Photo from Max Pixel.

Prophets of Eros

As a Jewish girl growing up in a non-Jewish suburb, I often wondered, while reading “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which of our neighbors would have hidden me and my sisters in their attic. Recently, I find myself asking a more adult version of this question: After profound trauma, would I have been able to find my way back to eros, to a fully lived life?

One of my favorite rabbinic legends describes the ancient Israelite women seducing their husbands while in captivity in Egypt. Pharaoh oppresses the Israelite men with backbreaking labor as a subtle form of genocide: They are too exhausted to make a new generation of Israelites.

The Israelite women realize that their tribe is in danger, and according to the rabbis, they take action. Drawing their husbands out to an orchard and gently teasing them, they lift up handheld copper mirrors, saying, “I’m more beautiful than you are!”

Both Dr. Ruth and Esther Perel lack any trace of prudishness. Both emanate love and wit.

In this midrash, the ancient Israelite women are not just heroines of tribal continuation. They also are keepers of eros. They teach pleasure despite oppression — survival of both the body and the soul.

Which brings me to today. In an era when sexuality tends more toward the commodified and the alienated, who teaches us about the inner erotic life, with its vulnerability, pleasure and its ability to transform us? Who are today’s prophets of eros?

This is not a rhetorical question. I have an answer — actually two, and both are Jewish women: Ruth Westheimer and Esther Perel.

During that same era of girlhood when I wondered about my neighbors hiding me, I also listened covertly to Westheimer’s late-night radio show on a tiny AM radio I kept hidden beneath my pillow.

My most important sex education wasn’t the embarrassing biology lessons of middle school, but “Dr. Ruth’s” teachings of how pleasure, self-acceptance and joy can be accessed through the erotic.

Perel is a generation younger, a couples therapist finding rather unlikely celebrity these days. In her beautiful, moving podcast, “Where Should We Begin?,” Perel invites us into the intimate space of couples therapy as she helps people access their connection to eros after trauma.

Sometimes the trauma is past abuse. Often it is an affair. Occasionally it is simply the trauma — for women and men alike — of living under patriarchy.

I find myself now listening to Perel’s podcast with an adult version of my previous mania for Dr. Ruth’s radio show. In fact, the two women have much in common. Both lack any trace of prudishness. Both emanate love and wit. Both possess charming accents. And both are Jewish women who grew up in displaced communities profoundly traumatized by the Holocaust.

When Westheimer was a 10-year-old girl, her father was taken by the Nazis, and her mother placed her on a train out of Germany, hoping to save her life. This was the Kindertransport to Switzerland. She would never see her mother again.

Perel was born a generation later in Antwerp, Belgium. She is the daughter of two Jewish refugees, Holocaust survivors who lost their entire families in the camps. She writes beautifully about how her parents, who had lost 16 siblings between them, nonetheless taught her about joy and eros:

“Trauma was woven into the fabric of my family history (and would inspire my work for years to come). They came out of that experience wanting to charge at life with a vengeance and to make the most of each day. They both felt that they had been granted a unique gift: living life again. My parents didn’t just want to survive, they wanted to revive. They wanted to embrace vibrancy and vitality — in the mystical sense of the word, the erotic.”

I see Westheimer and Esther Perel as our modern incarnations of the ancient Israelite women in Egypt.

All of them share a prophetic Jewish women’s voice; all are guardians of eros. Their very response to trauma is finding a renewed commitment to life force, to joy — and to helping other people access their own erotic selves.

Thinking back, I remember that Anne Frank, too, wrote about finding eros. Even in her brief life, even in the very midst of tragedy.

The light and the dark intertwine. No matter how dark the past, we can recommit to finding the beating heart of eros, and remember that life can — must — still be lived in all its fullness.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Why I’m Not a Rabbi

I never thought I’d find myself in the position of deciding whether or not to be a rabbi. After all, I came from a secular family and from a young age I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer.

But after four years of studying creative writing in college and one summer working at a literary nonprofit in Manhattan, I found myself in a crisis that would eventually lead to the rabbi question.

I was 21 years old and writing was the center of my life, to the exclusion of almost anything else. A good writing day made me feel like a good person. A bad writing day made me feel like a worthless excuse for a human being. This, I began to sense, was a form of idolatry; writing could not be the most important thing in the world. Life had value apart from words on a page!

Meanwhile, I had begun to grow interested in my Jewish heritage. And I’d also begun to fall in love, inconveniently, with God.

So, at 21, I decided to stop writing entirely. Instead, I would build my life around something eternal.

I quit my job, left everything I knew and traveled to Jerusalem for the first time, with nothing but a backpack and my violin. There, I enrolled in a progressive, coed yeshiva called Pardes.

I ended up staying at Pardes for two years, studying Torah during the day and playing music in clubs or on the street at night. By the time I left, there was no question about what was at the center of my life as I prayed, studied Talmud and led Friday-night services.

When I returned to the States, I continued to play fiddle; I began to teach Torah; and slowly, very slowly, I also began to write. Like an athlete learning to hold her body correctly after a bad injury, I had to craft my sentences carefully, watching for signs of too much ego or ambition. But I was able to build a serious writing practice back into my life.

I continued to write, play music and teach Torah through my 20s, without feeling a need to choose between these sometimes disparate ways of life. But as my 30th birthday approached, I realized I was going to have to make some decisions.

What was I? An artist who loved Jewish texts and traditions or a rabbi who loved music and writing? I knew titles like “rabbi,” “musician” and “writer” were never fully accurate, that every human transcended a simple title. But I also understood that they mattered. I sensed that the path I chose would define the way I spent my days, how I paid my rent, and what was appropriate to say in public.

I found that when I leaned toward one possibility, the other self would materialize strongly. When I placed art out front, the Hebrew letters shone through, seeming to be the inner essence of that practice. But when I foregrounded the sacred books, I would feel the gentle curves of my violin’s body, notes inside my fingertips, poems burning on my tongue.

I agonized over this decision for months.

In the end, as silly as it sounds, it was cursing that finally led me to decide not to be a rabbi. I am not particularly foul-mouthed, but I wanted to be able to drop F-bombs with impunity, in my writing and in my life.

Really, looking back, I see that this was symbolic. I wanted to be able to say anything, from the esoteric to the vulgar, without the pressure of representing my people and my tradition.

So I finally recycled the rabbinical school application.

Thankfully, Judaism is not terribly hierarchical, at least in the communities in which I live and work. As a layperson, I can lead services, teach the traditions, counsel seekers, and officiate my students’ bar and bat mitzvahs.

Thank goodness for all the rabbis who bear the honor and the burden of communal representation. As for me, I’m just a wandering melamed, grateful for the tools I have to find as much holiness as I can in the world: Torah, music and writing down the meditations of my heart — from the sacred to the profane. n

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Poem: How to Sail

Scrape the curse off the parchment. Stir the broken letters
into a jar of water. Make a woman drink it: thus said
Elohim. But why: thus said Molly, twelve years old. Now I
was the teacher. We sat there, two black flames in a room
of white fire. We were sailing on a wind that passed
through the open window of a room next to the
marketplace, two thousand years ago

“How to Sail” first appeared in “Divinity School,” published by The American Poetry Review, 2015.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a poet, musician, performer and Torah teacher based in Portland, Ore. Her book “Divinity School” won the 2015 APR/Honickman First Book Prize.