The night before my wedding, my mother and sister came with me for my first dunk. By the Orthodox Union's estimate, there are roughly 300 mikvahs in America, but they aren't listed in the phone book, and they don't have big signs proclaiming their purpose. Hidden from the road by tall fencing and overgrown shrubs, the mikvah's bricks held secrets. Bayla, a rabbi's wife, was waiting for us. Brides can dunk first, before sunset, while other women don't start preparing until they see three stars in the night sky. Bayla led my mother and sister on a tour. "Try it," she said, pointing to an empty tub. "Walk down the steps. You'll see how it would feel." They stepped down hesitantly and looked back, half-smiling, before retreating to wait with folded hands on stiff chairs.
I carried my backpack into the changing room and latched the door behind me. I washed my hair and combed out tangles, flossed my teeth, filed my nails. I stared in the mirror, wondering if this ancient ritual would keep my marriage alive through decades of humdrum, everyday life.
It's not just the mikvah that makes Orthodox sex so great: The entire system creates over-the-top intensity. To start with, you're shomer n'giyah, so you don't touch anyone of the opposite sex—no handshaking, air-kissing, or friendly hugs. In my world, every touch is electric. Then there are the laws of yichud, whereby a man and woman who are not related are never alone in a private place. When my neighbor's husband came to help with the sprinklers when Avy wasn't there, he walked around to the backyard instead of taking the shortcut through the house.
We do this because it's part of God's laws, but also because, as my rabbi explained before our wedding, "It's about noticing the details." After my monthly mikvah, it takes several days for Avy and I to get used to handing things to one another. "I forgot that I don't have to put down the keys first," he'll say. "I like putting things right into your hand." Before I became religious, I never saw car keys as sexy.
There's more. In the Aramaic wedding contract that spells out my husband's obligations, my sexual satisfaction is among them. Our religion allows birth control, as long as it doesn't serve as an actual barrier between us, and we consult a rabbi to determine which method we should use, and for how long. For Jews, sex isn't just about making babies—although pregnancy is one of the sexiest times, since we are never off-limits to each another.
As for those 12 days of separation, they're hard, but the mandated time off is a gift. I don't have to say no; he doesn't have to be grossed out by period sex; and we can watch basketball games, read books, or talk on the phone to out-of-state friends without feeling guilty. We spend different time together: we go for coffee, but don't hold hands. I look at him with the yearning I felt when we were dating. I start to fantasize. My husband's hands look stronger to me, and I think of his touch. Here's what we'll do; here's how he'll touch me.