Category Archives: halacha

Sacred Sperm – talking about haredi sex

Continuing the subject of my last blog post regarding the conversations going on at the moment in the Orthodox Jewish world on the subject of sex and, in particular, what is good, what is forbidden: have you seen the new film ‘Sacred Sperm’?

Incredibly, my previous post neglected to mention this film at all (bad Shosha!) even though I had expressed hope that current discussions around sex might eventually reach out into the ultra-Orthodox sections of the Jewish world – the very purpose of Ori Gruder’s new film!

Gruder, an Israeli film maker who become a baal teshuva (newly religious) from around the age of 30 and now lives within a Breslav Chassidic framework, decided to make the film when he found himself struggling with how he should talk to his own son about masturbation and other topics around sex.

The film seeks to address the confusion, uncertainty and laws around a topic which is generally considered taboo within the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world  – as well as many other environments.

As Gruder says in his interview with Haaretz: “I believe the rabbis feel the time has come to put these subjects on the table and talk about them.”

sacred sperm - 1Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to see the film. I do not live in area where it has been released and it is not available on iTunes (plus I don’t download pirated films) so my ability to comment on the film is somewhat limited. But from the interviews and clips I have seen I am beginning to form a few thoughts:

  1. This is an important development. I am thrilled that the film exists and that this topic is being raised within a haredi context.
  2. This is a film made with love. I am delighted that it has been made by someone from within the community who respects its traditions but who is also willing to ask questions. Without having seen the film, I can’t know how far Gruder’s enquiry goes; perhaps, out of respect for the frum discourse, he won’t ask enough questions, but at least he is asking questions with the aim to inform, educate and clarify – and he is doing so from a position of understanding of, and sympathy for, the sub-cultural nuances.
  3. What about women? My reservation about the film from all the promotional material I have seen is that it is appears to be male focused. While the prohibition on masturbation is, according to most poskim (arbiters of Jewish law), about spilling or wasting of seed – which only applies to male masturbation – when we use the term ‘masturbation’ we need to remember that it can also be applied to the self-pleasuring of women. It is not just about those sacred sperm.

We can talk about whether an unwavering expectation that the biblical prohibition against male masturbation will be kept (especially by young men) is either fair or right, but that’s a discussion for another time… and maybe a discussion for the film. What I would like to know is whether the film gives as much consideration to the drives, concerns and knowledge of women – young and not so young – or whether it lumps male and female sexuality together which, by doing so, will inevitably lead to neglect of the female perspective. It is interesting to know whether those who can step over the taboo of talking about male sexuality are also capable of taking the next step to talk about female sexuality. It’s a lot of steps.

I can’t wait to see the film. If you have seen it please let me know what you think and how it addresses some of these issues. I would love to know.

It’s also worth mentioning that if you compare some of the discussions in ‘Sacred Sperm’ with the conversations happening in the ‘Joy of Text’ it is clear that in some places there is an enormous difference between views held at the progressive and conservative ends of the Orthodox world. These differences in the interpretation and implementation of halacha (Jewish law) can be significant – and that’s even without stepping outside of Orthodoxy into the progressive Jewish movements (Conservative, Reform Judaism etc). I love that the Jewish world is so diverse!

In the meantime, here are some more clips about the film that you may find interesting…

Oh, and I forgot to mention:

  1. I love Ori Gruder’s energy – so gentle, so positive.
  2. The film has been exciting a lot of interest and has been included in this year’s Raindance Film Festival line up.

You may also be interested to read the Daily Mail article on the movie…

Enjoy!

Shosha xx

Talking about the sex lives of religious Jews

Let’s talk about frum sex…

If you follow me on Twitter you might remember just how excited I got about a new podcast called ‘The Joy of Text‘. The monthly podcast features New York-based sexual health therapist Dr Bat Sheva Marcus – who entered my universe in the past month (via the New York Times) and now she is constantly flashing on my radar – and Rabbi Dov Linzer who is Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei in Riverdale, New York. The podcast, moderated by Ramie Smith, is sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and Dr Marcus, Rabbi Linzer and Ms Smith seem to be coming from a progressive Orthodox perspective – not a lot of chumras going on here!

The point of all this is that I am a quite simply delighted that the dialogue about sex in the Orthodox Jewish community appears to be opening up. I’ll admit that most of the conversation is happening in the more liberal edges of the religious world (Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist), but at least it’s happening. I am optimistic about a ripple effect. Who knows? Maybe one day these conversations will eventually reach to the furthest, blackest corners of the community.

So, here are the first two episodes of the ‘Joy of Text‘ if you would like to listen for yourself. The first I found full of interesting and useful information. The conversation was lengthy and in-depth and covered a good amount of material. I listened while preparing for a large Shabbat meal and by the end of the program I found myself hoping my husband would be home soon (!). (Unfortunately, as of writing this, the first episode does not seem to be enabled to be embedded, so here is the link again for you to listen.)

The second podcast was interesting but disappointingly short – although the discussion on condom use in pre-marital sex surprised me. I hope their usual practice will be to have longer programs. Perhaps we can all help by sending in questions for them to consider and discuss. I’ve started drawing up my list already…

Coincidently, you can also WATCH a Huffington Post Live interview from this week with Dr Marcus, Rabbi Linzer and Dr David Ribner (Chairman of the Sex Therapy Training Program at Bar-Ilan University and co-author of ‘The Newlywed Guide to Physical Intimacy‘) for a segment entitled: ‘Deep Dive: Ooohhh G-d! Orthodox Jewish Sex‘:

It seems you don’t have to be Jewish to want to talk about frum sex.

If you are visiting my website and reading this post then it’s probably no secret to you that there’s lots to talk (and think) about in the realm of kosher sex.

I can’t wait for the conversation to evolve…

What’s all this nonsense about halachic erotica?

I like to make a bit of a deal about how I created my own literary sub-genre: ‘halachic erotica’ (halacha is the Hebrew term for Jewish law). It sounds indulgent – and perhaps it is – but I allow myself to dwell on it for a number of reasons:

1. It’s true. I really did make it up and I am proud of my creation – in a nachas rather than ga’avah kind of way. (In other words, I am proud in a parental pride kind of way rather than the ‘I’m so great, look at me’ way.)

2. Talking about the stories in literary terms works to distract the minds of people whose stunned expressions betray their confusion/horror at hearing what I write about. These expressions articulate the shock people feel when they learn that these sorts of stories exist – and then five seconds later, the sense of bemusement that they had never before heard of their existence (mention Jewrotica and you get much the same response). Often, it’s as if they are offended at the possibility that they’ve been left out of a communal circle of confidence. Explaining that I made up this outrageous form of Jewish fiction seems, somehow, to make everyone feel more comfortable about a world in which halachic erotica exists – and their place in this newly reconfigured reality.

3. It’s like putting a ribbon around a gift. Giving these stories, which I try to make beautiful, their own special genus seems appropriate. Just as I try to create something that is a pleasure to read, so too do I want to honour them -and the characters that emerge from them – by giving them a formal place in the world. This might seem trite, but it’s how I feel.

With few exceptions, the stories that I write are about the intimacy that exists between a Jewish woman and her husband. They are about the sacred sexual power that desire and love can have for couples. They are about longing, tenderness, passion and obsession – states of being that are common to couples of all creeds and colours, including religiously observant Jews.

When I started on this creative path the lighting was dim. I knew I wasn’t going to write about anything that conflicted with mainstream halacha and I guessed that a lot of the stories would involve frum types, but I didn’t know much more. It’s been a surprise that the stories that have come to life from my keyboard so far have focused exclusively on religiously observant Jews – although from a distance this seems an obvious outcome. I am curious to know how things will develop over time.

In the meantime, it is exciting to watch these little tales of lust unfold before me. They contain elements of the unexpected that surprise and delight me as their creator – and I hope there will be readers who share my pleasure in glimpsing briefly into the lives of these characters.

Rich, poor, Jewish or not; we all share common human drives and desires. I enjoy showing that religious Jews, like the rest of the world, enjoy sex, share desire and dream of sexual reward. The only differences are the cultural and religious frameworks that govern how much of the broader sexual landscape they are exposed to (eg porn, popular discourse) and, to an extent, how far halacha will let them go.

 

Banning tzniut from my Yom Kippur discourse

Yom Kippur makes you think about a lot of things. Usually I am thinking about how hungry I am (or am not), how all this standing hurts my back or how heavy my machzor (book of liturgy) feels. But I also spend the day trying to be conscious of the thoughts I have about the people around me.

The first Yom Kippur I tried this – years ago, now – I was horrified to discover just how often I thought unpleasant things about the people (women) around me at shul. While I believed I was spending my Day of Atonement in the midst of introspection and self-cleansing, I soon realised I was running a critical commentary on my side of the mechitza than was just plain mean and grumpy. It was a bit of a shock, in fact.

There I am in the women's gallery trying not to have unpleasant thoughts about people.
There I am in the women’s gallery trying not to have unpleasant thoughts about people.

Since then, most Yom Kippurs I try to have an awareness about what my mind is saying about other people. And occasionally, as I slow myself down to this new sense of self-consciousness, I do so with an intent to think positive things (or nothing) about the person who catches my eye and my brain – and to carry this mode of operation into the rest of the year (although, until now I haven’t had much success with this all-year thing).

So in 5775 my Yom Kippur self-awareness resumed but this year I added a new angle: I was not going to assess the clothing of the women around me.

I’m not talking about from a fashion angle – that’s not my thing. But perhaps unsurprisingly, I do find it fascinating to observe the various interpretations that women in my community have of tzniut. Hemlines, necklines, kisui rosh (head covering), tightness, sheerness, heel height: Shabbat and yom tov are spectacles of delight for me, because there is always someone who’ll surprise me.

I love the parade and the process of building conclusions about what each woman’s tznius choice says about her: about her mood, her spiritual journey, her level of knowledge, her husband, her family, her communal persona. It’s fascinating.

I don’t care much how frum or tznius a woman wants to dress – it’s her life, her journey. However, I do like to analyse those choices and to contemplate what that means for her, what it says about her. But if I am being honest with myself, it’s difficult to draw these conclusions without bringing in an element of judgment.

So this Yom Kippur I tried to abstain. I tried to look at the woman and not her hair or her pantyline. And frankly, I chose not to think too much about what I was wearing either. Was it appropriate for shul? Yes. Was it ironed? Yes. I didn’t bother with pre Yom Kippur make-up; there was no faffing about with jewellery – no fuss, just me and my machzor. I wouldn’t say it was nice. It just was.

Did I manage? Yes. I have no recollection of who was wearing what or how they looked – other than of the women who were sitting beside me – friends/family members, with whom I had conversations about the weather and new clothing. But for the rest, I have no idea. It was good not to notice. It felt simple – if a little lacklustre.

So, with that little achievement in my pocket, did I have a meaningful Yom Kippur? A day of genuine personal introspection? I don’t know. I tried, but I never really know. The best I can say is I had a Yom Kippur.

But I do feel that somewhere out there, in the ether of my spiritual narrative, something good happened. Even if don’t really know what it was. And even if I shouldn’t be having these thoughts in the first place.

L’at, l’at as they say in Hebrew. Slowly, slowly.

Shana tova. Wishing you only good things for the coming year.

How Fifty Shades of Grey gave birth to Shosha Pearl

I have just finished reading ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. It’s been a long time in coming and was, frankly, embarrassingly overdue, but finally now I can put my hand up and say I’ve done it.

And it was awful, but not so much for the reasons I expected. More on that later…

50ShadesofGreyCoverArtEL James’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ was a seminal (!) part of my journey towards deciding to write ‘halachic’ erotica. The enormous splash the book made in the mainstream world was fascinating in itself, but what was even more interesting was the slowly revealed news that observant Jewish women were reading the books. And enjoying them!

I have always been interested in erotic literature as a genre; not just for its content, but also to know who is reading it and what they like, and, of course, who is writing it and how well they are doing. The Fifty Shades phenomenom meant that all this information was being discussed openly and a lot – in the media and online. And I was consuming all the details with fascination.

One of the intriguing details that emerged at the time was that ethnic and faith specific erotica was becoming increasingly attractive. Christian erotic literature, in particular, was on the rise, which made me ponder whether there might be an audience for Jewish erotic literature. And then, right on time, came Jewrotica. I was suddenly incredibly excited.

Jewrotica provided a forum for people to explore erotic stories and ideas within a Jewish context. And it gave me confidence to think that my increasing interest in exploring erotic writing within a frum (observant Jewish) context. I wanted to write about and for halachically observant people, while making things accessible enough for anyone to read and understand.

In 2012 I wrote my first short story in my newly created sub-genre, halachic Jewish erotica, entitled ‘Little Secret, Big Secret’. Then, within a few months of Jewrotica’s appearance I wrote some more stories and Shosha Pearl was born.

And so this very exciting journey began.

Keeping it kosher – Jewish eroticism and halacha

I have been reading erotic literature for many years and have been dabbling at writing it for almost as long. In the past year, however, I have thought how fabulous it would be to read good erotic stories set within the framework of Jewish life. Rachel by William Dyce (www.shoshapearl.com)Judaism, Jewish history and Jewish ideas are rich mines for the erotic, because as a people we are not scared of sex and sexuality. And while we as individuals might take issue with some aspects of Jewish law as it pertains to sexuality, it is, on the whole, a spiritual and cultural discourse which understands and accommodates the importance of sex and healthy sexual relationships for men and women. It was wonderful, therefore, to see the recent launch of the online magazine for Jewish erotic writing, Jewrotica. This launch, exciting as it was on its own, was made more so by the fact that I had finally started to write my own erotic short stories set in a Jewish context. Such synchronicity! When starting out on my new project I gave some considerable thought concerning the shape these stories would take. I wanted to make this adventure as inclusive as possible. As a result, I decided to ensure that my stories were all kept halachically acceptable. In other words, while some of them are risque, they don’t breach any aspects of Jewish law in relation to sexual practices. And the good thing is that the scope is broad. You can, technically at least, do a lot and not transgress halacha. Most of my characters are frum. This has not been a strategic decision, it’s just the way the stories are forming right now. But who knows what the future will bring. Either way, thanks for visiting and I hope you enjoy the stories as they materialise. Shosha x