It’s Sexy, But Is It Kosher?

"It's hard to embarrass me and I am very comfortable in my own skin," says Oppenheimer. | Photo credit: Yehuda Swed

“It’s hard to embarrass me and I am very comfortable in my own skin,” says Oppenheimer. | Photo credit: Yehuda Swed

It’s sexy, but is it kosher?

The religious community has a fraught relationship with sexuality, thought Ayo Oppenheimer, who grew up Orthodox and studied in yeshiva• Recently she launched Jewrotica, which features erotic stories with a Jewish flavor • Even women from Bnei Brak send her their secret sexual fantasies.

Written by Igal Avidan on December 28, 2012 [Israel Hayom]

Jewish conferences can get very erotic, especially as the clock approaches 2 a.m. Last June, about 120 young Jewish activists from around the world gathered in Jerusalem to brainstorm about how to strengthen Jewish peoplehood and the bond between Jews and Israel.

Ayo Oppenheimer, 27, from Texas was among those assembled. One of her suggestions was to pay a young Jewish couple to go on a year-long honeymoon, visiting Chabad House after Chabad House in the United States and replacing the emissaries there for a week at a time.

She also suggested a “world service,” that would send 18-year-old Jews around the world to help people in need for a year. But the idea that took flight was Jewrotica, a website for erotic Jewish stories, sexy but not pornographic, so that the nonobservant and Orthodox alike could feel at home there.

Ayo and a colleague at the conference designed a logo featuring Adam and Eve with their private parts covered by Jewish stars. This kosher erotic website came in fifth place at the conference. First place went to Adopt-a-Savta (Adopt-a-Grandma) — a program that brings together young olim and lonely Holocaust survivors in Israel.

But Oppenheimer was not discouraged. Four months later, she launched her website, with the tagline “Get Jewish, Get Sexy.” At present, Ayo is busy organizing erotic readings with virtual friends, as well as travelling the world to inject some sexual excitement among Jews on cold winter nights.

Culture shock

We meet at a coffee shop in Berlin. Despite the fact that this is her first visit to the city, Oppenheimer arrives on time, riding a bike. She is a friendly woman with a big smile who comes across as someone who never has a dull moment. Surprised to see a photographer at first, she immediately regains her composure, pulls out her lipstick and revels in every flash. Her Hebrew is good, but we switch to English, because it is important for her to speak with precision. Especially when discussing Halachah (Jewish law) and sexuality.

Halachah was the focus of her life for many years. Growing up in a Modern Orthodox family in New Jersey, her school and community were devoid of sexuality. “At home we observed Shabbat and kashrut. I studied in a day school where we only wore skirts and prayed several times a day. I was a good student, and by the age of 10 I was studying Talmud and Aramaic. After high school I spent a year at a seminary for religious girls in Jerusalem. Between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. I immersed myself in Hebrew and Aramaic texts.

Oppenheimer during her marriage, at a time when she still adhered to Jewish codes of modesty. | Photo credit: Public domain

Oppenheimer during her marriage, at a time when she still adhered to Jewish codes of modesty. | Photo credit: Public domain

Attending a secular college was a huge culture shock for her. Nevertheless, she continued to steer clear of pants and even other girls who wore pants. She was vigilant about the laws of yichud, careful not to be alone in a room with strange men.

“I was a good religious girl, and I’m still glad I received an Orthodox education. In the community I come from, open sexuality does not exist among single people and touching between men and women is forbidden. This in effect turns every happenstance encounter between a man and a woman into a taboo which is at the same time erotic.”

From a young age, Oppenheimer would advise her friends on relationships. “Even when I was 15 and had never kissed a boy.”

Q: Why is that?

“I’m very outgoing, direct, frank and easy to talk to. It’s impossible to embarrass me because I’m comfortable in my skin and in my body.”

Gradually, Oppenheimer’s innate sexuality outpaced the prohibitions. “I started wearing shorter skirts in high school. In college, I went out with a religious Jewish guy who questioned a lot of things and influenced me. I tried to follow the rules, and I managed to postpone my first kiss for a very long time.”

Her family hoped she would marry a nice religious boy, but instead she married her boyfriend of two years at age 21. At age 21 she also she completed a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Jewish Studies and began working as a business strategy consultant in New York.

“My life fell into a workaday routine, but I felt suffocated. You would work hard all week and then get invited for a Shabbat meal where the men talk to other men and women to women, about the same old boring topics.”

Three years later she quit her job, got rid of most of her possessions, and, with her husband, bought one-way tickets for the Dominican Republic. “In a single day, I went from living in an Orthodox community to a clothing-optional one. We had moved to a nudist colony populated by a lot of Europeans. It was a very stark transition, from a place where people hid their entire bodies to a place where everything was out in the open.”

“I worked as a yoga instructor there and struggled with my notions of modesty. In the community I came from it was considered immodest to expose your shoulder, while here it was immodest to actually wear clothing, because it attracts attention. When everyone is naked, without clothing or jewelry as barriers, it creates a certain equality, which is a powerful new form of modesty. The experience was very liberating.”

Despite her redefinition of modesty, Oppenheimer’s parents accepted her new lifestyle. “What most bothered my mother was that the place might not be hygienic, but I assured her it was. She saw me as a kind of Chabad emissary of my own making, bringing Judaism to people with a Jewish spark. It’s ironic, because at that point I was no longer that observant. But I did recite the kiddush over wine and make the hamotzi blessing over challah.

Q: In the nude?

“For the kiddush I would put something on.”

Four categories of modesty

Oppenheimer’s next stop was a summer camp in Costa Rica that she ran herself. Later she and her husband lived in a recreational vehicle and traveled throughout the U.S. She volunteered in Jewish communities and lectured at hundreds of universities, community centers and conferences about Judaism, family life and Israel. She also made a documentary film on these topics, even though she had no prior knowledge of filming or production. At the same time, she continued her journey of discovery of her body and sexuality. But this time, she did so at a circus. “I made friends with acrobats, dancers and jugglers,” she said, “Next month I will begin a course in artistic dance.”

As she became more professionally involved with sexuality and relationships, her own relationship began to draw to a close. The timing was purely coincidental, she says. “Fortunately, I was still married when I started Jewrotica because I don’t know if I would have been comfortable becoming an icon of Jewish sexuality had I been a separated woman from an Orthodox background. As a married woman I felt more comfortable opening up and doing things that were a bit daring and wild.”

Still, her journey of awakening does not mean she burned the bridges linking her to the religious world. On the contrary. Her family is supportive of the website, even if they don’t regularly read it, “because they think I am doing it in a thoughtful way.” Her sister made aliyah and lives in Modiin and her parents spend half the year in Israel.

The web site is divided into categories. It includes romantic, awkward or naughty stories along with true confessions and criticism. There are four categories of experience: from PG to XXX. The PG section includes romantic stories suitable for any adult, while the XXX category contains graphic depictions of sex. “The most important thing is that the site be suitable for all Jews. You might come to the site to find an erotic story against a Jewish backdrop and suddenly find an analysis of the weekly Torah portion on a sex-related theme.”

“And vice-versa, of course,” she says with a wink.

The Jewrotica website. Samson and Delilah are the Bible's sexiest couple, says Oppenheimer | Photo credit: Public domain

The Jewrotica website. Samson and Delilah are the Bible’s sexiest couple, says Oppenheimer | Photo credit: Public domain

In order to preserve Jewish unity, there are no nude photographs on the web site, which would alienate many religious readers. “If you’re disappointed, I can recommend several other sites that do contain such photos,” she says.

Recently, Oppenheimer was invited to the World Erotic Art Museum in Miami. She did a little research and discovered that the proprietress, Naomi Wilzig, is a 78-year-old Jewish woman married to a Holocaust survivor, who grew up in a religious home and was active in the Jewish community and Chabad for many years. She collected erotic art for over 20 years and opened the museum at age 70. Oppenheimer wrote an article about the museum for her web site, accompanied by photos of the paintings and sculptures in the museum.

“But pornography or erotic photographs of actual people are beyond the bounds, because we want to maintain a serious image and even publish academic articles.”

Adventures with Samson

On Jewrotica, you can find articles that struggle with fundamental Jewish questions, for instance, an essay by a woman who wants to find a non-Jewish mate so she can broaden her world view. “That article generated a huge debate,” she says. Another article asks whether the time has not come for Orthodox rabbis to allow physical contact between unmarried men and women short of sexual intercourse.

An entire series on the site is entitled “Behind closed doors with the men and women of the Bible.” The series explores the sex lives of Moses, who was heavy of tongue, or that of Aaron the priest or the Jericho prostitute Rahab.

Q: Who are the sexiest people in the Bible?

“Great question. I love the story of Samson and Delilah. There is something very erotic about the ropes that bind Samson and the hair.”

Q: Even though Delilah is a gentile?

“Yes, that makes it exciting. Our website contains a number of provocative stories about Jews and gentiles. For instance, there is a story about a romantic relationship between a Jewish seminary girl in Jerusalem and an Israeli Arab. It simultaneously breaks religious, cultural and social taboos, and that is very erotic. But even though I also attended seminary in Jerusalem, it’s not my story.”

Oppenheimer’s story is different. After five years of marriage, she is giving herself time to adjust before embarking on a new relationship. No, she is not lonely, she says, and mentions with a bashful giggle that she is “surrounded by sexual energy.” People come forward to tell her about their erotic experiences or just chat with her about sex. “Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s naughty or even erotic, but occasionally I fear that all this sexuality will burn me out. At this point Jewrotica has taken over my days and nights, with editing articles, preparing the website and developing educational pieces. It’s my occupation and also my hobby.”

Q: A story about a man who returns from the synagogue and passionately jumps his wife, and during the sex act her kerchief slips from her head: Is that a Jewish text?

“The only articles I reject are the awful ones. I don’t want to censor the content, which comes from the readers. We have texts that are entirely Jewish, with Jewish values and Jewish sentiments. Also, here and there, we have stories that consist of the sex act with a menorah in the background.”

Even liberal Jews write to her that they enjoy discovering sexuality within Jewish tradition. Members of the Orthodox community confess sexy adventures to her or ask for advice on how to improve their sex lives within marriage.

“They ask what I think of hot wax or whips. I am totally in favor of creativity. If it leads to more and better sex, then why not? Other people ask for advice about physiological problems, and I refer them to specialists. I can’t help with those kinds of problems, but I know who to refer them to.”

“The correspondence that I found most exciting came from the haredi world. For instance, one haredi woman from Bnei Brak, a mother of five, writes erotic poems at night. She sent me her unpublished poems. Or haredi single people from Brooklyn who tell me they can’t stand being shomer negia (forbidden from touching the opposite sex), and thanks to my site they no longer as isolated, embarrassed or guilty.”

Conservative Jewish media, as expected, take a less tolerant attitude to her website. She has been the target of enormous criticism for taking sexuality out of the bedroom. ‘”It’s possible that this may come back to bite me if I ever return to the religious world, but I live day to day and do what I believe in. That’s why I’m willing to take a chance. It’s important for me to stress that I’m not this nice observant girl who decided to go wild. I still observe mitzvot, I don’t deny my past and I am not rebelling against religion — just bringing in new perspectives and experiences.”

The rumble between the Jewish sheets is for now limited to a virtual community that is mostly anonymous, even though the website does plan to organize evenings of erotic readings for Jews. Oppenheimer was invited to speak at Yale University’s Sex week this coming spring, and a literary agent in Jerusalem has even proposed that she put together a Jewish erotic anthology. In the meantime, she is thinking of ways to upgrade the experience.

“A few of the site’s editors have undergone training as sexual educators, and can now offer workshops. I plan to visit friends and family in Israel, and while there I will review a tantra workshop at Ashram Bamidbar for Jewrotica. In the meantime, I hope people will visit the site, read pieces, write pieces and get involved.”

[Click here for the Hebrew-language article on Jewrotica in Israel Hayom]