The Mikveh as Foreplay


Frankly, I think non-Orthodox Jewish women could take some notes on sex from Orthodox women.

by Michelle Cove

I was raised in a small town in Connecticut and, while I was surrounded by many Jews, I didn’t know any Orthodox Jews. I learned about their culture in dribs and drabs, with a bunch of rumors thrown in, like the one about Orthodox men and women having intercourse through a hole in a bed sheet. I was horrified. Of course, the laws of Judaism are in favor of good, healthy sex between husbands and wives so, barring some weird linen fetish, forcing a sheet into the picture would be pretty counter to the cause.

I remember in my twenties hearing that Orthodox men and women could only “do it” at certain times of the month. I did a little research and found that Talmudic law says separation should be maintained between a man and wife for twelve days per month (five of those days being her period if she’s an Ashkenazi Jew, four if she’s Sephardic). Then she immerses herself in the mikveh, a bath designed for ritual immersion, on the evening of the final day. At that point, the couple can go to town. I was bothered by the idea of a woman being considered “impure” (in a state known as niddah) during those twelve days, and having so much time spelled out for her when she couldn’t have sex. How sad, how patriarchal.

Now at age 40, married with a four-year-old daughter, I see things differently. I know it sometimes feels like a herculean effort to get sex on the calendar without a deliberate plan and focus. Not because I am no longer interested in it or because my attraction to my husband has waned. I, like millions of other married people, am just bone tired at the end of the long day that involves working, day care pick-up, making family dinner, spending quality time with our daughter, and getting her to bed. My husband and I often want to just sit on the couch holding hands and watching Lost until we climb into bed and pass out. The idea of physically maneuvering our bodies into intriguing configurations can seem daunting.

So I get how Orthodox women might enjoy the rule of having no sex for patches of time each month. I also understand that there is nothing that makes us crave sex more than not being able to have it. This, followed by a quiet night of preparation, where one escapes into a soothing pool of water without ringing phones and crying kids, sounds positively sensual.

In Rachel’s Daughters: Newly Orthodox Jewish Women, the author Debra Renee Kaufman interviewed ba’alot teshuva, women who gave up their secular lives and turned to Orthodox Judaism, asking them about family, feminism, and gender. When it came to talking about the enforced separation and mikveh, here were some of the responses:

“Over the years it is building a cycle for me; it’s a rhythm that is related to me and my body alone.”

“It is even more than the anticipation of making love but the whole secret sharing of it with other women, the friend I may meet at the mikveh or the friend who might take care of the baby when I go, that make it all more, I don’t know, sort of sexy.”

“Most men don’t know how to talk things out but since approximately one-half of my year is spent in niddah, I found that we are forced to talk about things more and that he has learned to show his love in ways more important than physical contact.”

Makes sense to me: Increased communication, plus an exotic ritual, finding ways to build intimacy beyond physical sex, and tossing in an element of taboo, are just plain hot. And yes, I do realize that for these women and their husbands it is also the meaningfulness of following the traditions of Jewish law and feeling connected to their ancestors and religion. That’s just not the angle I happen to connect with.

I think, too, about what happens when a woman just isn’t in the mood on mikveh night and the pressure is on. (It should be noted that women are not legally bound to have sex on this night or any other.) The women of Mayim Rabin—a website through which women comment on laws of purity in a blog format— address this issue. They suggest talking to your husband in advance about not wanting sex (as in, before the twelfth night, when he may be “sexually frustrated”). They also suggest “working out a [sexual] compromise so you can both enjoy the night.”

I guess all of us are left to figure out how to make sure there is regular physical intimacy going on even when we’re tired, played-out, and feeling entirely unsexy. It is hard to switch into “lustful” after cleaning spaghetti sauce from the counter and explaining to a child that there are not frogs under her bed. Switching gears requires finding quiet space, mentally and physically. For this I have turned to my own form of the mikveh, easing myself into a hot bubble bath surrounded by candles. It’s a good start. Maybe there’s something to be said also for not feeling guilty on the nights when we don’t have sex, and for reserving more time to think about it on the nights before we do.

About the Author

Michelle Cove
Michelle Cove is the editor of 614. In 2003, she developed and became editor in chief of JVibe, the national magazine for Jewish teens. In 1999, she coauthored I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!: A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict (Penguin). She is also the Director of the documentary Seeking Happily Ever After.

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