‘The mikveh was a tool to wield as punishment. If my husband and I had argued or he was late, I would ask him, ‘Why should I make an effort for you?’ And then I wouldn’t go to mikveh so he couldn’t sleep with me. It was a weapon I could control. I hate going to the mikveh [rituual bath]. I never viewed it as a cleansing or purifying act.”
This is an excerpt from Tamar, 38, in which she describes the connection between the mikveh and her relationship with her husband, which appears in a Hebrew-language book of mikveh stories written by Dr. Ella Kanner, who has a PhD in gender studies and is a personal and business life coach.
The book is a collection of 29 monologues by women who openly and authentically talk about their experiences in one of the most intimate of places: the mikveh. This is where the mitzvah of Jewish purity is observed. The 29 women delve into the difficulties, the lies, the excitement, the shame, the embarrassment and the holiness of immersing in the mikveh.
Kanner, 53, of Petah Tikva, is married and has six children (as well as grandchildren). When she was 18, she made the decision to become religiously observant. “Immersing in the mikveh is an extremely important part of Jewish religious observance, and I wanted it to be part of public discourse,” says Kanner. “Using the mikveh has always been kept secret. Everyone knows that women go to the mikveh every month, but women would never discuss their experiences with others. Things that are taboo oftentimes hold great significance, and it’s important that we begin talking openly about mikveh.”
Why is it important to have these women’s stories accessible to the public?
“Mikveh experiences are theoretically a private issue, but in this case they are also a very highly political issue, too. Actions that take place behind closed doors have ramifications on the lives of all of us, not just on the specific woman who dips in the water. First of all, we must understand that immersing in the mikveh is the primary rite of passage for women just before they enter into marriage. Then, throughout the rest of their lives, it separates the time when they are permitted to be intimate with their husband and when they aren’t. As a result, this act has a great impact on marital relations. It’s also a commandment that you fulfill by getting fully and completely naked.”
According to Kanner, the issue of full nudity is very important. “We are forced to look at how our body is changing,” Kanner explains, “including the parts that we like seeing the least. In addition, many people object to the presence of the mikveh lady. They say that having her look at them is an unbearable experience. They feel like she is an extension of the powerful male establishment. Then there’s the aspect of sexuality, since mikveh is supposed to be followed by sexual intercourse. For some women, going to the mikveh is depressing and anxiety-producing, whereas for others it is an exciting prelude to reuniting with a spouse.”
What does the mikveh symbolize for you personally?
“In the introduction to the book, I express myself in the best way I could: ‘For me, the mikveh was and still is the threshold for the love song I sing to Hashem and to my husband. It’s the transitional place between being separated and then reunited through a ceremony involving water.’
“It’s one of the commandments that I love the most, and I’m always happy to go. I’ve been going to the mikveh for 34 years now, and I admit that some of the visits were less successful. Sometimes I was far away from home when mikveh night rolled around, and I’ve even immersed in dirty rivers and lakes in India. I’m lucky I never caught cholera. But after each dip, I came out happy.”
All of the women whose stories appear in the book have been given pseudonyms. The women are different ages and hail from a variety of communities. Most of them are religious, but certainly not all of them.
“I was very surprised to find out that so many secular women go the mikveh,” remarks Kanner. “I don’t presume to think that I’ve covered every type of women and all the relevant situations, but I do think I’ve succeeded in achieving my goal, which was to make women’s voices heard and to paint a picture so that the public can understand what goes on in mikvaot in Israel in 2019. Change is upon us, but so far the process has been quite slow. I’m hoping that the publication of my book will help speed things up a little.”
Some of the monologue writers’ experiences were positive. Others were negative. For example, Rivka, 35, describes the mikveh as “a womb. I feel protected and embraced as the mikveh lady watches over me, kind of like my mother would. I feel connected with all the Jewish women who came before me – going back all the way to our foremothers Sarah and Rebecca. Like they’re here with me. When I’m immersed inside the water, I feel like I’m in an extremely personal place.”
Avishag, 32, also talks about how going to the mikveh is an incredibly intimate experience. “I’m so excited to finally talk about mikveh. My friends and I don’t share any of our experiences because it’s a taboo subject that’s supposed to remain secret. But why is it okay to talk about everything else, just not mikveh? For me, dipping in the mikveh helps me to feel cleansed and closer to Hashem – more so than even to my husband. It invites the type of self-examination that is very hard to achieve in our busy daily lives.”
In contrast, Bruria, 30, describes a completely different experience: “For me, going to the mikveh is like a punishment, something I need to suffer through every month. I don’t enjoy it for even one moment. In the winter, it’s even worse, since I suffer from chronic sinusitis. Almost every time I go to the mikveh and leave afterwards with wet hair, I get sick the following week. But it’s a religious requirement in Judaism, so I’m not sure how to get out of going. If I could find any loophole, I would stop going in a heartbeat.”
“I love the water,” says Na’ama, 31. “I love that the passage from the forbidden to the permissible happens by immersing in water. I struggle with all the restrictions. It makes me feel like the Halacha (Jewish religious law) is recoiling from my body, is afraid of its cycle. I find the whole concept offensive. I do it because I have to, because it’s the rule. But I’d be a lot more comfortable if we had to carry out some ritual together as a couple.”
Some of the monologues deal with the excessive intervention by and interaction with the mikveh lady. “It makes me sad to think about all these years of unpleasant mikveh visits,” recalls Miriam, 28. “The mikveh lady would check my eyes, fingernails, and teeth. Her touch was unpleasant. In an effort to take back a tiny bit of control, I would ask her, ‘Do I have any hairs on my back?’ Selecting the place for her to look made me feel like I hadn’t completely lost all control over the situation.”
Deborah shares some of the same feelings. “I told the mikveh lady that I wanted to dunk on my own. She was annoyed, but agreed. Right as I’d finished taking off all of my clothes, she entered the room. I told her, ‘Leave the room, I’m not dressed,’ but she didn’t care and was very denigrating. I had to use every last bit of strength I had to keep myself calm. I dunked on my own, but she insisted on asking me lots of questions afterward. I got out of there as fast as my legs would take me.”
“I was surprised by many of the things women wrote in their monologues,” admits Kanner. “First of all, I’m amazed by how many women have been suffering for so many years from their mikveh visits. Some suffer from poor body image, others from their interaction with the mikveh lady.
Other women, however, wrote about extremely positive experiences with mikveh ladies. Some women say that they stay away from a certain mikveh because of the mikveh lady, whereas others say their faith has strengthened due to interactions with the mikveh ladies. At any rate, it’s important to mention that following the recent Israel High Court of Justice ruling, women are legally allowed to immerse in the mikveh without the presence of a mikveh lady.”
Were you surprised by any of the monologues?
“One woman created her own mikveh ceremony. ‘I put on music I love – Rihanna,’ writes Zipora. ‘It puts me in a good mood. And I like the strong pressure of the warm water in the mikveh. It feels very nice. I really enjoy coming to the mikveh.’”
Are most mikvehs maintained well?
“Some of them are really fancy, and some are kind of disgusting. A number of monologues highlighted the fact that the mikveh had mold on the walls. In this modern day and age, it’s important that a mikveh be clean and pleasing.”
Kanner was, however, shocked by a number of the monologues. “In Ethiopia, girls would start going to the mikveh right after they started getting their period, even if they were only 10 years old,” says Hava, 41. “Many people who didn’t grow up in Israel have a really hard time adjusting to immersing in water inside a building. In Ethiopia, women use the river as their mikveh.”
Another astounding story Kanner included in her book was written by Deborah, who had to go to four mikvaot until she could find one where the mikveh lady would let her immerse by herself. For most of the women she heard from, however, going to the mikveh was a wonderfully positive experience.
“What’s amazing,” summarizes Kanner, “is that everyone has their own unique experience.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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