This Israeli-American ‘Bohemian Balabusta’ seeks a religious sexual revolution
Birthing coach Malka Chana Amichai uses her online platform to urge Jewish women to focus on themselves, their bodies and their desires in an effort to ‘normalize womanhood’
Malka Chana Amichai wants you to talk about sex.
The headscarf-wearing Israeli-American religious mother of four has devoted much of her career to focusing on women’s reproductive health. And in recent years – through her website and on Instagram – she has focused on breaking down taboos against publicly discussing such issues in many Orthodox circles.
Drawing on her experience as a doula for labor and postpartum, her training as a “kallah teacher” – one who instructs religious brides on family purity laws – as well as a prenatal yoga instructor and Lamaze educator, Amichai aims to get religious Jewish women talking about their bodies.
Amichai didn’t even own a smartphone for much of her life, but after opening an Instagram account for the first time in November 2020 she racked up 5,000 followers within the first year. Today she has close to 57,000 followers from all around the world.
“I’m a religious, Orthodox, Jewish woman who covers her hair and I’m speaking openly about sexuality and menstruation and birthing – that’s super taboo stuff,” she said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel. “I think it’s probably what I represent that is intriguing to a lot of people, and normalizing it. Because I’m not a show – I’m going through all the same things.”
Calling herself the “Bohemian Balabusta” – a Yiddish word that generally means homemaker – Amichai, 34, has pivoted in recent years from active work as a doula and coach to become an influencer, with digital workshops, seminars, workbooks – even a coloring book of the female anatomy titled “Sacred Womanhood.”
Amichai, who lives with her family in the Etzion Bloc, said she sees all of her work in women’s health leading her, as it were, backwards. Shortly after she was married, she trained as a postpartum doula, coaching new mothers and families through their adjustment. While she enjoyed the work, “I just kept feeling like I had to get to this woman sooner,” she said, before she was “depleted and not feeling supported.”
She then trained as a birth doula, “but the same thing – I felt like I had to get to them sooner.” She became a prenatal yoga teacher, then trained as a childbirth educator and took a course to become a kallah teacher. “It seemed like an organic, great fit – I’ve worked with women, let’s keep getting to them sooner, so that they’re already starting these lifecycle journeys from an empowered place.”
After having her fourth child, Amichai moved to a career that allowed her to spend more time at home with her children instead of having to drop everything to attend births and physically coach women through the process.
“I retired from doing births, which I did for 10 years,” she said. “After I gave birth to my fourth, I just didn’t want to miss my children’s childhood. I was taking care of other families more than my own, and this was really not what I wanted.”
Friends suggested she open an Instagram account, and then came a website. On her site, visitors can sign up for the “Sacred Women’s Moon Course,” which costs $225 and includes three live Zoom sessions discussing anatomy, menstruation and sexual pleasure. Also on offer are a refresher course on “Taharat Hamishpacha,” the Jewish approach and laws guiding marital sex, with five live classes for $350; plus pre-recorded digital workshops on hair covering for $25 or the female libido for $45.
“I work in the field of women’s empowerment, and I support women as they go through different lifecycle events,” she said when asked to provide a current job description. “The education that I offer is mostly based on helping women understand their bodies, and feeling empowered that they understand their bodies.”
In some ways, she said, she is working to counter lessons inflicted on women over the years: “It’s not just education, it’s removing shame and resentment and disgust and all these things that so many of us have been holding since we were teenagers, and our childhood – and when we clear that out, we rewrite our story and we take our story into our own hands.”
A fork in her road
Growing up, Amichai never imagined pursuing such a career path – or even a life as a religious Jew in Israel.
Born Carly Fleisher in South Florida, she said she was “not religious at all” as a child or teenager. During her time at the University of Florida, she wandered into a Hillel house on campus, and met a rabbi who embraced “a very colorful, spiritual view on Judaism.”
She went on a Birthright trip, which sparked her first connection to Israel, and came back on another trip before coming to study abroad toward the end of her college degree – and meeting the man who eventually became her husband.
While she had long planned to be a public school teacher, Amichai didn’t feel able to jump into such a career in the Israeli school system. But shortly after getting married and settling in Israel, she saw an advertisement for a course to become a postpartum doula, setting her off on an entirely new path.
“I definitely feel that how I grew up is a big part of who I am and why I want to and can do this work,” she said. “I never grew up feeling that these things are taboo… I do think that in the religious world — if I’m generalizing — there’s a lot more fear around” having those conversations.
Amichai said lately most of the negative feedback she gets online comes from men, who are “intimidated to see a movement of empowering women and still holding Torah and still holding modesty.” She said while she speaks openly about sex and menstruation and women’s bodies, “my stuff is not crude, my stuff is normal womanhood, done in a sacred, tasteful way.”
If she wants her followers to come away with one thing, it’s that they must find time to focus on themselves while juggling all the other pressures and burdens of life.
“There’s this kind of pressure to be superwoman” and to handle everything without complaint, she said. “I think a big part of that is taking care of yourself, and making sure you’re eating and making sure you’re nourished from within and really keeping ourselves alive while we’re juggling all these things – and I think that for women is still now a huge wake-up call.”
When women remember to also focus on themselves, Amichai said, it “brings a lot more joy, which then leads into pleasure which then leads into sexual pleasure too – the worthiness of joy and pleasure in this world is taking initiative to prioritize ourselves.”
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