I remember my first crush clearly: I was in davening (prayer service) in sixth grade, and I saw a boy a year older than I was donning his tefillin before the service officially started. I remember thinking to myself how gorgeous he was—it was, quite literally, a “tefillin turn on” (a phrase for when someone finds another person doing something Jewish to be attractive). In that moment, I was overcome with a debilitating fear that would stay with me until long after I came out five years later: I became afraid of my own sexuality, and I had no one to whom I could turn and share my fears. Growing up in the Orthodox community and attending Orthodox elementary and middle schools, no one ever talked about sex or sexuality, let along feelings of same-sex attraction.
The only time sexuality was ever brought up to the male students was when my seventh grade Bible teacher spent an entire class ranting about how Massachusetts’ legalization of marriage equality was wrong. Other than that, sexuality was never discussed. The assumption was that we nice Jewish boys would grow up to date and ultimately marry nice Jewish girls, and that our female counterparts would date and marry nice Jewish boys.
Two weeks ago, Josh Orlian, a 12-year-old Jewish boy from White Plains, New York, auditioned for America’s Got Talent as a stand-up comedian, where he told several very off-color sexual jokes. It raised eyebrows—as well it should have. There stood a boy in a kippah, not yet bar mitzvah, making jokes about fellatio to Howie Mandell and Howard Stern.
But at the same time, this shouldn’t be jarring: sex is something that most twelve-year-olds think about on a very regular basis. And, yes, the blowjob joke he made was fed to him by his father, and, yes, perhaps it might have been irresponsible of his parents to allow him to stand up in front of a live audience and make those jokes—but that doesn’t change the fact that twelve-year-olds are on the verge of puberty and are thinking about sex. Orlian’s Modern Orthodox day school has the right to be unamused, but that doesn’t change the fact that middle school students will always make crass jokes amongst themselves.
Funny or not, Orlian’s performance—and the controversy that resulted—forces us to confront the Modern Orthodoxy community’s squeamish attitude towards sex education. Just because we don’t talk about sex with our adolescents doesn’t mean that they aren’t thinking about it, in the same way that teenagers will have premarital sex whether or not we choose to talk to them about safe sex practices. Despite the fact that no one I knew ever really talked about homosexuality or sexuality in general, I still turned out queer, and came out of the closet before I had a chance to have any major discussions about sexuality and Judaism. Not talking to our kids about homosexuality won’t stop them from coming out: they’ll just live in fear—like I did—that their communities won’t accept them.
We should be fostering our youth’s sexual education and knowledge, not fretting over the fact that the public now knows that, yes, Orthodox boys and girls think and talk about sex. We can’t sweep these conversations under the rug until just before college, because sex and sexuality are all around us as we enter puberty. Instead, we need to give young, frum Jews the language and tools they need to make informed decisions when it comes to sexuality. For guidance, we can turn to our own rabbinic texts, which deal frankly with matters of sexuality—for example, the rabbis in the Talmud went to great lengths to understand when a woman becomes an adult, how to classify a person who does not fit into the binary of male and female, and to share wisdom about sexual pleasure. Our current repressive attitude towards sex actually runs counter to Jewish tradition.
Even Modern Orthodox day schools which do have more progressive sex education programs often wait until too late—ninth or tenth grade—to discuss sexual health and gender identity. This education needs to begin earlier, in middle school. It is time to stop being afraid of sex and sexuality, because when we are, we fail to give our adolescents the tools they need to lead sexually healthy and responsible lives. Arming teenagers with the tools and the language they need to lead sexually healthy lives must become a part of our Modern Orthodox value system—even if the endeavor sometimes makes us uncomfortable.
Ultimately, Josh is just like every other adolescent. The only difference between him and other twelve-year-old boys is that he wears a kippah while he thinks and talks about sex and sexuality. This only reflects poorly on the Orthodox community if we keep pretending that the way that we talk about sexuality and gender—and by this, I mean not talking about it until the very last minute—is just fine. We need to remove the taboo surrounding sex in Orthodox Judaism to give our kids the education they need, lest we continue to put them at risk.
Amram Altzman is a rising sophomore in a joint program with the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. He is also a blogger for New Voices Magazine, a website for Jewish college students. You can follow him on Twitter @thesubwaypoet.