Erotica, I Get – But Jewish Erotica?

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Image Credit-“Shekhina” 88-19, Leonard Nimoy (2002)

Written by Adam Arotti. Adam Arotti is an author of Jewish-themed erotica, highlighting the erotic elements in biblical and Talmudic stories, as well as capitalizing on the taboos created by Orthodox Judaism. Fresh, provocative and educational, his anthology of biblical erotica is well under way. He lives on the West Coast with his wife and children. Visit his temporary home at adamarotti.wordpress.com to stay tuned for more excerpts, stories and submissions! For more Jewrotica writing by Adam Arotti, check out The Barren Wife, Through The Window and Under the Bed.
Rated PG-13

In recent months, I have been asked on several occasions to define “Jewish Erotica,” and to explain its particular appeal. But in the course of formulating an answer to that very fair question, I have also detected some confusion regarding the definition of “erotica” itself; and in order to understand the specific sub-genre of Jewish erotica, it’s important that we look under the erotica hood. So here are my two cents, for whatever they’re worth.

When I was a kid, old enough to appreciate sexuality, but too young to be allowed access to any online websites like www.porn-hd.xxx – and living in a religious environment in which the conventional wisdom was to place it even further beyond reach – I had two sources of erotic stimulation. The first was the World Book Encyclopedia, Volume ‘R’ under ‘Reproduction’ (at least I think it was the World Book – I’m pretty sure I would not have understood the Britannica). That entry was terrific, as it laid out all of the exciting and forbidden terms: penis, vagina, insertion, erection – fun stuff! Pretty clinical stuff, but for a kid thirsty for eroticism, it was a veritable treasure trove. I later decided to look into some other adult content like full tube.

Then I discovered romance novels. These had incredibly hot sex scenes – scenes that would blow my young mind – which I would discover by flipping through the book until I saw the word “breast.” The rest of the book, of course, held no interest to me as I sought my erotic fix. I would read a sex scene again and again, until the details were dulled by repetition, and then I would move on to the next one. As I got older, though, I began to have an appreciation for the power of the sex scenes in context. At that point, I would start the book on page one, and get to know the characters intimately. When those same characters would finally give in to their lusts during the course of the book, I knew them. And my knowledge of them, and my appreciation for all that they brought to their lovemaking, gave depth to my reading pleasure, and increased the erotic power of the experience tenfold.

Even as I grew yet older, now with a sex life of my own, erotic scenes still held a strong appeal. But why? If I could live it, what’s the appeal of simply reading about it?

Sex is an intimate and private thing. In fact, it is the most intimate of human behaviors, to the extent that most of the dominant cultures over the past centuries have ingrained in us to think of sex as inherently sinful; and even within more sexually-permissive cultures, sex is certainly the kind of thing that should be confined to the bedroom, concealed from the public eye.

And yet – with erotica, here it is, black on white, being presented for our consumption. In this voyeuristic thrill, we are now privy to the intimate sex lives of the book’s characters; and even deeper, the erotic imagination of their author.

Thus, as a reader, erotica is a form of intellectual voyeurism; a peak into the inner sanctum of another’s bedroom. As an author, it is the equivalent of intellectual flashing (to an appreciative audience), and cerebral exhibitionism.

Still, whereas the encyclopedia had been too clinical, viewing sex under a harsh, florescent light, romance novels tended to the other extreme: euphemistic, teasing, playing on the edges of the really good stuff. And so brief! The scene would be over ever so quickly, the hungry fingers of my libido stretching into the void for more, but being left unsatisfied.

Moreover, there is yet another frustrating phenomenon that occurs with ordinary (even romantic) novels that include sex scenes, but in which sex is not the primary focus. See, our brains respond differently to erotic scenes than it does to non-erotic ones, it’s as though an erotic scene pushes a button activating a different and super-charged flow of chemicals and brain activity. Studies have reported that erotic stimulation results in significant activation of several areas of the brain most of which I cannot even pronounce.

So here you are, reading a book, enjoying the plot, story-line and character development, and then you get to a sex scene. Suddenly, BAM! Intensity! Juices are flowing, heart is racing, breathing is ragged and shallow, brain is in overdrive, and…and then it’s over, and the novel resumes its tale. How do you just turn off that switch and shift your brain back into neutral, returning to the main storyline? How do you simply jump back into the relatively dull world of the non-erotic, leaving the incredibly vibrant erotic universe behind? It’s a form of mental whiplash!

Erotica is a genre that focuses on the good stuff. Readers know going in that they are in for a hot ride, for an erotic fix, for a juiced-up experience. From the beginning of the story to its end, the story is about sex. Oh, there are non-sexual parts of the story (a necessary evil); but even these are simply intended to provide context and to build anticipation for the sex (or perhaps the non-sex, if the tale involves tantra or BDSM), which is the acknowledged focus and climax of the book – just as live sex is the climax of human existence.

Of course, this creates its own challenges. After all, anyone picking up an erotic story likely anticipates the writhing, sweaty bodies, tangling tongues, and slick orifices. Sure, there are varying levels of skill, and talented authors of erotica can capture their readers’ interest (and libido) with their prose alone; but it is also true that for readers of erotica, ordinary sex scenes eventually become passé, and something more is needed.

And because it is erotica, and not an ordinary novel, absent from the story’s ingredients is the careful and gradual development of the characters; and thus the sense of connection and familiarity that ordinarily makes our voyeuristic pleasure so intense is missing as well. There is no comparison between watching porn stars perform on a movie set to watching your dear neighbors have sex. One is impersonal and staged; the other is highly personal and spontaneous. At the same time, when I sit down to read an erotic story, I’m already in that “arouse me!” frame of mind, and if the story takes too long setting up the characters and getting me to the juicy parts, I quickly lose interest. So how does erotica manage to maintain its thrill and excitement while also keeping its sexual focus?

In order to provide the necessary context to frame (and flame) the sizzling erotic scenes, erotica will often allow the story to be carried – not by the developed familiarity with its characters, but – by the readers’ inherent familiarity with stereotypical, relatable and ordinary characters, who, in the story, find themselves in extraordinary sexual situations.

An example of one such character – and one of my favorites – is the housewife. Just the word “housewife” already conveys so much. It is a hashtag that conjures a tidy home because of her quality cleaning products like Bissell branded products, perhaps with a front yard and a picket fence in a suburban neighborhood, with the kitchen windows facing the street. There is a hard-working woman, perhaps in her 30s or 40s, who has settled in to the routines of domestic life, mothering her school-age children, maintaining the house, paying the bills. The hot single girl on the prowl of years ago has been replaced with a woman beset upon by life’s challenges and the responsibilities (and joys) of raising a family. She loves her husband, with whom she has exchanged the vows “’till death do us apart,” and she intends on honoring those vows, even as she mourns the loss of the spark and the passion that once burned in their relationship.

A #housewife.

Now, an erotic story about a housewife having passionate sex with someone who is not her husband, has instant erotic appeal. It’s scandalous. It’s forbidden. She shouldn’t be doing it. And that provides all of the friction necessary for a thrilling sexual story. We may not know her personally, her personality, her background, her education; but we have inherent knowledge of her, and we can relate to her familiar circumstances; and when she steps out of that box for a forbidden sexual liaison, we are right there alongside her, vicariously sharing in her pleasure.

Not all erotica is “kinky” per se, but it is usually a distinct sexual interest or ‘philia that drives erotic literature. E.L. James’s success was because she tapped into a particular kink that people were hungry for. A mere retelling and eroticization of the Twilight series would not have generated the same sales as she did when she turned the impossibly-doting male into a Dom, and the cute but perpetually-insecure female into a sub. Our culture creates a box into which ordinary and vanilla sexuality goes; and erotica provides the thrill of guiding our minds out of that box.

Religious erotica provides an automatic kink, whether you are on the inside of the religious lifestyle, or on the outside looking in. While the reader may not be familiar with the particular character in the story, it is the religious culture that will create the friction and suspense that will carry the storyline. Most people see religion as the most powerful antagonist to sex. It is the Anti-Sex. While this is not true of Judaism, it has historically been true of Christianity (and even today, not everyone is acquainted with Judaism’s sex-positive attitude). Hence the allure of the Catholic schoolgirl, and the popularity of that particular costume or role-play. The pastor’s wife. The church-goer. What secret desires lie beneath a spirit so repressed? With so many inhibiting rules, regulations and prohibitions, will he or won’t he? Will she or won’t she? How will the character respond to an erotic situation that she never contemplated when she went to Sunday school; one that tests the strength of her religious convictions against her sexual needs?

Erotica can also be used as a provocative teaching tool to dispel incorrect stereotypes. The reader may pick up the book thinking, “a religious person would never do that!”; but then be pleasantly surprised to find that religious people do indeed do “that” – and perhaps don’t even violate their religious principles in doing so. Thus, Shosha Pearl‘s successful series of short stories of “kosher” erotica, involve “fictional reflections of the erotic beauty and desire that can exist even in the most Orthodox home.” Tamsen Parker’s excellent book, Craving Flight, stretches this concept by introducing us to kosher BDSM within a committed Orthodox marriage. Some forms of Jewish erotica are premised upon reinforcing stereotypes. Is there anything more Jewish than neurotic sex after bagels and lox? Can you imagine all of the uses to which a Jewish nose might be put?

And, fear not, traditional Judaism has quite its own tradition of sexual restrictions and inhibitions, all of which provide plenty of fodder for intense and forbidden erotic – and decidedly non kosher – encounters. The strict segregation of men and women, the prohibitions on premarital sex and intermarriage and the multitude of laws regarding modesty and family purity, all lend themselves to a backdrop of taboo, from which some of the most titillating stories emerge. I have written some of my own such (soon to be published) treif stories, and there is a great selection of similar stories penned by Jayde Blumenthal.

Some time ago I decided to test to the appeal of an erotic story that was made erotic solely because of the restrictive culture of Orthodox Judaism. The story involved some flirtation between a man and his friend’s wife, and culminated with him watching his friend’s wife suntanning by the pool in a bikini and with no hair covering. At no point did they have any physical contact.

Within the vast world of erotica, this story would be considered impossibly dull. After all, on virtually any day, one can go down to the beach or a pool party and see married women suntanning in bikinis with their hair uncovered. In this case, however, it was the erotic build-up – the flirtation, the tension created by strict sexual boundaries, followed by the immodest exposure forbidden by Jewish law – that carried the story.

I posted the story on a well-known website of erotic literature, and waited to see what reaction, if any, it might receive. Would it even be noticed, given its relatively tame content? To my pleasant surprise, the story was awarded high marks, and some readers left the following fascinating comments:

“As a religious Jew, I really loved this story… please continue it! ?)…”

“Loved the insight into Jewish Orthodoxy. Hope there are more chapters…”

“Eagerly awaiting more from you. Loved your descriptions and the insight into Jewish culture. More, please. Either a continuation of this story or something totally new…”

“Excellent for the tension. I always appreciate sexual tension – the forbidden fruit is the best. This is the first story I’ve read where the tension involves Judaism which is an interesting spin. I give it a five even though it is only half a story…”

“Wow I never thought a story about a man seeing a woman in a bikini could be so exciting! But it certainly was, thanks to your excellent and descriptive writing…”

“Excellent! Quite an imaginative story, drawing generously from the inherent eroticism of the situation. A welcome departure from the stories that read like the description of a hockey game where everything is exaggerated…”

Here’s why I chose to share these particular comments. As you can tell, the first comment is from a religious Jew, who had an inherent appreciation of the eroticism of the story, due his familiarity with Orthodox Judaism’s sexual restrictions.

The next three commenters do not appear to be religious Jews – yet they found themselves both having been educated regarding Jewish culture, and also appreciative of the sexual tension created by that culture. My personal sense is that Judaism is sufficiently well-known and mainstream that the readers found Jewish erotica intriguing in the titillating sense, as opposed to it being more of curiosity in the “world-of-the-bizarre” sense.

Finally, the last two comments do not mention Judaism at all, yet they too picked up on the forbidden tension, and were therefore able to enjoy a story which would otherwise have likely been quite boring.

Judaism creates its own box, with familiar contours and boundaries. Jewish erotica is the experience of climbing out of that box.

Biblical erotica is, in many ways, its own universe, and writing it has presented its own unique set of challenges and benefits. Some of the benefits are that the characters are already well-known to most people with a basic familiarity with the bible – so the set of characters are not being created from scratch. This is also a challenge, however, as what is known about the biblical personalities is often an incorrect or exaggerated portrayal. Those who teach the bible are often the very same ones who believe our sexual natures to be base and unholy things. Consequently, whether due to simple misapprehension, or due to a well-meaning but deliberate effort to frame the heroes of the bible against a particular moral backdrop, the sexual lives of our biblical forbears tends to be concealed or, at a minimum, glossed over.

Other (more literary) challenges include the fact that the chronology and geography in biblical stories involve such ancient times and places, and people with such different life perspectives, that one can only speculate as to how the world might have looked back then, or how a particular character might have responded to a certain event. The bible itself gives certain clues, and an analysis of the various biblical commentaries give others. Yet a constant sifting through various viewpoints – along with a healthy dose of creative license – is required to determine how to fairly retell a biblical tale without deviating too much from the authoritative sources.

But the reward is more than satisfactory. As a society, so many different eras and philosophies have shaped our views of sexuality – from absolutely puritanical to extremely liberal – that today we can find examples of virtually every shade of sexual attitude and neurosis. In Judeo-Christian culture, these attitudes and more are usually formed with some reference to the bible; whether they reject the bible, embrace the bible, or seek to change the bible, the bible is their starting point.

To me, this calls for a back-to-the-basics (or back-to-the-basex) approach, by revisiting and rediscovering the sex lives of our earliest-known and most familiar characters – the models of our society, and the ones that we place upon an eternal pedestal – and to explore what we can discern of their actual sexual lives, and to contrast them with our sexual mores today. We need to get to know them – in the biblical sense.

Were they truly ultra-modest prudes? Are our own robust sex lives truly sinful in comparison to those of our ascetic forbears? Or did they, too, enjoy a deep appreciation for the divine gift of sexuality, with much that they can yet teach us? The more I read of them, the more convinced I become that there is yet an untold story of the relationship between our biblical ancestors and the world of the erotic. I consider it both a pleasure and privilege to join others in attempting to tell that story, and to infuse our own sexuality with the erotic adventures that preceded us.