Let's Talk About (Jewish) Sex, Baby
Toxic hookup culture and the pressure to make Jewish babies.
Last month, my work hosted an event called Sexual Citizenship: Shifting Teen Hookup Culture. It was about toxic hookup culture at Jewish teen camp, and how to address the issue in teen education spaces. I don’t want to blend work with my personal projects, but I’m mentioning it because it was informative and powerful, and it got me thinking about Jewish pressure to date, marry, and procreate. The following thoughts are my own, and do not reflect what was said at the summit.
We all know too well the stories of sexual harassment and nonconsensual situations teens and young adults face, but last year, an investigation came out highlighting the prevalence of these scenarios in Jewish youth groups and camps across North America. Unwanted groping, sexual jokey chants, a point system for performing sexual favors encouraged by counselors. Yuck. Former Jewish campers came forward with their stories of harassment they faced in spaces where they were supposed to feel safe.
Like the linked article above says, the rise of intermarriage rates (52% in 1990 and I can only imagine how much higher that is now) may have contributed to creating these spaces where there’s pressure to meet other Jews in hopes they would mingle and later marry. At the summit, a colleague told me when she went on Birthright at the age of 18, the trip leader joked participants were there to make Jewish babies. I get it; fear of declining Jewish life and culture is real, especially post-Holocaust. Then there’s the commandment of “Be fruitful and multiply,” in other words have many babies. A speaker at the summit noted that this pressure to hook up at an early age could come from teens’ parents.
This led me to asking my friends if they ever felt pressured by their parents to date and whether or not they thought that was a Jewish trait. The answers of the pressure were 50/50. If yes, the Jewish pressure was affirmative.
I never really considered my mom to be a typical Jewish mom. No neuroses, no worrying about me. Makes killer latkes though! When it came to dating, she was more go-with-the-flow, date whomever you want, I won’t pry or budge kind of mom. She has an informal rule that rings more like advice: don’t get married in your twenties. That’s precious time to explore your identity that you’ll never get back. Maybe she’s the reason I didn’t care to date in my teens. Okay, the real reason is that and I was a very late bloomer! And the fact that I didn’t go to Jewish camp, but a hippie camp where we sat in a sweat lodge with a man named Medicine Bear, and walked over hot coals.
Then in my twenties, I’d go on dates if I met someone I fancied, but I never bothered to seek them out. So I could never relate when I’d go to Jewish single mixers, even if I were single. Even the events that didn’t have meet-the-love-of-your-life undertones still felt like everyone was on a mission to meet a cutie. Maybe that’s why someone close to me who is not Jewish recently made an observation that all Jewish events seem like dating mixers. And maybe that’s why, when I tell people I met my current Significant Man at a Jewish event, sometimes people ask if it was a singles event. (No. It was a book launch; are you even surprised?).
I didn’t go to Jewish teen camp, but I did attend Jewish adult sleepaway camp in my early twenties. We may have been independent adults, but the pressure and almost encouragement to hook up was real. While I was learning how to pickle vegetables and participating in Havdalah for the first time, the question “Who did you hook up with this weekend?” was omnipresent. Sorry, Mom and Dad if you’re reading this!
“This obsession with creating Jewish babies doesn’t stop at Camp Ramah; it is an issue that plagues the entire Jewish community. We need to hold ourselves accountable and take a long look at what we are teaching young Jewish people. These are dangerous lessons and I hope that by adding my story to the massive pile of other stories will inspire action. We owe it to ourselves and future generations of Jews to do better.”
Now as an adult in my late twenties, I witness that pressure not to hook up, but to settle down from time to time, more so from religious folk. A rabbi once told me it’s important to not stay single for too long in case I get stuck in my own ways of routine. I didn’t know how to tell him that it was too late! I want to get married and have a Jewish family someday - although the idea of raising a teenage girl is now causing me stress - but I am still exploring my own identity, interests, and what a Jewish family to me even looks like. I’ll feel ready when the time comes.
There’s more to Jews than dating and marriage. We’re Shabbat meals around the table. We’re prayer. We’re debates. We’re comedy. We’re love, and the marriage to prove it will come soon enough. If you want it. No pressure, though. Young people need to experience all of this first, instead of hooking up with someone on Shabbat for double points, or because they feel they need to “get it over with.” Young people. Wow, I sound old.
What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you agree? Disagree? Did you attend Jewish summer camp and experience a toxic culture like this? Do you still experience culture like this? Let me know.
Last week’s, in honor of the month of Kislev: What is the pocket of your heart holding this month? What are you keeping in the dark that could use some light?
“I need to lighten up on how I view forgiveness (a facade that entraps us forever - I know dark right!) - so just lighten up girl, life is shorter than you even think.”
“I want to give some light to some family stuff going on :)”
“My dreams and accepting love.”
Shabbat is a Salve, and a Scene
Alyson Kreuger, The New York Times
This article just came out about how more Gen Z’ers, Jewish and not, are celebrating the sabbath, especially during a rise of antisemitism. It’s nice reading about young people (Damn! I did it again!) gathering around traditional Jewish foods: challah, babka, Moroccan fish, with the help of OneTable, an organization I use that helps subsidize your Shabbat meals. There’s even Shabbat TikTok! Why didn’t they mention The Shabbat Drop?
“Shabbat is an ancient ritual, but it’s really a simple and genius community building tool,” she said. “Shabbat provides an answer to a deep human need. You stop working, share a meal with family or chosen family, put away your phones, look each other in the eyes, connect and talk.”
The only thing is they hosted their Shabbat dinner on a Thursday when Shabbat is and always has been on Friday night. I don’t like this re-creation of Shabbat. Otherwise, isn’t it just a dinner party with some yarmulkes? Anyway, what are you doing for Shabbat this week?