The boys were asked to leave the room. The Hebrew Academy girls were to have a special lecture. Thus began an hour that was to have a monumental impression on me.
The student body of our day school was made up of children from ‘traditional’ to ‘unaffiliated’ families. Most students did not keep kosher or observe Shabbat in any way, but the parents all had two common goals – They wanted their children to have more awareness of their Jewish heritage and they did not want their children to attend public schools where they would be bussed to other sections of the city.
I doubt that this ‘special lecture’ passed any parent’s committee, and I doubt any of the girls discussed the lecture with their parents afterwards. I know there were no discussions amongst ourselves afterwards. It was simply an event that was so unconnected to our daily lives that it couldn’t be completely processed at the time.
The speaker was a woman most of us did not know personally. She was a pediatrician and belonged to the orthodox synagogue. She was probably 30 years younger than the average member of that ‘shul’.
There was perceived tension in the air, even though her genuine smile and manner were non-threatening. This moment of being separated from the boys was a first, suddenly causing me to feel very ‘female’. We couldn’t begin to guess what this woman was going to say to us.
“In Song of Songs, King Solomon sums up the secret to the ultimate relationship between a man and woman with just two words – ‘Achoti Kala’ – My sister, my bride. What is the secret?”
We were silent.
“You girls are at an age that many changes are taking place. You are changing slowly from girls to women… Because of these changes, I know you will understand what we are talking about today.”
A few giggles and knowing glares passed between the girls. Still, we had no idea what was coming next.
“G-d set up a system for the Jewish couple, based around the woman’s natural monthly cycle, that leads to a marital relationship that is always new. ”
All of a sudden, my ears perked. I was only 12 years old, but she had touched on a topic that fascinated me, practically to a point of obsession. It was only a year ago when the ‘epidemic’ had begun. My closest friend’s parents divorced. And then the next friend’s parents divorced, and the next. It was usually after thirteen years of marriage, three kids, a successful profession, two fancy cars and a live-in maid.
We didn’t talk about it directly, but there was an indirect topic that became the center of our conversations and ‘research’ . Even at our very young age, we were aware of a certain shop at the mall that no one dared enter. We wouldn’t enter, but we would hold conferences at the window. The ‘attire’ sold in this shop was not meant to be worn in public, nor was it meant to protect one from the elements. Our understanding was that the gentleman claiming to come from Hollywood offered these designs as a means to keep a relationship ‘alive’. I think we felt a natural repulsion to the suggestion of these outfits, that this was the only choice for a woman who wanted to keep her man. On the other hand, the dread of marriage being doomed without a serious plan and effort seemed obvious. What else could be done?!
On the edge of my chair, I listened intently to this ‘Plan B’ option to a vibrant marriage!
“When a Jewish wife has her monthly cycle, and for a week after it ends, the husband and wife have a complete physical separation. This is what King Solomon meant by ‘Achoti’ – my sister. The lack of physical closeness allows them to feel the love of their relationship that resembles a sister and brother’s emotional closeness…”
“But I can kiss my brother!” I challenged.
“Yes, but in the intimate relationship of husband and wife, would it really be possible to tell the difference between different kinds of kisses? This special system I am telling you about has been kept for two thousand years by Jewish people in all the countries of the world. And isn’t it interesting that King Solomon could have written ‘Achoti, Ishti’ – My sister, my wife? No, after the separation, the wife goes to the mikva – a specific pool of water used for special occasions, and returns to her husband not only as his ‘wife’, but as his precious Bride!”
A light went off inside my head. YES! That was the key! I wanted to be a perpetual bride and not a doll in a shop window! There was a flood of happiness that filled me at that moment, and although I never made a personal commitment to any other Jewish observance, I did make a promise to myself that I would settle for nothing less than an ‘Achoti Kallah’ relationship. I sensed, even as a preteen, that I could hope for a life-long marriage even as all marriages around me crumbled.
This promise I made myself that day would have to stand up to some pretty strong head winds. For the next ten years, that one hour lecture would have to compete with every sit-com, commercial, movie, magazine ad, novel, and ‘girl talk’ session. One thing I found interesting and sad, is that any friends whose parents had ‘talks’ about ‘planned parenthood’, etc. were not happier or better directed than I was with my ‘crazy’ commitment. My friends found my attitude amusing, and accepted that I was not joining the crowd in what was mainstream ’80’s behavior for the young and the restless. They understood this was not because I was prudish, but passionate. I felt that being involved in a relationship that was anything short of ‘Achoti Kallah’ would kill a part of my soul.
Many years later, I was overcome with a desire to speak with the woman who had given that lecture. It was 15 years later and I was a mother of three. I had just attended the wedding of a young woman who I had counseled regarding the philosophy and halachic guidelines of the ‘Achoti Kallah’ relationship. I was on such a ‘high’ and traced it all back to that afternoon in the mid ’70s. I remembered hearing that woman and her family had moved to a much larger Jewish community. I called information. The operator asked for the Township.
“Township? Um, I don’t know…”
“Well, when you know, call back.” Click.
‘So, that’s it. No, I am going to try again’, I said to myself.
A male operator answered. Funny, but from somewhere, I had heard that male operators are always nicer. Talk about your stereotypes, but I hoped it was true!
“I don’t know the Township, but it is very important. Could you help me?”
“Well, let’s try a few. Oh, here it is on our first try!”
I had the number! My heart was beating. I wasn’t sure what I would say, but I called. A child answered the phone and said their mother would be home in the afternoon.
I called a second time, and her husband answered, asking if he could take a message. Wow, that would be some message! No, I just asked if I could call again later. Third time lucky, I finally reached my lecturer from the past.
“I don’t know if you remember, but fifteen years ago you came to speak to a small group of pre-teenage girls about Taharat HaMishpacha. You didn’t actually call it that, but that was the topic. I just wanted to tell you what an effect you had on me,…how the concept of an ‘Achoti-Kallah’ marriage stuck with me from that moment and protected me from many other desires and situations that would have been counter to that ideal. And I wanted you to know that not only did I make Aliya after graduating high school, but that I attended a women’s seminary. I got to see how fleshing out my Jewish identity benefits not only the husband and wife relationship, but my relationship with my society and within myself. I met my husband there. He is a rabbi and Jewish educator from a very similar background. And another thing, I have just attended the wedding of the first Kalah I have taught Taharat HaMishpacha. I feel this is all in your merit.” And then I made myself stop talking!
There was a hesitation, and then a sigh. In a quiet voice, she responded.
“I’ve often wondered if I did the right thing by speaking with such young girls. We were about to leave the city, and I doubted that the topic would ever be raised if I didn’t take the opportunity right then. I want to tell you that you are calling exactly when I needed this encouragement. I just got up from sitting shiva for my mother. It has been very hard for me, and I have been a bit hard on myself. Your call has meant so much to me.”
Thank G-d for male operators.
As a middle-aged mother with a failing memory, I still have such sharp memories from my childhood. I am sorry for all the garbage that, at best, is pushed to the far recesses, but I also feel these memories have helped me be a more ‘with-it’ mother. I remember very clearly the male-female issues that began as early as fifth grade. As an adult, if it were not for these memories, I would not imagine these issues being on kids’ minds. I also remember distinctly NOT speaking about things with my parents, even though we were close and they had quite modern attitudes. I remember being insulted by ‘health education’ in high school, which covered topics like birth control and abortion as they related to percentages of effectiveness and danger, but never made any attempt to deal with human feelings.
At many Jewish family gathering these days, there are discussions over an upcoming intermarriage. One hears statements like, “At least the children will be Jewish” or “What’s wrong with marrying him? He is a nice guy who treats her well!” or “You have to convince him to convert.”
This story from my youth came to mind as an unexpected response. The woman who shared King Solomon’s secret never once said, “Kids, no premarital intimacy!” Nor did she stress, “This is only possible in a marriage between two Jews!” or “Only Orthodox Jews can have vibrant marriages”. With no dogma whatsoever, she impressed upon me my birthright as a Jew. With just this one example, I got a glimpse at the Torah as an inherited love letter, and felt the discipline described therein as a loving gift from a living and close G-d. I would say that without frontal discussion of many hot topics, a holistic solution will take hold on the next generation if we are committed to showing the love and the gifts received when we build our Jewish identity. Let’s do this sooner than later! Regarding intermarriage, if a Jewish child has become a Jewish young adult without developing an intrinsic Jewish identity and plan for the future, he or she most likely will end up loving a non-Jew. At that point, I wonder just how effective any discussion or objection to intermarriage can be. It is expecting too much from someone who lacks skill and motivation to overcome such a painful test as to choose ‘right’ (someone else’s ‘right’) over ‘love’. I am not condoning intermarriage. I only ask that parents help create a confident, educated and goal-oriented Jew before having the expectation that they should marry a Jew. And the best education, of course, is being a personal example.
Miriam Meir grew up in the Midwest and Southwest USA. Along with her husband, Ron, she has been involved in Jewish education and outreach in Israel and the United States for over 20 years. They live in Jerusalem with their children ranging in age from “still in diapers” to “just married”. In her spare time, she is a freelance writer and interior designer.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.