In The Mikveh, Two Women Find The Acceptance Judaism Has Denied Them
by Rishe Groner
It one of those freezing nights when you’re not sure you can even manage the walk from the subway, wind whipping at your face. It’s certainly not the night for waiting outside for a complete stranger, who may or may not be punctual. But, when I showed up at the Upper West Side brownstone, ready to sit on the stairs and wait, I was pleasantly surprised when my blind date arrived just on time.
Well, dates, in plural, to be precise. The two women weren’t your usual blind date. They were mother and daughter, and we weren’t there to socialize or therapize: This was an entirely different sort of rendezvous. They had arrived at the mikveh, a space for transitional ritual through an immersive bath in the sacred waters. I wasn’t their Rabbi, therapist or family member: I was only present to witness and guide the process.
Traditionally, in ancient Jewish practice, the mikveh – today the term refers to both the ritual bath itself, and the process of dunking into these waters – was used for all sorts of ritual immersions and purifications, from contact with dead bodies to cleansing from seminal emissions or menstrual blood. Today, the mikveh is most commonly used by observant Jewish women who mark the end of their monthly bleeding with an immersion that, according to Jewish tradition, brings them back into a sexual relationship with their partner. It is also customary for Hasidic men to use the mikveh as a ritual bath more regularly. Many traditional, but less observant Jewish women take on the ritual of visiting the mikveh once, before their wedding night. For others, it is a monthly practice.
But, my role as Mikveh guide for Immerse NYC, a volunteer-run organization based out of New York City, is somewhat unique in a world where many mikveh-goers are ultra-Orthodox. We offer this sacred guided space as an opportunity to see the mikveh’s consecrated waters as a space for recharging, rejuvenation, transitioning and shifting. It might be to let go of the past – a relationship, a stage of life, trauma or state of mind and body. It might be about celebrating newness – new relationship, a marriage, a birth of a child or a new job. The options are endless, far from the rabbinic prescribed moments of “cleansing” from a menstrual cycle, and create a space for sacred transition in the healing waters of the ritual bath.
Each immersion is facilitated by a trained Mikveh guide, where we take our job seriously to support and stand in the space. The immersees take the lead on how they want to take part in the ritual: with a prayer, a song, or silence. It’s their call. Sometimes that’s entering the room to witness the immersion with a blessing and the pronunciation of “complete” “sacred” or “pure” in Hebrew; or sometimes it’s inviting a song or a prayer while the woman dunks. Sometimes I’m not invited into the room at all; any way is the right way.
So, it’s exciting to start fresh tonight with these two women, and I begin as always, by asking what brought them here. I look at the two women, one young and fresh-faced, her mother still just approaching middle age. The daughter began, her eyes shining.
“Well, I’m twenty-two, and my boyfriend and I have been together for several years. We’re ready to become intimate now, but it’s important to me to do it this way. The right way…”
The words hit me like a balm over my battle-scarred gut, as I think of many young women who begin their sexual experiences non-consensually, in moments of disrespect and pain. Even girls who grow up knowing of Mikveh, and the consciousness it can bring to relationships, but are barred from the practice because only married women are welcomed in the Orthodox-run spaces. I look at her beautiful face, pure with love for her partner and the desire to do things intentionally. I know there are rabbis who disparage this practice, who say it’s wrong to attempt to “kosher” a practice they don’t condone, and how tragic that is for the hundreds of Orthodox or formerly Orthodox women who instead debut their sexual lives with shame.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” I tell her. “I’m honored to be part of this. I wish every girl would do this.”
She looked down at her hands shyly. Apparently, not every college sophomore does. But she wanted to do things properly, she told me. “I studied in a day school,” she says. “I know what’s right. I believe in the practice.”
And that’s why she’d called her mom and asked her to join.
“I had a hysterectomy several years ago,” mom confides softly, the trickling waters of the Mikveh in the next room obscuring her shaking voice. “I had been going to Mikveh of course, but I never really appreciated it, so I was glad to stop. I still cycle. But I don’t bleed, so I never underwent menopause. So when my daughter called me, we thought perhaps this could be the time for my final immersion… alongside her first.”
They appear as two, but stand in one continuous line.
One woman, leaving behind her identity as a younger mom of teenagers, maturing into her next stage as the “wise woman”, mother of a young woman with her own story. Youth on the brink of a life (God-willing) filled with fertility, love and sensuality.
One carrying the chain, the other crafting her own link. It is beautiful to behold.
I invite them to begin preparing for the ritual immersion, heading into separate private bathrooms to fully scrub their skin, teeth, hair and nails, removing any impediments to the immersion. At Immerse, we remind that this is a spiritual cleansing, letting go of the past, as much as a physical one.
Mom emerges first, wet-haired in her white robe, and sits next to me as we wait for her daughter. We’d discussed the ritual and agreed that the women would immerse separately, but with a blessing from one to the other before going into the room with the mikveh itself.
It’s my role as guide to talk, to lead the creation of a spiritual space by listening actively, paying attention to facts, feelings, and unmet needs. The goal is never to provide advice, simply to support each woman in her own process. And as I listen, I hear the fact, the story of a middle-aged woman bereaved in the previous year, struggling to memorialize the soul of her dear, departed father with the daily practice of reciting Kaddish with a quorum of ten in a prayer service. I hear the feelings, the struggle of an Orthodox-affiliated woman determined to participate in a ritual that is in many ways exclusive of her, typically the domain of Orthodox men and their daily prayer quorums (minyan) which often feature no room for a woman to stand or speak. Just as this beautiful mikveh ritual has been exclusive to married women, leaving hundreds of unofficially-attached young women without an anchor or ritual, so has Kaddish been left to men only to recite in a formal minyan, leaving women to fight battles in Orthodox synagogues with little respect for the women on the other side of the curtain – in some cases, with no space for women to be present at all.
I listen closely, and I am reminded of the unmet needs present throughout the Jewish world for Women Who Kaddish, the name of a project initiated by some friends of mine and the stories of women who put up with verbal abuse, disrespect, and alienation as they take on this sacred ritual in the memory of loved ones, during the most vulnerable time. The need to be seen, to be heard, to take on ritual, even in a world that denies your presence.
And it surprises me more than anybody else when I look at this woman, in her moment of preparation to take on a transformational ritual, to consider adding to it with an even more radical transformation.
I am conscious of my place: to suggest, never advise. I begin slowly. “Well… I want to offer an option for you. It’s up to you if it feels right. But perhaps, having said Kaddish all these months, without a reply, or in a whisper, you might want to say it again in your full voice. So… I want you to know you have that option. The mikveh is noisy. You can be as loud as you want. You can cry. God can hear you there as good as anywhere. And unlike the many men who dismissed you… I promise that I will respond with Amen.”
Moments later, her daughter emerges from the preparation room, ready to be received by the welcoming waters, like the waters of the womb, rebirthing her into a new state as a woman entering into sacred relationship with her beloved. They bless one another, and embrace. I lead the young almost-bride into the spa-like chamber, drowned out by the sounds of the running water tanks, and watch her transition from girlhood to womanhood.
With love, beauty, and the blazing Divine will of a woman taking on a mitzvah out of love, not fear, I know this young woman’s transformation is one that carries not just her own life, but those of her ancestors before her: the grandparents she is mourning; the mother she is inspiring; the life she will continue creating with her partner in the future.
I see newness, birth, and then, the passage of time. Because, with time, comes the past, the need to renew what was once there, bringing mother into this moment of rebirth, too.
Once again, they bless one another at the door to the mikveh. The radiant daughter glides past to her space on the bench, and the mother and I enter the sacred spa.
I watch the woman descend, at each step reciting a new intention for her transition from young woman to wise woman. I observe her leave behind, dunk by dunk, her identity as mother of young children, transforming into a matronly elder, filled with wisdom and experience.
And, on the third dunk, I ask if she’d like to pray. To bless her departed parent, with the most heart-rending prayer recited in Judaism, the Kaddish. A prayer that in our darkest moments, says, “May the Name be Exalted and Blessed, Forever From This World and All the Worlds Above, Amen,” Recited through tears, shrieked after bloodshed, choked out in moments of tragedy, and now, clung to by women throughout the world who adamantly reserve their right to mourn, their power to pray, their need to be heard by God even when they are quashed by God’s people behind a curtain.
I watch this brave, beautiful woman; her battle-scarred body embraced by the sacred waters of the mikveh’s womb. These waters have always held the women of our people, even as they have not been held by the synagogue walls in which they beg to pray.
She crosses her arms, lifts her voice, and cries into the heavens. Her words reverberate across the room, lyrics that are the essence of the prayer, blessing the everlasting and eternal.
“Y’hei shmei rabbah mevorach, l’olam u’l’olmay almaya”, the ancient Aramaic feels right rippling across this surface, a surface not unlike the deep pools of tears these words have dipped into in the past.
I so I answer Amen, this time with a plea of my own.
May these strong women, souls that know no boundaries, break through boundaries in our lives.
May the tenacity and determination to honor the traditions of our ancestors be appreciated, as we break new ground within the communal structures that honor those rituals.
May the strength of character in choosing to take on these practices, even when not respected in the traditional community of origin, carry us forward.
May the communities that first embedded us with this love of tradition, and this desire to do what’s right, respect our needs to do so outside the tightly-drawn lines of community standards.
May they welcome the new ways of co-created ritual that are meaningful, real, and with respect and love to those who come before us.
And so, with tears of joy and awe, I bless the everlasting Name. And I know that no matter what, no matter where, no matter how, the Name persists. The tradition that invites women to unite body and soul through sacred ritual; the traditions that, until now, have asked men to elevate soul from body with a sacred chant.
I know that whether women immerse in the mikveh as brides, as new mothers, as unmarried, but in love seekers of sacred sex, or after their womb is no longer present in their bodies, we are all seeking that sacred connection between body and soul; between spirit and flesh. That whether we recite Kaddish in the front of a synagogue with the greatest acoustics, or deep inside the basement of a watery mikveh, these waters are carrying us home.
Every ritual, acknowledging Oneness, every utterance bringing us back to our sacred state of embodied Divinity in human body.
May the name be blessed.