50 Shomer Nagia
I don’t touch boys now. Not because they have cooties or anything, but more accurately I do. Trying to explain Jewish law to someone in only English is like, well, saying I have cooties. At least no one is going to ever date me for all of the hot sex we have. Or at least that’s the case now, I definitely wasn’t like that in junior year of high school, maybe I am like this because of my experience in my junior year in high-school.
“I am scared of him,” I admitted to pre-clown-punk Leor, my school-bus companion and greatest school friend on the school bus two days after I broke up with him, “I don’t know why, something makes me uneasy.” It was a wet cloudy November day, I could feel the wheels skid over leftover fallen leaves from the fall, nearly losing control. I loved this weather, the drowsy ambiance giving more space for my manic enthusiasm. When he asked me out, my first thought was “yeah, sure, why not?”
“You’re being overdramatic,” smirked my brother, always assuming the best of people, always amused by my skepticism and neurotic paranoia, “he lives in Chicago, it’s not like he’s going to come here and hurt you.” Daniel was always so uncomfortable with the idea of anyone doing anything badly, he refused to imagine a world where people would hurt others intentionally. It got him in a lot of trouble, I was always there to get him out of it.
I touched my newly shorn hair. I cut it with arts and crafts scissors after he hung up, looking blankly at the mirror as the long strands of split ends from the sixten years of growing my hair out fell to the ground. It tickled my shoulders, my hairdresser of a mother tearing up as she straightened up my raggedy hair that she insisted upon keeping long for so many years. She admitted that it looked healthy when she was done. But doing something spontaneous in a bout of emotional intensity is just something high-school me did. It took me two weeks to get over him. People telling me that my hair looked beautiful short, that I looked more like myself, was comforting.
He kept on texting me, saying he was sorry—that he misses me; that I shouldn’t make promises that I cannot keep. As I cried in the library, my very happily not single friend looked upon me sympathetically, not knowing what to say. When he asked me out, my first thought was “yeah, sure, why not?” His voice in my head was calling me a cold-hearted bitch from that night—his dad was sick, he was really depressed those past few weeks. A greasy feeling of unease followed me around like a cloud of exhaust smoke, if only I was brave enough to look up.
The Jewish concept/law is called shomer nagia. It’s a sign of being “really religious,” because who would give up on cuddling, hand holding, and holding other things? When a woman has her period and the seven days after that, she is ritually impure. To get rid of this ritual impurity one must immerse themselves in mikvah water, which is unfiltered rainfall or a natural flowing source of water. During her time of ritual impurity, a man may not touch her because she is in the niddah state. But here’s the catch—you can’t go to the mikvah until you are about to get married because sex was created not just for pleasure but to: a—create a closeness that only exists between two partners for life, and b—create a family. So therefore, you cannot touch anyone of the opposite sex until you get married. And people wonder why religious people get married so young.
I wish I was shomer long before the age of eighteen when I took it upon myself, but rather the traditional 13, the year that a Jewish child comes of age. And I wished for it so many times before I did it, every time after I was with some guy and didn’t feel any greater about myself afterward. But on most days I would arrogantly say, “that’s so not realistic.” It’s weird to know that something you are doing is not right for you, but not knowing how to do teshuva, a return to God, a repentance to your soul for letting your body win.
I couldn’t sleep in my bed after I broke up with him, maybe it was because of his few visits to my house, when we would do what teenagers do when they are alone at home. He is six feet and four inches tall, an athlete. We met in a summer program. When he asked me out, my first thought was “yeah, sure, why not?” He was loud, sociable and had a way of talking—like his tongue was a knife. Green slits of eyes, always peering around to make sure he was the strongest person in the room, he was on crew. You quit when you found out your dad was sick again.
The thing that I like about shomer nagia is that it’s about taking something mundane like touching someone and makes it into something holy. Holiness is a form of romanticism, and we romanticize touching someone—so it was just a thought shift really. Also, I like saying I have cooties.
Maybe it was a comb at a friend’s house, or a pair of headphones. My library card? I rifle through my bag, my wallet. My drawers, but there’s still something missing that isn’t here. I feel dirty—I shower, wash my body four times each shower.
“Shut up Daniel, that’s a totally legit reason to break up with someone, and you know you can always talk about it with me,” Leor says kindly to me, but her eyes are alight with anger. She’s my feminist friend. “It’s really good you broke up with him.”
In Jewish law, or halacha, if a woman is raped the rapist has to pay her father or husband for the damages. I don’t know how this amount of money is decided but when I learned about this I thought it was awesome that an ancient culture facilitated for the victims of rape. It’s funny how things change. Sexual harassment and not asking consent for anything but sex is another story. There are some things one only gets punished for in the next world.
When he asked me out, my first thought was “yeah, sure, why not?” Lying on top of me, he said that we were ready to take things further. So I said no, that I am not ready. He scowled and held my hands down, kissing my neck, his scruff irritating my skin, the smell of his sweat choking me. I struggled, then I forgot how to say no. He removed my shirt, my bra; I thought I was saying no—is it possible for one’s thoughts to take away one’s ability to speak? I wriggled underneath him, every fiber of my being screaming NO. I wish I was shomer long before the age of eighteen when I took it upon myself, but rather the traditional thirteen, the year that a Jewish child comes of age. And I wished for it so many times before I did it.
I looked away from him—I could barely look at my own body in the mirror, much less let someone else look at mine. He paused to look down at my pale skin, arms draped with scars. I held back my tears, I was so scared he would not like me. He slid his sweaty palm down my body, being fourteen inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter, there was no way I stood a chance. I looked at my door, a strong piece of wood, custom made just for my house by my father. I knew why my father was so reluctant to put on a doorknob to my door now. There is also a law forbidding two single people of the opposite sex to be together, called yichud, singularity. I knew why that was a law at that moment, I wanted it so bad.
Three weeks later he had a girlfriend, she was blonde, thin, and adorable. I was really confused how he could move on so quickly when I was still forgetting something. I cried. There’s a buffer period of thirty days in halacha from when one can go from one marriage to the next, saying you love someone forever one day to someone else the next. He made his point—he won, again.
In a ketuva, or a traditional Jewish marriage contract, one of the requirements of a husband is to sexually satisfy his wife. Yeah, that’s right—if a woman doesn’t receive proper treatment, she is allowed to go to the Rabbinical courts and demand a get, a divorce. Horrifyingly, the man is allowed to refuse to give her one, which gives her the halachick status of an agunah, a “chained” wife. In recent years, Rabbis have formulated a halachick pre-nup that once signed forces the husband to accept the demand of divorce. Women will be chained no more.
His sweaty palms reached into my underwear, he growled “tell me when you are done.”.And after three minutes of him pretending like he knows how to stimulate a clitoris and asking me if I was done, I pulled his hand out and somehow got out from the entrapment he put me in, I guess that’s just women’s intuition.
“Go wash your hands,” I said, he went to the bathroom and I composed myself. He came back in, “it’s getting late, you better go catch your train.”
“I could stay a little longer,” he said, hands gripped into boulders at his sides, “I’ve fingered enough girls to know that they never want to return the favor.”
“Next time, seriously, there’s a storm coming. This is the last train, look,” I pleaded, shoving my computer into his face. I wish I was shomer long before the age of eighteen when I took it upon myself, but rather the traditional thirteen, the year that a Jewish child comes of age. And I wished for it so many times before I did it.
We walked to the station in the crisp October air, the whispers of wind caressing my face kindly. He told me he loves me and couldn’t wait to see me again. For some reason I could not remember, I knew this was going to be the last time. I showered for a long time when I got home.
And then for years, it wasn’t a story to dwell upon. I didn’t want to be a victim, I wasn’t looking for a monetary reward for damages, I didn’t want to ever see myself as chained. So it was an event that rested in the back of my mind until I met Aviva, a now good friend who was following Jewish law with so much purity and happiness I was jealous of her with every fiber of my being.
“Oh, you know him?” a newly acquainted friend of mine whispered to me, her eyes darkening, “how do you know him?”
“We went out for like, three months starting in summer 2011,” I stumbled, “it wasn’t a big deal.”
“Did he hurt you?” She blurted, looking scandalized at her own words.
“He was dating my sister what must have been a few weeks after you guys. He was really pushy with her, always telling her what to do. He raped her, I hate him.” I shook on the inside, feeling horrible for this girl I don’t even know. My friend kept on talking, spilling out words she has wanted to say for a long time, as if they were perfectly ripened for this moment. How you ruined her emotionally, how she withered away and became someone else all together. It was my fault, if only I had taught him what NO means. If only I knew how to say NO at that time. “But you probably hate him more than I do.”
“He didn’t rape me,” I said, “I ended it before he could get that far. I’m really ok, I just feel terrible for your sister. I am so, so sorry.”
“She isn’t shomer [nagia] by the way, she stopped going in any direction towards religion after that.”
I showered for a really long time that night.
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