Orthodox expert serves up advice on sex, marriage, intimacy in Berkeley talk

Sarah Karmely is a highly sought out expert on relationships between men and women, but you won’t find her shmoozing with Oprah or blogging in the Huffington Post. Instead, Karmely usually shares her wisdom about marital harmony with groups of religious Jewish women, like the one that turned out in Berkeley a week before Mother’s Day.

Although nonobservant Jews also seek her advice, Karmely’s primary audiences are Orthodox groups (usually all female) as well as individuals and couples who come to her for private counseling. She is herself Hassidic, having transitioned around 30 years ago from a traditional Sephardic lifestyle after experiencing what she believed was a miracle performed by the late Lubavitcher rebbe.

Sarah Karmely

“She’s a Hassidic cross between Sophia Loren and Dr. Ruth,” said Miriam Ferris, program coordinator for Chabad of the East Bay, which sponsored the May 6 program, titled “The Mystique of Love,” at a private home in the Berkeley hills. Approximately 50 single and married women, ranging from their 20s to their 60s, attended the afternoon tea and talk.

Afterward, a smaller group of married women in their 20s and 30s enjoyed a more private discussion with Karmely about the mikvah, or ritual bath, and the Jewish laws of family purity.

In an interview, Karmely, 62, summed up her general thoughts on a happy marriage: If the husband-wife relationship “is good in the bedroom, it’s good in the living room,” she said.

Talking specifically about niddah, which prohibits a husband and wife from having sexual intercourse during the woman’s period — and not again until the woman has immersed herself in a mikvah — Karmely said it’s a practice that has benefits and can solve many sex-related issues for couples.

“Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say,” she said. Following the laws of family purity, or taharath hamishpacha, “makes it like a new honeymoon every time a wife and husband reunite sexually.”

Maintaining unity and tranquility in a relationship is vital, she added, “especially later on in the marriage, when husband and wife can become jaded.”

Karmely has been married since the age of 18, when she left her Persian-born parents behind in her native England and moved to Italy with her husband. Thirteen years later, she, her husband, and their three children moved to Brooklyn after meeting the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and taking on the Lubavitcher lifestyle.

“My life opened up when I met the rebbe,” Karmely recalled. “He told me my role was to teach women — especially brides — and that he would be my partner in this endeavor.”

With the rebbe’s support, Karmely got some training and began counseling women in the community. Now, a few decades later, she is so engaged with flying all over the world for this work that she had to give up her role as director of a Brooklyn school. “I was just too busy,” she said as she named Australia, South Africa, Costa Rica, Chile, Holland and Israel as some of the countries to which she has been invited. She also wrote a book, “Words to Hear With Your Heart,” published in 2006.

After the structured part of her talk in Berkeley, Karmely answered questions submitted anonymously by members of the audience — such as why American women are generally more interested in intimacy than men are.

“Wherever they live, the No. 1 issue women are concerned about is how to maintain marital harmony and peace in the home,” Karmely stated. “They want to know how to deal with family stress while at the same time managing to develop their own souls, and how to manage their husbands.”

That’s a tall order, so Karmely advises women to take care of their own needs and not try to be superwomen. They also need to remember that “respect brings love, but love doesn’t always bring respect.” By this she means that couples need to be conscious of how they speak to one another.

For example, if a husband is angry, Karmely would advise the wife, “Don’t answer him.” Instead, she should wait for a calmer, more appropriate time to respond.

“It’s not worth fighting. Fighting brings the yetzer hara [the evil inclination] into the home.” When this happens, “children suffer and the foundation of the home is broken.”

Some women come to Karmely with very personal issues, ranging from problems with their menstrual cycles to lack of sexual desire. To help the former, she provides holistic medical tips, and for the latter she coaches clients on how to plan for and invest energy toward intimacy.

Women who are “not yet observant,” as Karmely describes them, often query her about societal pressure to be sexually active before marriage. “I convince them that sex is a godly act, that it’s about creating new souls,” she said. “I tell them they should respect themselves and not just see sex as a physical act.”

She also warns wives against withholding sex from their husbands as a weapon if communication breaks down.

“Doing so is halachically and ethically not allowed,” she said. “It’s OK to be with your husband even if you don’t want to, so that he won’t feel rejected.”

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.