Humor Parenting Sex and Relationships

What Sex Ed Is Like as an Orthodox Jew

By Heidi Shertok

As a child growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home, my parents emphasized the importance of modesty, both in speech and in dress. The word ‘sex’ and any variations therein were considered taboo. Neither my Jewish day school nor my all-girls high school provided any means of sex education. I had some idea of what sex was, but only in the vaguest of ways.

The problem started when I began a medical assistant program at the age of nineteen. One Friday morning in microbiology class, the teacher announced that whoever brought a semen sample (to be looked at under the microscope) would receive bonus points the following Monday. I turned to my friend in the class–Chantal–and whispered, “What’s semen?”

She laughed until the teacher glared at her. “Gurrrrl, you crack me up.”

Everyone else in the class seemed to know what semen was, and from their comments, I gathered that it was a substance that came from their boyfriends’ bodies.

“Fudge it. I don’t have a boyfriend,” I muttered. Orthodox Jewish girls typically don’t.

Later that night found me in the kitchen helping my mother serve matzah ball soup. “Ma,” I said, as I repositioned the heavy tray. “I need semen.”

The ladle in my mother’s hand stilled. “Excuse me?”

“Semen,” I repeated. “Where can I get some?”

My mother’s face turned a ghostly shade of white.

“Does Abba have?” I pressed on.

“Sssh,” my mother said, looking around in a frenzied panic. “Someone might hear you. Why are you even asking such a question?”

I explained the bonus points I would receive if I brought in a sample on Monday. “So does Abba have?”

“No,” she said quickly, then handed me another bowl of soup. “Now give this to Zeide.”

Disappointed, I served my grandfather the soup when another idea struck me. Excited, I ran back to the kitchen. “Ma, does Zeide have semen?”

My mother closed her eyes and massaged her temples. “Chaiky (my Yiddish name), stop talking about this. Please.”


“Because it’s not tznius (modest).”


“I’ll tell you when you’re older.” Since I was already nineteen, I took this to mean never. Needless to say, I never did get those bonus points.

Then there was the time my dog had an erection and I thought he was dying. I was twenty at the time. Yet again, sex education could have prevented me from making a fool of myself.

On that particular day, I walked past my dog–Zevi–and noticed that he was panting heavily and standing kind of funny. Concerned, I bent down to pet him, and through my peripheral vision, I caught sight of a giant red cylindrical shape emerging from his penis.

I screamed. Loudly.

“Ma, something is wrong with Zevi,”I shouted. “You need to take him to the vet ASAP.”

My mother ran over and I pointed to his penis. “Something big and red is growing out of him. I think it’s a tumor.”

“No, he’s fine,” she said after a quick glance.

I couldn’t believe she was going to be so callous as to ignore this medical emergency. “Ma, did you not see it? Look!” I bent down to check, but to my utter amazement, the tumor had vanished, as had my mother…

“It’s gone,” I murmured in amazement. If this were a Nancy Drew book, it would be titled, ‘The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Tumor.’

I found her in the kitchen washing dishes. I slammed my hands down on the kitchen counter and eyed her beadily. She knew something, I was sure of it. “What happened to Zevi?” I demanded.

“Hmmm…mmm…” she replied, stacking dishes onto the rack.

“Why can’t you tell me?”

“Because, Chaiky,” she sighed. “It’s not tznius. I’ll explain it to you when you’re older.”

From that conversation, I gleaned two valuable facts: 1. My mother is good at keeping secrets, and 2. My dog is some kind of pervert.

Now that I’m the mother of three children–my oldest is twelve–I find myself sympathetic to my mother’s plight. There’s a fine line to dance between being over-informative and not saying anything at all.

In sum, while sex education may not be critical to every Orthodox Jewish child’s curriculum, it sure would have helped this particular one out.


About the Author

HEIDI SHERTOK is a native Minnesotan, as is evident by both her Midwestern accent and her appreciation of any weather that isn’t attached to the word ‘negative’. She wrote her first book at the tender age of twelve, and after killing off all the main characters in it, she realized that books with happy endings are infinitely preferable to those that leave you with tear-streaked cheeks and empty tissue boxes. Heidi has three precocious children, and has at times been known to hide under her bed from them – not that she’s proud of it. She is the dog owner of a small white dog, named “Whitey”; she’s not real proud of that, either. Heidi has one published novel, “And Along Came Layla”, as well as blog postings on numerous websites, including “The Good Men Project” and “Kveller.” You can contact Heidi at [email protected].