Sex is a touchy subject. Especially in one of the world’s most cloistered societies — Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
That community places a high value on modesty, which means sex education hardly exists — boys and girls rarely make eye contact, and many couples have little idea what to expect on their wedding night. But an Orthodox Jewish sex therapist, David Ribner, is trying to break the ice. He’s come out with a book which he says is the first explicit sex guide written for strictly devout Jews.
There used to be a sex shop on the way to Ribner’s office in downtown Jerusalem. The sign’s still there — big red letters spelling out: Sex Shop, Sex, Love.
But now, you can barely read it because it’s been scratched out. The shop went out of business. No surprise for a city brimming with the pious.
Things are quite different in Ribner’s discreet office near the top of a Jerusalem high rise.
“You see a number of boxes here. I also have available for people, if they need to purchase in a private place, lubricants, vibrators, massage oils,” Ribner said.
And he’s got an unusual collection of books on the wall. “One of the most famous is 'The Guide to Getting It On,' as well as a number of editions of 'The Joy of Sex,'” he said.
And then there are volumes of religious Jewish texts. He says there probably aren't any other bookshelves where you have the Talmud right next to the “Guide to Getting It On.”
Ribner was ordained an Orthodox rabbi in New York and received his doctorate from Columbia University. Then he moved to Israel and started counseling devout Jewish patients on sex. He says even though sex is a positive thing in Judaism, it’s become taboo to talk about it openly.
“Sex is only appropriate within a marital context,” he said. “Beyond that, it’s not talked about it. Because of that, it’s become very difficult for people to have any kind of dialogue about that.”
Ribner says there are few parental birds-and-bees chats. Instead, pre-marital counselors meet with couples right before their wedding night — and he’s astounded by the advice many of them give.
Ribner said he's heard of one counselor who compares sex to eating watermelon.
“Marital intimacy is like watermelon," the advice goes, or so he's heard. "Just like you can eat watermelon every day of the week, but you should just save it for the Sabbath, so marital intimacy you can have every day of the week, but we should save it for the Sabbath.”
Ribner says the counselor’s message is counterproductive. "Unless people are taught, 'Listen, this is a really wonderful part of your life and ... sex should always be good and sometimes it's fireworks' — unless that message is conveyed, they are not doing their job,” he said.
So Ribner has set out to tell it as it is. He’s co-written a book called “A Time to Love: The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy.”
He says it’s the only explicit, Orthodox Jewish sex guide on the market. Flip through it, and you see no illustrations.
But there’s a sealed envelope on the back flap. It warns readers there are sexual diagrams inside. If you don’t want to look at them, you can rip off the envelope and throw it away.
Inside are three diagrams of basic sexual positions.
“We wanted to give people of a sense of, sort of, not only where to put their sexual organs, but where to put their arms and legs,” Ribner said. “If you don’t know this, you have never seen a movie, never read a book, how are you supposed to know what you do?”
These are all basic outlines of males and female bodies, just simple drawings. But they convey a simple message.
“We wanted this to be acceptable to the widest possible population with the least risk of it being offensive,” he said. “We did consult many other sex manuals, to see what kind of illustrations they use, and we felt they are just too graphic to be comfortable for people who had really no contact with this aspect of their lives.”
Some religious booksellers in Israel have been hesitant to sell the sex guide, which is in English. But Ribner says the book has been selling on Amazon at a rate of about a copy a day. He says even some non-Jews have written reviews, recommending the book because it covers the absolute basics.
“We wanted there to be a place where people could say, 'I know nothing and I want to know something,'” he said.
The Hebrew edition of his book comes out in a few weeks. Ribner expects many religious booksellers in Israel will refuse to carry it.
But he hopes, at the very least, some will keep the book stocked behind the counter.