Shabbat mitzvah, party of two
“Whadadya say we celebrate God tonight … if you know what I mean?”
This, from my husband on a recent Shabbat. He’s not a Borscht Belt comedian, but he always sounds like one when he uses the “if you know what I mean” line.
After 17 years together, he doesn’t always get what he’s after with this, but unless I’ve already fallen asleep while he’s talking, it still makes me laugh a little. This time, the setup intrigued me.
“We’re going to celebrate God by having sex?” I asked in a surely-you-jest tone.
“Yes. You’re supposed to have sex on Shabbat. It’s a mitzvah. Maybe even a double mitzvah!” he said, wiggling his eyebrows like an Irish Groucho Marx.
“OK, relax,” I said, laughing a bit more than usual at the thought of rabbis deliberating this and how they might have had a vested interest in making sex worthy of extra credit.
I don’t remember if we went for it that night, but it definitely made me curious if the whole sex-on-Friday-night-as-mitzvah angle was real.
Point of order: Before I met my husband, like more than a few Jews transplanted from New York City whom I’ve met, the only part of Judaism I was intimately familiar with was the food.
Yom Kippur featured cloyingly sweet and cheesy noodle pudding, softball-size bagels slathered with cream cheese like buttercream on a cupcake, topped with slippery, salty lox. Passover had matzo balls, tongue-stinging horseradish and pyramids of macaroons, not the très chic “macarons,” but thick, chewy, sweet almond-flavored macaroons. Rosh Hashanah meant sodium-enriched brisket with mushy carrots and gribenes, one of the few Hebrew words I knew, the other being rugelach, which I now know is Yiddish.
I couldn’t tell you what people ate or did on Shabbat, however, because I didn’t even know what it was until I was cast in “Fiddler on the Roof” in high school and then watched the movie. At dinner, Golda lights two candles and mysteriously waves her hands around and sings. Tevye joins and they earnestly serenade a table of dark-haired children about God protecting them. The camera pulls back and the whole village sings, too. In my defense, nothing like this ever happened in Westport, Conn., in 1982.
Although I wouldn’t have been identified as “self-hating,” I definitely wasn’t thrilled with being Jewish back then. It was a fact about me I had no control over that consistently made me “other.” When I moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, I was so struck by how many Jews I met and how unapologetic they were. It was pretty fabulous.
Then I met my husband, a big fan of Judaism, and we had two children who we sent to a very happy Jewish preschool. Contrary to my childhood, our boys don’t have any negative associations with being Jewish. Through familial osmosis, if you will, I’ve learned about the religion. But apparently, according to my husband, not everything.
Always looking for a fun-loving way to prove him wrong, I did some sexual sleuthing. Turns out, since the Second Temple and apparently under the influence of the pleasure-seeking Greeks, the Talmud encourages men to “engage in physical intimacy with their wives.” As far as the “double mitzvah,” although there is a XXX-rated novel with the title, this is largely anecdotal, discussed at length by Jewish day school boys the world over.
The Talmud reference to my husband’s claim made it legit enough for me to accept that he wasn’t just “producing me,” as he calls it whenever I try to talk him into doing something he doesn’t want to do.
Not that I don’t want to have sex, by the way. I know I’m a woman and I’m not supposed to like it, but I do. It’s just, Friday night? Really, dudes? Because after a week — including, but not limited to, a two-hour daily commute, packing 10 lunches, making five dinners (OK, three), loads of laundry and visiting my mother in her Alzheimer’s home, where, despite dementia, she always remembers to ask, “Why does your hair look like that?” — there’s nothing I want to do more than strip and dance around our perpetually unmade bed to Avinu Malkeinu.
I kid. True, Friday night is not my first choice to couple up with my husband. I’m spent and often pass out reading to my youngest. Nevertheless, and as much as it pains me to give credit to an all-male body of decision-makers, these guys were on to something with their getting it on “on the regular” encouragement.
I researched happy marriages for several years for a book I was writing, and guess what lands in the top three key elements of any marriage lasting more than 10, 20, 40 years, right up there with showing up for each other and listening?
If you guessed any activity you do together that ends with a solid “… if you know what I mean,” you get a gold Star of David. We should all be fruitful and multiply! Even when we’re done multiplying. Baruch HaShem!
Dani Klein Modisett is a comic and writer, most recently of the book “Take My Spouse, Please.”