November 16, 2018

Prophets of Eros

Photo from Max Pixel.

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.

The Facts

Where does a parent — a Jewish mother — begin a frank consideration of her daughter’s sexuality? As the Zen master says, you have to start from where you are, and then let it flow.

I am a single mom, and as a single mom, my sex life is pretty much on display. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve known single mothers who crawl out of the window at midnight to visit their lovers, but I’m not good at taking off the screens. I have secrets from my daughter, but they happen during the daylight.

Because I’m a single mom, in some ways it is easier for me to discuss the facts of life with my daughter. My mother left this particular job to my father, and, finally, just the other day, he got around to asking if there’s anything I’d like to know about men.

Avoidance just doesn’t work with Samantha and me. We’re not obsessed with the mechanics of sexuality (she gets too much of this from reality-based TV, see further on) but, rather, with its operational flow. Samantha looks at my life, a virtual relationship laboratory right in her own home. She sees me dating, making my own mistakes, frisky in perfume one minute, wearing my heart on my sleeve the next. She notices when a guy comes by, bringing flowers, and she’s right there when the flowers stop. Recently, when I was on the phone with a guy for a full hour, she came in to give me a hug. The lesson my mother could never teach me — that the heart is a sexual organ — my daughter already knows.

Sometimes, I feel I’m a failure in this department, but it’s as much history’s fault as my own. Sadly, the “sexual liberation” that I’d hoped to bequeath to my daughter doesn’t mean much in today’s terms. For my generation, the “Fear of Flying” crowd, liberation means the freedom to participate in one’s own sex life, to enjoy passion and fantasy, to understand lust as a natural hunger, as related to but distinct from love. See, it still casts a romantic glow.

I was hardly a libertine; I wanted then what I want now: a stable partner with a great imagination. I’m a ’60s Gal, electrified by the right to be alive during lovemaking, to choose my partners (rather than to be commanded by them), to own a wakeful body, and to never fake satisfaction just to be polite. The other side of the equation, the part I try to stress to Samantha, is that I believe in self-protection, taking responsibility for bad choices and learning from my mistakes. No matter what has happened since — no matter how naïve we were about the fragility of males, no matter that even great sex sometimes pales next to good companionship — I still regard the women’s movement as the purest time of my life, when the battle was waged for a full definition of female adulthood, a battle only yet partially won.

In my fantasies, I’d hoped my daughter’s generation would take up the fight. But woman plans, and God laughs.

One day, when she was in fourth grade, Samantha came home from school with the report that Magic Johnson got AIDS from unprotected sex. All her life, we had been talking about sexuality, body parts, where babies come from and the rest. But nothing like this. Looking at my little girl, my heart sank, and I still think of that moment as the true “fall from grace.” Her news (she said it just this way, “Magic Johnson got AIDS from unprotected sex”) meant that Samantha, along with every little girl and boy in America, was learning about sex not as joyful, loving, free and natural (if strained with emotional complications), but as a health crisis, tainted, diseased, stained. I flew the flag for sexual freedom at half-staff.

Even today, so many years after accommodating to our new, darker era, I still well up in a protective rage on behalf of our young girls. The bad news broke too soon. Samantha didn’t yet know what love means, what physical ecstasy evokes. Before she could develop her own unique metaphor — a fantasy of bliss or a vision of herself locked in a “From Here to Eternity” love embrace on a pristine beach –she was already thinking mechanically, clinically, of sex as “safe” or “unsafe.”

She knows too much about the wrong things, and not only about AIDS. She has been warned against child abusers, sexual disease and sexual harassment in a wide variety of forms. A macabre sideshow of twisted sexual images come to her from “Jerry Springer,” MTV, Angelyne, Michael Jackson’s androgyny. She’ll never be allowed a moment’s purity, naivete or nonchalance. I grieve for her imagination’s prematurely lost virginity.

I’d be less than forthright if I said that being a Jewish parent provides security, or spiritual advantage, in this regard. Like every parent, I worry about my child’s friends and her values, and I seek to insulate her from the dangers of the cruel world. Where Jewish tradition helps is: 1) in providing a long list of women who survived their own child’s teen-age years, and 2) in offering stories that encourage independent thinking, even in the midst of chaotic times.

Increasingly these days, I use both parts of that heritage: I think of my own mother, scared to death throughout my adolescence, while I felt certain I could take care of myself. And I