and loneliness. Feelings of guilt around women’s sexual and reproductive experiences are common, but they may be avoidable. If only we shared our stories and spoke openly about these topics, women could feel less alone. Knowing that many others had shared similar experiences would also allow women to feel more comfortable to speak out themselves.
Silence about Bodies Begins Early
Unfortunately, the silence surrounding female bodies and sexuality starts very early in a young girl’s life. Lacking a culture of speaking openly about our bodies, young girls hide from their mothers instead of getting the help that they need. The author of one piece describes the pain she started to experience during her period:
I started to experience what was (at the time) unimaginable pain. Instead of telling my mom or doctor, I googled it and saw that “cramps” were normal. And so I assumed that two days out of every month, when I couldn’t get out of bed without the stabbing feeling of 3,000 dull knives running through my lower abdomen, back, and skull, were normal.
I said nothing as the pain overcame my body and washed away every ounce of my will to live. I said nothing as the pain nearly caused me to pass out, taking away my breath every time I tried to stand up. I pretended it was normal so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone about the fact that I was now regularly bleeding out of my vagina. (“Built-Up Bravery,” p. 49)
The only way for women and girls to learn what is normal is by creating spaces for open conversation and literature that shows the spectrum of lived experiences of women in the observant Jewish community. Such normalization is vital for girls’ and women’s mental health, and it is also a critical women’s health issue.
Similar to the theme of this JOFA Journal, Monologues from the Makom seeks to expand our communal conversations. What started as a one-time event led by Sara Rozner Lawrence turned into a series of performances with JOFA as the cosponsor. The programmatic series Monologues from the Makom has sought to create space for women to share their stories and challenge the boundaries of our normative discourse. With the publication of the book, we hope to expand our engaged audience and spark much-needed conversations with women, men, girls, and leaders throughout our wider communities.
The book Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity can be ordered online through Ben Yehuda Press, Amazon, and Book Depository. The 32 monologues reflect deeply personal struggles, pains, and joys described honestly and poetically. The bravery these women demonstrated in sharing their stories should inspire us as a community to bring their voices into our own homes and schools, and to put them into conversation with our own voices and those of our daughters and sons. The health and well-being of our communities depend on it.
Rivka Cohen is the managing editor of Monologues from the Makom and former program manager at JOFA. She currently serves as director of partnerships and strategic development at Lissan, a nonprofit that provides Hebrew language skills to Arab women from East Jerusalem.