My lips are sealed

Reconciling Orthodox Judaism with hookup culture can lead to some awkward situations.

By Eliora Katz

Before I came to UChicago, I didn’t believe in magic. But now, after five weeks and one Halloween in our enchanted ivory tower and Hogwartsian halls, Wingardium Leviosa seems just as useful as cogito ergo sum.

It all started when I recognized that something magical transpired each time I had a man in my room. With the click of the closing door, bippity boppity boo, he would try to kiss me, whether evening, afternoon, or morning too! I was astounded by the persistence of this seemingly supernatural phenomenon. Take me and a college boy and mix us into the dormitorial cauldron and you’ve got a bundle of awkward turtles. It didn’t matter who the boy was, or what we were doing (studying, schmoozing, fixing my window, or “chilling”), eventually his eyes would slip into an ogling trance, and his lips would head toward mine only to be met by a heavy torrent of unease from my ensuing snub.

The fact that being in my room equated to “let’s hook up” didn’t make much sense—I assumed some magical force must be at hand.

I then explained a few things to these men. First, that I’m haunted by my biggest fear which is neither spiders, heights, darkness, nor econ midterms, but rather something far more menacing: the hump and dump. After reading that New York Times article on heartless overachievers at UPenn with boy toys and plenty of other features on hookup culture—while also witnessing H&Ds first hand—sensual touching sans a long-term emotional tie, sans an appreciation of more than your partner’s body, sans sobriety, became the bête noire of my college career.

One victim quipped, “Hump and dump is a bit superfluous; hookup says it all for you.” I could feel my Kuko omelet making its way up my digestive system. He made me realize that the phrase “hookup,” which once meant “kissing and stuff,” now encompasses the “dump,” embracing the definition of a one night stand–like encounter.

Sometimes I would even expound that as a modern Orthodox Jew, I identify with a community in which touching the opposite gender is forbidden in many circles, where modesty reigns supreme, where women are supposed to cover their knees, elbows, and collar bones, where sensual contact is something holy between you, your spouse, and God. On top of that, I had spent the previous year in an Orthodox West Bank seminary, trying to find my place in the religious labyrinth nestled between tradition and modernity, through studying the texts constituting the fabric of Jewish life.

Among my peers in Israel, I was seen as the most licentious for talking to boys and about them, for going into Jerusalem on Thursday nights, and for wearing pants. Here, I feel like a nun. I wasn’t modest enough for my ex who wanted to be a rabbi, but here, I offend by commenting on the revealing reality of a crop top.

Judaism is a system meant to structure one’s every waking (and even sleeping) moment: a faith based in myriad precepts. There are commandments prescribing how to tie shoes, how to speak, how to drink, how to have intercourse, how to make a business transaction, and even how to gain salvation by waving a chicken around your head. Yet of all precepts, one always left me somewhere between flummoxed and vexed: yichud, the biblical prohibition of seclusion with the opposite sex in a private area.

Even if one’s sure of her restraint, the prohibition remains on the Talmudic principle: “There’s no guarantee when it comes to arayos (forbidden sexual relations).” The rabbis reasoned that in yichud, a person’s “evil inclination” (or what Socrates would call the “appetitive” part of the soul) swells, and under these circumstances, no one can guarantee reason’s triumph.

Only after my first month of college did I understand the commandment I had flouted my entire life. The rabbis must have been onto the boy-girl dorm spell, and enacted yichud to prevent it.

O-Week: Bodies layered on bodies, on booze, on weed, on juice, on sweat, on “Wrecking Ball” swarm around me in a sardine-packed frat. Hills of flesh covered by revealing spandex beg me to notice them. I came here with my house, figuring this was an important bonding activity and that frat parties are an important part of the American college experience. In this makeshift sauna, where the air is both visible and palpable, I feel my soul raped while my body remains untouched.

“I’m leaving. If I meet a guy here, he’s probably not going to be a quality one,” I say to my housemate.

“What if he just likes to have fun?” she responds.

“Well, this is not my type of fun,” I say, grabbing my sweater and heading toward the door.

On my way out, I notice a girl packed into her tight trousers like two generous scoops of ice cream. All dressed in black, she stands before me with dark skin, leggings, and an even darker accessory—a hijab. There she is in her religious head garb, and there I am in my knee-length skirt and long sleeves. I can easily visualize her praying silently before she eats, like me, hardly moving her lips in order to remain unnoticed. I ponder whether she also claims to be professionally driven and yet sometimes wishes to be at home, singing tenderly to a child. If at times she also feels like her body is no longer hers, but a political arena, and yet, at other moments, loves the flow of fabric, the swinging long skirts, the enigma of stealthy skin.

Did she not feel as out of place as I do, or even more so? To an untrained eye I’m not wearing a visible symbol shouting, “Shalom! I’m an Orthodox Jew!”, but she is wearing one proclaiming her religious affiliation and the rules of modesty which ordinarily follow. Would that man in the corner approach her from behind like he just did to two other girls? The scene before me was harder to grasp then any problem set here thus far.

I glance at my watch and remember it’s Friday and I have yet to read this week’s Torah portion. A little part of me wishes to invite the darkly clad stranger to join me in reading Genesis, back in my room.

Eliora Katz is a first-year in the College.