Yes.

Okay, it wasn’t my hand he wasn’t shaking; it was that of the first lady of the United States. Laura Bush’s. My hand had nothing to do with it, but since my husband was the one making the scene, I was offended. Blushing-red offended.

This is what happened. Through some inexplicable chain of events, my Hasidic husband and I, at the ripe age of twenty four or so, got onto the invite list of the White House Chanukah Party.

I was probably invited because I was different and Hasidic, but I wanted so terribly, badly to fit in. If you judge me for being such a peer-pressure prone weasel, you are right. But do keep in mind that looking different ALL the time and being seen as odd ALL the time can leave you feeling not only judged, but also misunderstood.

So I agonized over the fitting-in thing for months in advance. I am sure it is obvious to everyone immediately that my scarf in this picture is ivory (not white!) as I’d used a box of Walmart yellow die in the washroom sink to make the scarf less overtly a weekend scarf and more… subtle, blended in…

Anyway.

At some point of the night, as I was going around eating, looking totally normal with a soft yellow scarf and a black-bearded, Yiddish-accented, excessively-friendly husband at my side (or not; he kept disappearing as he found someone else to run chat up) we got called to “meet the president”. We stood in line with decidedly boring-looking secular Jews who seemed almost on the brink of very dull. I guess normal does something to you. I remember how silent all the dolled-up, pearl-wearing ladies were, so that my husband’s loud chatter and my own mortification were the central event in the waiting line.

There was a large soldier in very intimidating uniform at the door, and my husband provided him with detailed warning that for the photo, we are not to stand as is customary, the woman on the side of the president and he on the side of Laura. Some other man in military costume and those shoulder pads and a deep voice announced us, and then a hand shaking fiasco ensued that could have competed with the worst sex scenes on Girls.

I, trying to be cool and normal (do not judge me! I am a coward) held out a hand to W as did my husband, but then he went on to explain to Laura that he has his hands in the back of his long suit jacket while hers stands like an erect teenager because of this whole religious thing, etc, etc, etc. I smiled wide from ear to ear, chuckled nervously, tried to smooth things over by exclaiming with far too much enthusiasm how nice everything was and then stood like a good girl at the side of Laura for the picture.

Later, to do something about the many humiliations of being coupled with a husband who made such a scene every time a woman offered her hand, I wolfed down all the potato pancakes stacked on silver trays. It felt like eating sawdust-pancakes and it looked like they were printed at the Mint.

Best rephrase the question. Are Hasidic Jewish men allowed to sleep in bed with their wives while on their menstrual period?

No.

Hasidic couples in my neck of the woods get a wedding gift from their parents of an expensive bedroom set with two beds. Here are some pretty jaw dropping furniture sets from Chasuna Depot.

See? Hasidic couples have separate beds. One night chest in the middle. I lived like this for five years – although getting two larger beds rather than just tiny twin beds was just becoming a thing and I hadn’t caught on.

When a woman has her period, her husband can’t come into her bed. In fact, he can’t touch her, pass anything directly into her hands, or even have a conversation that would lead to arousal. After her period passes she needs to count seven days of no bleeding. During this period she will change the linen set to all white, for both beds, just so it looks matching (duh!) and she will sleep in a white nightgown, white underwear. This is to make sure that she is really not bleeding anymore. She will even check twice a day to make sure she is clean using this cloth:

If seven white days pass, and all is well, the woman will go to the community mikvah/ritual bath. The mikvah is made up of many private bathrooms for getting ready, and a few pools for the actual immersion.

A pool. The second photo is a pool with the prayer on the wall. This is said before immersing in the pool naked. A female staffer supervises the immersion.

The bathroom and its contraptions:

You can press any of these buttons to call a female staffer:

Here is my beautiful Hasidic woman Mona Lisa drawn onto the mirror of the ritual bathroom. I sure hope I wiped it off before the attendant came. But you got to admit. It’s Arrrrrt.

After the woman finishes with the mikvah – about a two hour affair – she goes home, and her husband is permitted to join her in her bed. They can now be “together”. I was told before I got married never to go into my husband’s bed. This was because the man may come to associate his bed with arousal and feel this excitement even during the period of menstruation and separation. So the husband is always to congregate on the wife’s bed, but only if she has gone through the purification in the bath house. And if the couple wants to be frivolous when they are allowed to each other, they can not only have sexual congress but also stay in the wife’s bed to sleep the night together! Ooola-la. Assuming there are no babies wailing and the bed isn’t so narrow that one of them falls off in their sleep….


Bonus: some of my old cartoons (lol!)


The shtreimel (שטריימל) is made of real beaver fur and is usually first received by a man from his bride’s family — the hat can be very expensive so this is a wedding gift. The man wears the shtreimel only once he gets married, and even then, on shabbes, holidays and other special occasions. Believe it or not, there is quite a bit of fashion trends around these hats. In recent years the hats have gotten taller, and nice peaks (shpitzen) of the fur mean the shtreimel is fresher and nicer.

Edit: someone mentioned that the fur might be mink, not beaver. This article sheds light:

“To make one shtreimel can take up to 400 tails of various breeds of mink, sable of fox – the scrap of the fur industry.”

And while we are quoting: “But at a cost of up to $4000 each, it can be a profitable one too.”

I’m a tour guide in the mostly-Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, and am surprised by the number of answers denying your experience instead of admitting that while it might not exist in their community, this does happen. Our tour groups go into several shops and we have often seen something like this in one way or another. For instance a man walking into a shop before us and letting the door close on us. Or a Hasidic woman with a stroller trying to get herself and the baby into the shop and a man just walking in without holding the door for her. It happens all the time.

I explain in detail the importance of gender segregation in the community and that men and women are not to make contact, usually understood to not even hold a door. From the one hand, understanding the culture makes it more digestible. There is almost a wall between the genders and women are not offended by men not holding doors — they don’t expect it and don’t consider it malicious. On the other hand, of course one might find it obtuse. Our cultural definition of what’s kind and considerate makes it almost impossible not to flinch when you see a man whizz into a shop entirely oblivious to the woman with the double stroller.

Im sure there are some men who are more worldly and quietly wish they could hold the door like a western gentleman but wouldn’t dare do it in the community for fear of being looked at suspiciously.

That is a hard question to answer without getting lost in the philosophical weeds of “what does it mean to be satisfied?” and “how can we really judge?”

When I was a Hasidic woman in the Satmar sect, I was often very satisfied. I feel, right now, at 6am while sitting in my goyish living room with the big screen and snoring dog, a sad longing for the satisfaction of having a freezer filled with home-baked goodies for the upcoming holiday. I remember the feeling of getting up early in late September and setting out to make another cake; the three color cake, let’s say; and the satisfaction at opening the freezer and seeing the neatly packaged product of my handiwork. It’s the same rush I get today when I write something that I’m proud of. But I’ve been suffering from writer’s block lately, but you don’t suffer from baking block as a Hasidic woman. I’d be overwhelmed and overworked if I’d stayed in the sect, but I’m overworked and overwhelmed now too. That’s not to say that it’s all the same. Only that as a Hasidic woman, I often found the kind of satisfaction that gives me the most joy, in the domestic arts. I also felt frustrated by how petty woman could be, how terribly judgmental, and how much other things I had to do that I didn’t want to.

This picture below is my handiwork, I’d say circa 2006. It was for the holiday Sukkos, which falls every year in the fall. My husband and I built this Sukkah in our porch and slept in it for a few days. I created the decorations – hours and hours of intense, hyperfocused, satisfying work – and fancy meals that were pre-cooked, down the mushroom sauce. I totally forgot all of these skills in the seven years since I left the sect. I don’t even know how to make a fan napkin with a stemmed glass anymore. And to this day I still have the planks of wood and bamboo for a Sukkah, but I can’t be bothered to put it up on my own. I’ve lost the will to be a stubborn feminist or an accomplished domestic queen, so here I am, getting the homesick feels.

(This is with me, my son and my niece: BTW, I ordered the mirror on ebay, hand painted it, bought the window shade. I spray-painted the waterfall pitchers, and it ran real water, which worked nicely with the blinking light as we lay there at night. I won’t even go into what it takes to make the other wall décor.)

Now I might be accused of being nostalgic and romanticizing, especially because you couldn’t drag me back to homemaking if you hired the mafia to, but that’s because I’ve opened the Pandora’s box. Just as you can be happy without a piece of technology before you know of it, but can’t give it up once you do, I can’t go back.

But I am almost done reading Alain de Botton’s book “Status Anxiety”, and he explains something that I think is important to remember: these women don’t live with the high bar for accomplishments that secular women do. There is freedom in knowing you can’t do big things and that your friends can’t do them either. He writes: “We envy only those whom we feel ourselves to be like; we envy only members of our reference group. There are few successes more unendurable than those of our close friends.” But if you are a Satmar Hasidic woman, the successes in your social circle are mostly domestic.

Alain de Botton traces the intense anxiety that rises out of a meritocratic society. As people are told they can do anything, they begin to dream of being anything, and are therefore tortured by their unrealistic expectations. While Hasidic women might feel restricted, overburdened, miserable with the work, they do have a freedom of the kind of self loathing that an egalitarian society can create.

If you know that this is all you can be, and this is all your friends can be, you’d be surprised by how quickly you settle into making the most of your opportunity. Only when you realize your potential and begin dreaming larger will you really begin to feel the sour taste of the beginning of deep, violent discontent.


Update: No one asked me for more details on this Sukkah business, but once I went down the rabbit hole of memory lane, I found more sweet nostalgia. And more on the Sukkah.

Two videos of our Sukkahs during different years:

Making the star wall decorations:

Sleeping in the Sukkah:

(I wore pajama pants… shh)

My own sukkah after we left the Hasidic community (note no man and no money makes for a shabbier hut!)