September 23, 2019

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.