I interviewed Timmy Rubin years ago, to coincide with an exhibition at Melbourne’s Jewish museum about Jews and Love, Sex and Intimacy. The neighbourhood where I live is strongly Jewish – and indeed, my family background is partly Jewish – but there’s not much mixing between religious Jews (like Timmy) and non-religious Jews (like me). It was a privilege to interview Timmy and to learn more about her world. I hope you enjoy the insight too.
Timmy Rubin always knew she was going to settle down and marry a nice Jewish boy. It’s just that it took a while longer than she expected. “It was hard for me to settle down,” says the former wild child. “I partied a lot and loved being on the edge. I was in a Jewish scene, but I definitely wasn’t religious.”
Today, though, Rubin is about as religious as it gets: she’s ensconced in the orthodox Jewish Lubavitch movement, she’s married with four children, she’s an amateur matchmaker and she runs a mikveh, a ritual bath for Jewish women.
The mysteries of the mikveh are just one topic covered in a new exhibition at Melbourne’s Jewish museum, Under the Covers — Love, Sex and Intimacy in Jewish Life. Other displays cover marriage, matchmaking and sex, along with sticky subjects such as inter-marriage, same-sex unions and feminist responses to traditional Jewish lore.
Visitors will learn, for example, that a married woman’s visit to the mikveh marks the transition between niddah (the two-week stretch that begins with a woman’s period, and during which husband and wife must not touch) and the rest of the month, during which sexual contact is encouraged. Rubin loves running the Lubavitch mikveh. “I’d always been sexually free and here, in a Jewish ritual bath, it’s elevating sex, it’s making it godly. For me, it was like God was giving me this job to elevate my past. I love it. I feel like I’ve come into myself. It’s holy work.”
To all those Australians for whom sex is a guilty pleasure, the fact that orthodox Jews consider sex a holy business may come as a surprise. But Judaism doesn’t have a concept of the fall from grace; sex is just one more basic instinct, to be shelved alongside other inoffensive bodily needs like eating and drinking. It’s far from open slather, though: just as Jews have complex rules about food, there’s a whole slew of teachings outlining the accepted ways of channelling sexual energy.
It’s not as straightforward as the Ten Commandments of the Bedroom, either. Teachings about sex must deal with the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in Jewish texts. For example, Jews are taught to marry other Jews, yet Moses married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest. Jews are taught that homosexual practices are wrong, yet David laments the death of Jonathan by saying “greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women”.
These and other statements and stories have been interpreted, discussed and wrangled into myriad dictates about how often couples should have sex, in what manner and under which circumstances. And good Jews should learn them all.
Preferably, though, they should learn them the official way. The Talmud (a collection of religious commentary) tells a story about an enterprising young Jewish scholar who hid under the bed of his rabbi and listened as the rabbi enjoyed sexual relations with his wife. When the rabbi discovered the stowaway and hauled him out, the student explained himself thus: “It is Torah (biblical law), and I must learn it.”
Such a devoted scholar would soon learn that the wife of a man of independence is entitled to sex every day, should she wish it, while a lowly ass-driver is obligated to satisfy his wife just once a week. He’d also realise that rabbinical scholars are not always of one mind when it comes to sexual matters, including which positions are kosher for the bedroom. Some Talmudic rabbis are opposed to “overturning the table” but Maimonides, a 12th century philosopher, asserted that a husband “may kiss any organ he wishes. And he may have intercourse in a natural or unnatural manner as long as he does not expend semen to no purpose”.
Judaism doesn’t compel women to passively lie back and think of Israel. Their husbands cannot force them into sex — indeed, some texts suggest that a man must bring his wife to orgasm first — but there are plenty of traditional Jewish teachings ripe for feminist re-interpretation.
New York artist Helene Aylon has brought her installation My Clean Days to Melbourne for the exhibition. Fixed across two walls, a huge calendar counts out the years from 1949 to 1961 when Aylon was married to a rabbi. Her menstrual cycles and pregnancies are marked on the calendar, denoting the “clean” and “unclean” periods of her marriage.
Aylon obeyed all the religious precepts, counting the days of menstruation, and then another seven days during which she inserted a piece of cotton into her vagina and checked that it came away blood-free. At the end of this week, Aylon would visit the mikveh for her cleansing bath. “I did it because it was the law,” she says. “But at the same time, I saw there was beauty in it.”
Even as her sick husband neared death, the orthodox laws took precedence over the pull of her emotions. “At the end of my husband’s life, about three days before he died, I was ‘unclean’, so I couldn’t touch him,” Aylon recalls. “The religion was more than anything else.”
As her feminist consciousness burgeoned through the 1960s and ’70s, Aylon began to rail against the strictures of Jewish orthodoxy. She still thinks the monthly cycle of separation and ritual cleansing is a good thing, and indeed suspects that it was invented by women in the first place — “It lets a woman be by herself half the month. I think those cadences are spiritual and sensual as well” — but she objects to the patriarchal imposition of concepts such as “unclean” and “impure” onto the business of women’s natural cycles. Women need to reclaim these female traditions if they are to be observant Jews and feminists, she thinks. Otherwise, “life goes on between the cracks of the religion”.
No discussion about Jews and sex could avoid “the hole in the sheet” question, which has almost become a caricature of nookie Jewish-style. So, do Jews really make love through a perforated sheet? No, or at least, it’s doubtful, according to evidence mounted in the exhibition. Jewish teachings place importance on the “closeness of flesh”, instructing that the husband and wife should have sex fully naked, but under a sheet and preferably with the lights off. Indeed, a woman who insists on keeping her gear on gives her husband grounds to divorce her.
Some think the hole in the sheet notion comes from a Jewish sage, Rabbi Halafta, who introduced the concept to reconcile two conflicting statements in the Bible. Deuteronomy 25:5 commands a man to take his brother’s childless widow as his wife, but Leviticus 18:16 forbids a man to see his brother’s wife naked. Others suggest a more modern reason for the fallacy: that people saw doona covers with a central hole drying on the line in orthodox neighbourhoods and let their minds run wild.
For Timmy Rubin — who knows all about running wild — life in her orthodox neighbourhood couldn’t be more rewarding. “Many secular women think that observant women are downtrodden, very restricted, not equal to their husbands. They don’t understand that once you’re within the framework of Torah, there’s an incredible respect, because there’s something higher than both of you. The restrictions become freedoms.”
She even likes the fact that she and her husband, Kalman, sleep in separate beds for about two weeks of every month. “You are so much better appreciated. You can’t take each other for granted.”
Rubin met her husband, a psychologist from Ohio, in New York. After a year’s travel around the world, she had ended up at the Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She arrived without an appointment, fresh from having her necklace stolen by a mugger, thinking she’d “try the spiritual bit for four weeks”. Rubin ended up staying a year, immersing herself in the Lubavitch world and realising she had discovered her calling.
Along the way she turned 30, and realised it was time to find that nice Jewish boy. But in the segregated Lubavitch community, girls don’t meet boys at parties — they’re set up by a matchmaker.
For a woman who’d had no trouble finding her own boyfriends it was strange to go through a broker. But, after a few unsuccessful dates and a despairing call to her mother (“I don’t want to keep going out with these dropkicks!”), Rubin went to the matchmaker’s office and rifled through a box of photos of potential suitors. She picked out a “beautiful photo” just as the telephone rang. The man in the photo and the man on the phone were one and the same: Rubin’s future husband. The “beautiful photo” of Kalman Rubin features in the exhibition in a section on finding your Jewish soulmate.
These days, many observant Jews turn to the Internet to hook up with their intended, placing ads on sites like jdate.com and frumster.com, outlining their particular stream of Judaism, how often they learn Torah and whether they wear traditional costume. Timmy Rubin would probably be sceptical of such methods. “The Torah says that making a successful match, bringing two souls together, is as difficult as parting the Red Sea.”
Still, she doesn’t mind trying to part the sea for her friends; she’s helped arrange a dozen marriages in her circle. It’s clear Rubin has a knack that any webmaster would love to bottle, but she downplays her role, eyes twinkling. “I dabble”.