A Peephole into the World of Ultra-Orthodox Men

A beautifully written, engaging ethnographic study, DEFENDERS OF THE FAITH: INSIDE ULTRA-ORTHODOX JEWRY [Schocken Books, NY, 1992, $27.50 hardcover, $18.00 paper] might better have been subtitled “Inside Half of Ultra-Orthodox Jewry.” The author, Samuel Heilman, an American “modern-Orthodox” anthropologist, takes us as far as he can in observing this insular community which maintains strict rules of gender segregation. In the following excerpt. Beryl, a rather typical man about to be married, shares his ignorance and fears of sex:

. . . Among most haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews], knowledge about sexual matters and even the basic facts of life, are limited until just before marriage. . . . Too important a task to be left just to parents, sexual initiation is something haredim have assigned to special counselors. Men for men and women for women.

Beryl knew little of sexual functioning. Even as a boy he had not talked about these matters. When he had nocturnal emissions, he said nothing, but rather secretly believed that he had a problem of bed-wetting and chose rather to leave the matter unspoken. . . .

He had heard vaguely about sexual intercourse but, “I was sure that it was something f/raf goyim (and people who wanted to be like goyim j did. I could never imagine that something so animal-like and coarse would be done by erlicher Yidn [virtuous Jews].”

“The counselori began by telling me that what he was about to describe was going to shock me, but nevertheless I should not be frightened because it was not at all something bad—// / learned what to do. He told me that what he would tell me to do was something that I was not the first to do. Before me, Adam, the first man, had done it He told me that our patriarch Abraham did it, and so too Isaac and Jacob. He told me that all virtuous and pure zaddikim [especially pious men] did it He told me my father did it and that he himself did it And then he told me that even the rebbe, may he live many long years, amen, did it

“And when he said this I knew I too would have to do it Still, I wasn’t really sure what it was. But I’ll tell you, when he finally told me what it was that I would have to do, I was in shock.”

. . .When at last the married couple was ready to begin, [continued the counselor], in the stillness of the night, the room should be darkened. Neither was to see the other naked—for to do so would make them no different than dogs. In this sacred moment, each had to guard the modesty of the other. Special garments should be set aside for the purpose. Then, under the blankets, they would slowly raise these pajamas—no more than necessary—and in silence complete their holy coming together.

… If Beryl could, he should recite the names of the generations from Adam through the twelve sons of Jacob while he was moving toward climax. This might become difficult, but Beryl should persevere, for it was a good way of disciplining his passions.

Beryl should not think there was no room for feeling here. “There is no joining together of a man and woman that is not preceded by hugging and kissing,” but certainly the kisses should “only be on the lips or face, and not. Heaven forbid, anywhere else.” Such displays were meant to make his wife feel good and arouse the love between them. But of course there was no doubt that too much of this was not good, for it diminished their sense of the sanctity of the act.

When they were finished, the woman should turn toward the left, and then after about half an hour, he could leave her and return to his bed, but not before they had each ritually washed their hands.