I remember very vividly the day I learned about sex. I was eight years old, an early reader, and I found my mother’s copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves on the shelf. Horrified and fascinated by what I learned, I ran to tell my classmates on the playground. “Grownups do whaaat?” was the response. As a liberal Jew with tolerant, book-loving parents, I was fortunate to learn about this central mystery of life early on.
In the right-wing Orthodox world, however, many young men and women are not lucky enough to acquire these lessons in advance. The scholar Jennie Rosenfeld and sex therapist David S. Ribner have now published an important book for young marrieds: The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy [Et Le’ehov] (Gefen, $15). This fascinating book gives a window into a world where sex education is verboten, where a couple might move from being strictly shomer negiah (no premarital physical contact) to having sex on their wedding night.
Written in calming and encouraging tones, this short guidebook begins with the basics of male and female anatomy, moves through the mechanics of various sexual acts, and closes with several chapters of forthright questions and answers.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the book is its sealed envelope of graphic illustrations, pasted into the back cover. Rather than include diagrams in the text of the book, the authors confine all images to this sealed envelope, marked with several disclaimers as to its explicit nature. While this discretion might seem alarmist to readers of mainstream sex manuals, it indicates the fine line that Rosenfeld and Ribner are attempting to walk in making this book available to traditionalist audiences.
The book has three main messages: everyone deserves a sexually fulfilling marriage; sex requires practice; and if things aren’t working, ask a therapist. While the first two messages are both beautiful and familiar, the third is something not often found in sex manuals. I wonder if this speaks to the role that professional expertise (in the form of rabbis) plays in Orthodox communities, as well as to the general culture of silence around these topics. The book’s question-and-answer section is particularly poignant: the sections on “Not Ready for Intercourse” and “Preparing Your Body for the First Sexual Experience” opened my heart to these young couples. What’s more, the authors have a terrific bibliography for further reading, including more manuals, websites for finding a therapist, and even recommendations of where to buy sex toys.
While I am not in the book’s target religious audience, I am a newlywed, and I did find many of Rosenfeld and Ribner’s words to be calming and centering in my new stage of life. The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy is a model of how to speak about sex respectfully, openly — and joyfully — within a religious world view. I hope that it can reach the wide audience it deserves.
Sara N. S. Meirowitz is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. She wrote about sanctity and non-marital sexual relationships for the anthology The Passionate Torah.