“Unorthodox” is a new Netflix series loosely based on the book of the same name by Deborah Feldman. It describes the experiences of a young Hasidic (Satmar) woman, as she leaves the community and embarks on a new journey of self-discovery in Berlin. One of the major causes for her departure from the Satmar community was her sexual relationship with her husband during their first year of marriage.
(For more information about the series, see this review by Renee Gehrt-Zand)
As a kallah (bride) teacher in training, there were so many scenes in the show that reminded me of the “do’s” and “don’ts” I have been taught while participating in the Eden Center Kallah Teacher course, both by halachic experts and various professionals.
One important note — while the series focuses on the more extreme ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic community, many of the laws mentioned in the series are applicable to all streams of Orthodox Jews. At the same time, a number of customs in the show are particular to the Satmar Hasidic community. The following tips may not be appropriate for each and every bride, but can be adapted to suit most Orthodox brides.
- Start learning with a kallah teacher in advance of the wedding so there is enough time to discuss everything in a calm way. In “Unorthodox,” Esty meets with the kallah teacher just one week before her wedding. The time before a wedding can be extremely stressful for many brides simply due to the sheer number of tasks that must be accomplished before the wedding. At the same time, it is also a time of emotional stress and anxiety for various reasons. When the kallah comes from a very conservative background, like Esty’s, learning about sex for the first time can be particularly intimidating, and require her to process a lot of new information. Having several sessions with a kallah teacher allows for the two to form a relationship. The kallah can then feel more comfortable confiding in her teacher, both during the sessions, before marriage and after marriage, should the need arise. In addition, this will give the kallah teacher time to sense whether the kallah is hesitant, whether there are more questions that need to be answered, or other issues the kallah would want to address before her marriage such as body image, OCD, history of sexual trauma, etc.
- Sessions with a kallah teacher should be held in a private place – where no interruptions are expected, and the kallah can feel comfortable confiding in her teacher. Esty’s experience definitely does not adhere to this standard. Esty and her kallah teacher sit in the living room, and Esty’s grandmother decides to come in and sit in on the session.
- DO NOT use euphemistic or unclear language when talking about anatomy and sex. In her first session, Esty’s kallah teacher explains the basics of male and female anatomy, and how sex works — saying that “husband and wife fit together like pieces of a puzzle (shtikilach).” Esty does not understand what the teacher is saying. For some brides, with limited education, or limited exposure to media, this is their only opportunity to learn about sex. For others, their basic level of knowledge is a springboard for asking questions that they may not have been able to pose before. A kallah teacher may be able to help them explore their level of comfort with different ideas — and understand the vital role of sex in Judaism and marriage.In our course at The Eden Center, we were told of a couple who had been trying to get pregnant for years with no success. After a doctor discovered red marks and bruising around the woman’s belly button, she told the doctor that they were from attempts to “get pregnant.” While this story is extreme, it proves just how crucial it is that women learn the right language for describing their bodies, understand their anatomy properly, and learn about sex using clear language. Bishvilaych is an Israeli organization that works within the Haredi community to do just that, among other things.
- DO encourage brides to become acquainted with their bodies. One positive lesson learned from “Unorthodox” is the kallah teacher’s instruction to Esty to go to the bathroom and explore her body, understanding that she has “two holes – one for urine and one for sex.” (In reality, there are three holes — urethra, vagina, anus.) Esty’s reaction to this — “I don’t have that hole; there must be something wrong with me” — is not uncommon even among more modern Orthodox Jewish women. Kallah teachers can use this opportunity to encourage brides to familiarize themselves not only with their anatomy but also with their cycles. Some kallah teachers may even want to introduce students to the fertility awareness method.
- Make sure that the couple discusses their expectations of the wedding night before the wedding. It is clear already from the scene in the Yichud room, in which Yanky leans over to kiss his new wife Esty, and she prefers hand-holding, that the two have different expectations of the pace of their physical relationship. In their case, neither has ever touched a member of the opposite sex, and it is therefore understandable that there may be a great deal of anxiety involved. In many Orthodox communities, the couple is expected to consummate the marriage on their wedding night, although there are communities where this has been mitigated. This expectation can lead to even more anxiety and pressure. If the couple can discuss what each of them expects before the event, it may reduce the pressure and anxiety, and allow for a more enjoyable experience for both when the time is right. Communication is key not just for the wedding night, but for the couple in general, throughout their relationship.
- When discussing intimacy, make sure to emphasize pleasure. The kallah teacher in “Unorthodox” refers to sex as “the Mitzvah.” She refers to the goal of “the Mitzvah” as having a baby. This narrow conceptualization of intimacy is flawed — it does not account for situations in which a woman is past the age of childbearing, or cases in which couples are experiencing infertility. In addition, it does not reflect the Jewish attitude to sex as seen in the Bible, Talmud, and Halacha — an experience in which the couple enjoys mutual pleasure. In fact, in a later scene, while arguing with Yanky, Esty quotes a talmudic passage emphasizing that a man is required to give his wife pleasure.
- Prepare the kallah for the mikveh experience both physically and spiritually. In the show, the teacher merely instructs that Esty go to the mikveh, and does not provide any more details. When she arrives at the mikveh, she is handed a robe and a list of the halachot (laws).
A bride-to-be would benefit from the kallah teacher describing what the mikveh experience will look like — what she needs to bring, what exactly happens at the mikveh step by step etc. While the mikveh does require physical preparation, it is also important to experience the mikveh spiritually. For this, the Eden Center has adapted the 7 Kavanot (based on something written at Mayyim Hayyim), or seven spiritual ideas that mirror the physical preparation for mikveh.
- Knowledge is Power. When watching “Unorthodox,” I was so moved by the couple’s difficult experience, but kept thinking that much of their suffering could have been prevented by basic sex education. In all the scenes that show their attempts at consummating their marriage, they jump right into the sexual act with no foreplay whatsoever. If both partners were taught that foreplay is a necessary precursor to sex, then perhaps Esty would not have experienced so much pain during intercourse. Instead, in the scene which shows their only successful attempt at intercourse – Esty endures what seems to be excruciating pain. They do not even seem to know that foreplay exists – and this is starkly contrasted to the sex scene between Esty and Robert, once she has left the community. While most men will be able to achieve orgasm without foreplay, simply on the basis of physiology, foreplay is a necessary step to prepare a woman’s body for sex.
A bride should also be taught that it is normal for couples to take time until they are able to consummate their marriage, but that extreme pain can indicate something else and should be checked out. “Unorthodox” does not depict scenes of Yanky, the groom, learning for his upcoming wedding. In many circles, this is done very tangentially; however, it would be wise for the chatan (groom) to be equipped with necessary knowledge going into such a new and perhaps daunting experience: an emotional and physical relationship with a woman. In “Unorthodox,” for example, Yanky may have benefited from learning how to be more sensitive towards Esty.
- The couple’s sex life is private – no-one else should interfere. For me, one of the most shocking scenes in “Unorthodox” is when Yanky’s mother comes over to the couple’s apartment with a tube of lubricant gel and rudely suggests to Esty that she use it. Yanky had told her that they were having trouble in the bedroom, and she decided to “help.” When Esty confronts Yanky, saying “I hear their voices in my head Yanky. How will we ever do this successfully? Your whole family is in bed with us!” he responds, “They mean well.” However well-meaning family members may be, they have no place in a couple’s bedroom unless both members of the couple agree to seek out their help (in which case it would probably be a better idea to seek professional advice). Their interference in the couple’s sex life can only serve to create greater, and highly unnecessary, pressure.
- If there are problems in the bedroom – kallah teachers should refer the kallah and her chatan to a professional. In “Unorthodox,” the woman who served as Esty’s kallah teacher makes a comeback when the couple is unable to consummate their marriage, making suggestions about a course of action. While, often, kallah teachers can help and provide guidance, couples should be educated that if sex is painful after a few attempts, there may be a medical issue that requires professional intervention – whether by a doctor or sex therapist. These professionals know the right questions to ask and how to guide both partners in their attempt to resolve an issue.
Until quite recently, many kallah teachers were not formally trained. I feel fortunate that places like the Eden Center now offer courses for kallah teachers. This means that brides now have access to kallah teachers of a higher standard than the one depicted in “Unorthodox.” If I have learned one lesson – both from the course and from viewing the series – a kallah teacher may play a critical role in helping shape a couple’s marriage – for better or worse. Here’s to praying that more kallah teachers around the world can be educated likewise and help build Klal Yisrael one “bayit ne’eman” at a time.