When I tell people I’m an Orthodox Jew I often get two types of responses. From conservatives: “Wow, that’s so cool, I really admire that commitment and sacrifice. Tell me more about it!” And from liberals: “Wow I can’t believe you’re a Jewish conservative. What’s it like being Jewish with all of those redneck antisemites?” I tell group B how wrong they are by explaining the reactions I get from conservatives 99 times out of 100. But I don’t set the record straight with conservatives often enough about my faith. It’s not a sacrifice. It’s a choice I made (I didn’t grow up religious or necessarily even Jewish). I didn’t make this choice because I’m a martyr. I made it because it is an intensely logical religion, and one that sets the stage for a strong marriage and family life. Before I get into how and why, these are the three basic tenets of Orthodox Judaism:
No, this doesn’t mean the food I eat has been blessed by a rabbi. Judaism is a collection of laws, and the laws on what Jews can eat are plentiful. If something is kosher, it simply means that it has been made in accordance with these laws, with a Jewish supervisor ensuring all the rules were followed. Orthodox Jews don’t eat meat and milk mixed together, animals for consumption are killed according to Jewish law, and many categories of food (pork and shellfish being the most famous) are not allowed. The image above is a popular selection of the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of kosher symbols in circulation. Check your packaged food for some of them; you’ll be surprised how much of what you eat is actually certified kosher!
2. Shabbat (Sabbath) and holiday observance
From Friday night to Saturday night at sundown you won’t see me tweeting or on gchat. Technology isn’t the only thing we eschew on the Sabbath and on holidays. During that time, my family and millions of other Orthodox families don’t cook, spend money, travel, or even rip toilet paper (we pre-rip it beforehand or use tissues). There’s a lot of rules about what we don’t do, but I’ll get more into why that’s a good thing later on.
3. Family purity
This is the least well-known of the laws that Orthodox Jews follow, and it surrounds things that happen in the bedroom. For starters, premarital sex, and for some more strict observers than myself, even premarital touching, is off limits. Once the marriage takes place, these rules determine when husbands and wives can have sex, and even touch. For at least the first twelve days after the start of bleeding, whether it be a period or childbirth (it can be longer if she bleeds longer, which is the case for childbirth), husbands and wives separate. They don’t touch or even share the same bed. (I Love Lucy-style twin beds are separated during this time.) At the end of this “niddah” period, a woman visits a ritual bath filled with “living water,” water which has not passed through plumbing, called a mikvah.
Before I became religious I viewed all Jewish law as suffocating and restrictive. On a chance walk back to the Jewish student center on my campus in college (Rutgers Hillel), I had a chat with the executive director, an Orthodox Jew, about what being observant meant for his family life. His perspective put Orthodox Judaism in a very different light for me for the first time, and it was one of the driving factors behind my decision to become observant as well.
How do all of these rules affect marriage and families with children?
1. Keeping Kosher promotes more home-cooked, family meals, especially on the Sabbath.
When you keep kosher, takeout and restaurant options are usually limited, unless you happen to live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When I lived in Washington, D.C. we had one, yes one, restaurant to choose from. In Upper Manhattan, we had less than a half dozen, a falafel joint, a pizza place and a Chinese restaurant, all of which catered to the college students across the neighborhood, on the other side of a very steep hill. In the suburb of New Jersey where I live, we have several as well, none of which (besides one amazing sushi restaurant) is altogether appetizing. If we want to have dinner as a family, it means one of us has to make dinner. It’s made us eat healthier, kept our budget in check, and, most importantly, I have had the joy of cooking for my husband since we started dating. Despite what Amanda Marcotte may tell you, cooking for him has been a joyful part of our relationship. For the Sabbath, women even bake their own bread, called challah. The above photo is my first attempt at baking my own.
2. Keeping the Sabbath and holidays is the best way my marriage and our family recharges after a long week and year.
There have been perhaps a handful of times that I’ve loathed turning the world off, but on the whole, we couldn’t enjoy being without technology more. We spend 25 hours per week with each other, without a single distraction. We have nowhere to rush off to, no e-mail to check, no laundry or cooking to do — it can all wait. Before the holiday we make plans to see family, cook ahead of time, and plan to catch up on sleep, reading, playing games (like the one above, the photo was taken after Shabbat) and quality time, an absolute must for a family with an infant. In the fall and in the spring, pockets of holidays provide days of uninterrupted family time, and we often stay with my in-laws, which provides our daughter with quality grandparent and cousin time, and us with quality sleep without having to trade the baby off.
3. Keeping the Sabbath in our community can be somewhat of a frustration when we’re looking to relocate.
Orthodox Jews are limited in where we can live; we have to be within a community and within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue. We need access to the necessary amenities of Jewish life like a mikvah (a ritual bath), kosher food, a school, and an eruv. An eruv, a ritual enclosure built around the community, enables Orthodox Jews to carry items on the Sabbath, and usually marks the clear lines within which community members live. It is usually constructed of a string that is looped around part of the town.
Living in these limited areas can become frustrating, not to mention expensive. Ultimately, though, the need to live within walking distance of a synagogue means we know our neighbors, with friends (and in our case family) just a few blocks away. We see these fellow Jews at parties, kosher restaurants, at grocery stores, and we feel part of a community instead of just a town or city.
The comical video above is a good crash course on the mikvah.
4. Family purity keeps the spice in a marriage.
Not counting when a woman is pregnant, nursing (if she’s managed to keep her period at bay while doing so) or post-menopause, married couples can only touch one half of the month. One of the more common complaints in the average marriage is that sex becomes dull and rote. When your partner is always available, intimacy can be taken for granted. For couples who follow the laws of family purity, that is rarely the case. For the limited window that couples are allowed to touch, most take advantage of the opportunity. It’s not just sexual activity that becomes more exciting, every touch becomes special. When you can’t hug, kiss or hold hands half of the month, the times when it’s allowed are special and cherished, not to mention taken advantage of.
5. Remaining thankful is a central component of Judaism.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of times a day, a Jew thanks G-d for each and every blessing. Three times a day are set aside for prayer, but in addition to this, Jews say blessings upon waking and before going to sleep, over every piece of food, even after going to the bathroom, thanking G-d for functioning body systems. Keeping this thankfulness to G-d always in mind helps families be thankful for all of their blessings, including their spouse and child(ren).