Former Montrealer David Abitbol, founder of the popular blog Jewlicious.com, spoke to The CJN recently about his involvement with a different kind of Jewish site – one that’s described as “a pluralistic and sex-positive organization that explores the intersection of Judaism and sexuality, relationships, gender and body image through essays, literature, erotica, Torah commentary and in-person programming.”
Abitbol, 49, who was born in Israel and raised in Montreal, only to move back to Israel nine years ago, explains his role with Jewrotica.org as its web designer and contributor, and what excites him about the 1-1/2-year-old site that attracts up to 50,000 visitors a month.
You’re a Jewrotica co-founder?
Ayo [Oppenheimer] came up with the idea… We met in the context of – did you ever hear of ROI Community [a global network of Jewish innovators]?… She came up with this idea and I said, “Wow that is awesome. I will help you make a logo right now, and we’ve got to build a website.”
That was June or July of 2012, and within a couple months, we had a website up and we were churning out articles and the attention was almost immediate. We were getting press coverage from Russian and Spanish, German newspapers and others… and it was great.
We recruited a crew of volunteers, everything from graphic artists to editors to editorial staff and they all work really hard to put together this project, the website. We also have a speaker series, so we have sessions and whatnot in different cities… It’s a cool hook, because everyone comes in for the sex and you slip in a little bit of Jewish education, and then you learn something.
What was it that got you so excited about the idea of a Jewish-themed erotica website?
I live [in Jerusalem] right next to a haredi neighbourhood and I can’t help but see all these signs all over the place about modesty and conducting yourself properly, but it’s always aimed at women… I grew up Orthodox. I’m still Orthodox, I’m traditional and everything… [but] it struck me as foreign. It always struck me as foreign, this obsession with female sexuality and suppressing it, and then I realize that these sorts of things are the result of centuries of living in the Diaspora among Christians and Christian values and morals regarding sexuality that must have seeped into Judaism, because Judaism’s perspective on sexuality is not the same as the Christian perspective. The Christians believe in original sin, which means that no matter who you are and no matter how great you are, you were born in sin because your parents had to have sex to have you, which is a sin. It makes no sense.
In Judaism, the first mitzvah in the Torah is pru urvu, be fruitful and multiply. So, the reason why I was excited about Jewrotica was not because I wanted to read stories about two people getting it on by the light of the menorah. There is some of that there on the website, but the part that excited me the most was the discussion on sexuality in Judaism and how Judaism strives to elevate sexuality.
What is Jewish sexual expression and how is it different from secular sexual expression?
Jewish sexual expression, I guess, it’s that it’s just a more thoughtful expression of sexuality. Not that you can’t be thoughtful about your sexuality if you’re secular, but Judaism mandates a thoughtful and considered and respectful approach to sexuality.
As a contributor, what do you like to read about and write about?
The things I tend to write about are, you know, certainly not anything that would be described as erotica [laughing]. Definitely not… The things that interest me the most are things that relate directly to Torah’s attitude toward sexuality and those sorts of discussions. The erotica stuff, the more XXX-rated stuff, I’m happy that it’s there, because at least it spurs discussion, but I don’t think I’d ever write something like that.
When it comes to some of the X-rated content, there is really nothing inherently Jewish about it, other than the fact that the character’s names are Moshe and Rachel…
I have to tell you, it makes me uncomfortable.
You’re uncomfortable reading it, or having it on the site?
Both. I’m not 100 per cent comfortable with it at all. I’m glad that it’s there, because it’s part of the conversation. I mean, I’m not the Taliban. I’m not going to sit there and decide for anyone else what Jewish sexuality or what Jewish erotica should be. There is some poetry on the site, which is stupendous, but the standard Jewish Penthouse letters, that kind of thing, I’m not as excited about. But there is definitely stuff in there that is great.
Is there anything that is off limits?
We’re a pretty normal bunch of folks and sometimes there is stuff in there that is like, “Whoa,” but again, in the interest in advancing the conversation, if it meets a certain criteria of quality writing and thoughtfulness then yeah, we’ll put it in there. Even if it makes us collectively uncomfortable… We certainly wouldn’t put anything that glorifies rape or violence against women, or underage sexuality. And even still we put up trigger warnings that say, “Hey, this might be a little much.”
What are you most proud of?
That we put it out there and people are talking about it and contemplating the role of sexuality and Judaism. My whole purpose in doing this was to distinguish us from Christian-influenced values that have seeped into Judaism, and to whatever extent we’ve done that, that’s what I’m most proud of.
Is there anything in your experience with Jewrotica that surprised you?
One of the things that surprised me is the intense curiosity that non-Jews have about Jewish sexuality… We’ve had traffic from Germany and Spain and from Latin America that far overshadows the Jewish populations in those countries. So even if every single Jew in those countries went to Jewrotica, it wouldn’t account for all the traffic we got from those countries.
I’m impressed by how Jewish sexuality acts as an amazing conduit to Jewish education. I’ve been to a couple of the sessions that other staff members have put on and we’re talking about Hillel kids who are inundated with programming, who usually sit down and are bored and passive and glassy-eyed, listening to [putting on a thick Israeli accent] yet another Israeli speaker talking about the danger of the boycott movement…
All of a sudden they’re talking about Abraham and Isaac and Samson and biblical stories and relating them to their own lives, and they’re animated and curious, and that really surprised me.
Another thing that’s surprising is that… the Canadian Jewish community has been one of the more receptive audiences… We’re big fans of Canada, because Canada is a big fan of us!