Before Hubbie and I got hitched, our rabbi had us read a book by Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Love & Marriage. I had already read books on taharat mispacha, the Jewish laws of family purity, and the laws and the mindset behind tzniut, the laws of modesty, and shomer negia, observing the rules of touching. But these laws were probably the last thing I focused on for my conversion. Though they were explored thoroughly as a unit I studied for my conversion, it wasn’t until all this study was given the context of marriage that I really gave them serious thought.
I’m Hispanic. I know, isn’t it obvious? Well, no. To Jews that I meet in purely Jewish situations, at first glance, I am a darker skinned Jew, probably of North African or Spanish extraction. To Dominicans who see me on the street, I am a light-skinned Dominican, possibly half-white and of questionable Spanish linguistic skill. And to those who know me, I am first and foremost, a Jew, then Dominican and then American.
The first Jewish guy friends I made friends with after deciding to convert were not as subtle as my bestfriend, I.. Over years of practice, these guy friends had honed the art of touching only their closest female relatives and after that, only men. A great number of my guy friends also were Kohens, who take on different levels of kedusha (holiness) in Judaism. As a rule, Kohens cannot marry converts and so all at once G-d blessed me with the perfect Jewish girlfriends. Here were boys that I could treat just as girlfriends the way I had always treated most of my guy friends.
I flirted with these Kohens, I divulged all my deep dark secrets and I made some of the greatest friendships of my life. In a very short time, I made the safest, dearest, deepest friendships I had ever had with men. I didn’t know at the time that these friendships were very special because in Orthodox Jewish life it’s not common for members of the opposite sex to connect on that kind of level unless they are discussing marriage.
At first, it was incredibly difficult to refrain from reaching out and ruffling their hair, excruciating not to reach for a hug and so as I have with much of my culture-to-culture clashes, I learned to adapt. At the same time, I was honing my ability to stop touching everyone. The nerves in my body hurt so ferociously and so often that I didn’t dare touch anyone. In response, my students taught me the art of the air hug. They would reach out in the air in front of me and pretend to hug me as a way to compensate for the teacher-to-student hugs that had become the norm in our classroom and that had been sacrificed to fibromyalgia. I turned this air hug on its head and began calling it “the shomer hug.” I would “shomer hug” Jewish guy friends, the way that other people would carelessly blow kisses at one another.
Because of fibromyalgia, being shomer negiah was truly a blessing. All at once, I was doing so much for my emotional and spiritual health. Because it was such a rarity to touch anyone, touching became…well, amazing. It became shocking and exhilarating. The club of people that I let touch me was so small and sensitive. I became hyper-aware of when people touched me in any way. I didn’t deny my male relatives the “luxury” of touching me and even in excruciating pain, I would let members of the same sex hug and hold me. All at once, I began to understand how and why touch could be one of the most intimate of the five senses.
Every single time someone touches me, I think about it. And I cherish it. I have learned boundaries. I have learned to be bashful. (No more, ahem, laps.) I have known the exquisite pleasure of marveling at the fact that the only man who touches me on most days is my husband and that’s a very special and exclusive club to be a part of, indeed.
I tutor at a Catholic university where a fundamentalist Christian student asked me how “a fundamentalist Jew” keeps up with all those rules. Judaism is all rules, rules, rules, he said. And I smiled. I didn’t know how to explain that from so many of the rules, a once thoughtless girl learned so much about herself and others. (And how to think about not embarrassing herself and others.)
And so though, I didn’t kiss my husband in front of everyone at the end of my wedding ceremony and my little sister did, when I look at her wedding pictures, I laugh simultaneously at the “scandalous” photo of her kissing her husband from the direction of two cultural perspectives who value the human touch and so, wield it powerfully. You see, some Jews call it a “G-d consciousness,” but I call it having a keen awareness, a sensitivity, to all the little pleasures and minute beauties in the world.