I looked him square in the eye and thought, “I’m ready for The Talk.”
He was not my father, and I was not a boy about to reach puberty. He was my college science professor. I was 24.
I had taken my last science class 10 years earlier, in 10th grade. The Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn I grew up in is skeptical toward scientists and their methods, including well-established concepts like carbon dating, the Big Bang and natural selection.
Secular studies were an afterthought in my all-male yeshiva high school, offered in the late afternoon after eight hours of religious subjects. After “English,” we often returned for a few more hours of Torah study. The person who was supposed to be teaching us 10th grade science was untrained as an educator, teaching until he found a full-time job as a computer programmer.
After four years in seminary, I decided that a secular college would be a better fit. I first spent two years in an evening program at Touro College, geared toward people with similar backgrounds to mine. The classes were single-gendered — Monday and Wednesday were for men, Tuesday and Thursday for women.
Finally in 2012, I thought I was ready to enter the wider world and transferred to Hunter College.
I enrolled in a course called Human Species, taught by Herman Pontzer, a lapsed Catholic in his late 30s from a tiny town in Pennsylvania with a Ph.D. from Harvard. The survey course covered our identity as Homo sapiens and how we, along with the rest of the universe, evolved. I sat in the front row of the auditorium lecture hall, intensely writing my professor’s words into my spiral notebook.
But the real learning came from our private sessions. I utilized an amazing service often ignored by my fellow students: office hours. Dr. Pontzer answered the dozens of questions I wrote in the margins of my notes during the lecture, information most American kids learned in middle school and high school, both in the classroom and in the locker room.
My parents had always supported my voracious reading, world exploration and intellectual growth. But they wanted my siblings and me to be very religious, and placed a premium on Jewish knowledge. They prized our Jewish observance and ability to live as observant Orthodox Jews, with all of Judaism’s rules.
My father maintained an idealistic view that we could have both deep religious competence and vast knowledge about the wider world. He sent us to yeshiva, but also took us to Pete Seeger concerts. During the intermediary days of Passover when I was 12 and off from school, we went to the temporary Vermeer exhibit at the Met. But there are only so many hours in the day, many of which were devoted to enriching my Jewish self. It came at a cost.
Ours was a culture of performativity and keeping up appearances. Everyone, it seemed, had a happy family, was financially comfortable, and was super religious. Some schools had parents sign a contract promising that they did not own televisions or have internet access at home. My parents broke with the community on that — we did have a TV and I had seen some of the shows that cleared up a few mysteries, but there was much that I did not know.
In 11th grade, in a Talmud class, we learned about “intercourse that is not natural.” What intercourse actually meant was not explained, and we knew better than to ask. Our rebbe skipped over it quickly.
My college professor helped clear things up, explaining everything from genetic inheritance to evolution. I grew increasingly anxious as new facts exposed how little I knew. But he patiently and calmly answered my questions. One day, when I didn’t understand the complex ideas of genetics, he smiled, leaned back, and started again. “So, your mom and dad each have 23 volumes in an encyclopedia….” He knew my background and gave me all the time I needed, without making me feel stupid.
A lecture on hormones and how our bodies respond to certain stresses from outside sources left me baffled. Nearing the end, after going through a series of slides related to various glands, an illustration of sexual organs came on the screen. There were six minutes left in the class period.
“I’m not going to go into this because I’m sure you’ve all learned about this in sex ed,” he said, skipping through the next five slides.
What was he doing? I needed to learn this.
I put my pen down, feeling defeated. He moved on with new information built on an assumption of knowledge that I did not possess.
I caught up with him in the crowded hallway. I couldn’t begin the conversation in public. “Do you have office hours now?” I asked, using the code word for our unofficial informational cram sessions.
We walked across campus and up four flights of stairs, through his lab, past shelves of skulls and skeletons, and into his office. We sat down, him at his desk and me next to it, my sense of panic growing.
“So, how can I help you?”
“Umm, uh, you know that slide with the body parts at the end? Umm, can you please explain to me how that works? I never really had sex ed when I was a kid and I don’t understand what I was looking at …”
He nonchalantly turned to his computer, went to Google Images, and pulled up an animation of men’s and women’s anatomy. He gave me a primer on what many 9-year-olds probably already know. For the next 45 minutes he taught me about the science of sexual stimulation, how a man produces sperm and how it travels to the woman, how her body responds, how each part works together in an intricate system to produce a new cell, how the cells come together to form an embryo.
I had one thought: This is amazing. It’s so cool how every tiny step comes together to make another human life.
“It’s magic,” I said.
“No, it’s science,” he replied.
“I want to learn more about this. Is there a book you can recommend that I won’t be embarrassed to read on the subway?”
He turned around, grabbed a book off his desk, and handed it to me.
“It’s yours. Keep it.”
It was an anatomy and physiology textbook. A bit used, but in great condition. I thanked him for the invaluable wisdom he imparted, and backed away slowly, full of appreciation and awe. The book was a riveting read. I could hardly put it down.
I marveled that the observant Orthodox community I grew up in values large families and encourages young couples to reproduce, but never taught us how that works — either physically or emotionally. The complicated laws of niddah — the prohibitions on intimacy during menstruation — are taught during one’s engagement. Since I was not engaged, I had not been privy to that in-depth understanding of the mechanics of coupling.
I received a C in the class because I fell behind in the homework, assignments that required counting bunnies as they mated. Maybe I was trying so hard to understand human sexuality, I wasn’t ready to focus on other species.
In addition to the science lessons he shared with me, Dr. Pontzer gave me his time and care, with his straightforward answers and lack of judgment. As much as he helped me learn the mechanics of sex, he showed me the tools to build a healthy relationship.
Eli Reiter is a New York-based educator, writer and storyteller. He is working on a memoir.