Pure waters

For 11 years, Varda Pollack-Sahm researched the world of the mikve, the women's ritual bath.

mikve 298 (photo credit: )
mikve 298
(photo credit: )
"I grew up on Rehov Sha'arei Pina, in Mea She'arim, in a big house that belonged to my father. I spent the first seven years of my life there and they were happy years," recalls Varda Pollack-Sahm, photographer, writer and scholar of Jewish folklore. "In those days, there were no separate neighborhoods for religious and non-religious Jews in Jerusalem. My family is Sepharadi and I played with Ashkenazi, Sepharadi and haredi girls. I remember that world with affection and love. Today this house is a yeshiva." Pollack-Sahm has recently completed a research project on the world of the Jewish ritual bath, the mikve. Eleven years ago, she began her venture into the world of purity and holiness after a personal experience. She began her study as the result of a personal experience, yet says she studied the mikve with the eyes of a scholar. Albeit, "a very engaged and emotional scholar," she acknowledges. Pollack-Sahm has turned the research, the basis for her MA thesis in Jewish folklore studies at the Hebrew University, into a fascinating book and, most recently, into an photography exhibit. In all three frameworks, she says, she struggles to grasp the profound and different meanings of the Jewish laws of purity and the transformations they have brought to the status of women and men in Judaism. "At the end of the book I reached the deepest point of understanding," she says. "I realized that the mikve, which was intended originally by the rabbis as a tool of exclusion of women, has become an instrument of women's power. "Women have managed to transform the major symbol of the men's power into a symbol of their own autonomy," she continues. "The sisterhood, the intelligence, the skill of the Jewish women throughout the generations - they have transformed their weakness into their major source of power. "The men wanted to exclude the women. But it turned out that the men are the ones who are excluded, since they have no right to approach the mikve, which is exclusively a place for women." A rabbi with whom she consulted acknowledged to her that he "had no way to control what goes on in there, in the mikve. I think that's a tremendous achievement." Pollack- Sahm, who has been married twice, attended the mikve before each of her weddings. The first time, she was still very young and part of a religiously-observant community. The second time, she was mature, well-educated and no longer observant. "And yet," she recalls, "it was on the second time that I experienced a very emotional event, which aroused my curiosity and ultimately brought me to this journey through the world of Jewish women." In Hebrew, the title of the book, Beit Hastarim, hints at many of the issues she discusses, since the term, Beit Hastarim, could be understood as "The house of secrets" or as the term used in the rabbinical world when discussing the female genitalia. Indeed, Pollack-Sahm does view the mikve as a house full of secrets - the secrets of women, the secrets of life, the secrets of love and purity. She has determined to learn these secrets and immerse herself, if not in the purifying waters then at least in the depths of those secrets. She relates that she "began to establish a special relationship with the balaniot - the women who prepare those who come to the mikve. I was astonished at their openness, their nice attitudes. For the full eleven years of my research, they tried time and time again to convince me to get into the waters and they never succeeded, yet they never made things difficult for me. They fact is, I didn't immerse until the end of my research, yet they never chased me out of there." According to Pollack-Sahm's theory, the mikve is nothing less than a "nuclear bomb" in the hands of the women. "Jewish Halacha has entrusted the very existence of the Jewish people in the hands of the women. A woman who doesn't go to the mikve is forbidden to her husband, thus if he does not behave himself well, she won't go to the mikve and there is nothing he can do about. "In fact, in contradiction to what many people think, the Jewish woman is in total control of her body. She is the only one who decides when she is going to have sex with her husband, he can only wait for her to decide. The mikve gives these women tremendous power. "And they know it". Pollack-Sahm says she didn't come to her research with a negative attitude. "I love and cherish this world. I oppose the complicated rabbinical laws that were added after the Torah, which were, to my view, merely created in order to limit women and make life difficult for them. It's the compulsory aspects that I oppose, not the mikve or the Jewish traditions. While conducting her research, Pollack-Sahm spent many hours at one particular mikve in the city. The remarkable number of non-religious and non-observant women, including unmarried women, who attended the mikve surprised her. According to Jewish law, many of these women are actually prohibited from using the mikve. "It's unbelievable how many women come [to the mikve], although in many cases, it is a cause of tension between them and their husbands, who do not want to obey the two-week long prohibition against touching their wives," observes Pollack-Sahm. "Again and again, I asked the women for the reasons behind their choice. Though they provided different points of view and explanations, the most obvious reason is their profound conviction that children must be conceived and born in purity, the purity that only the mikve can provide for them. When a new town or neighborhood is constructed here in Israel, the establishment of a mikve takes precedence over the establishment of a synagogue. "The reason is simple," Pollack-Sahm explains. "You can pray anywhere, it doesn't have to be in a synagogue. But without a mikve - there is no family or community life." According to Pollack-Sahm, the balaniot are tolerant of the non-religious women. "These women arrive dressed immodestly, then they look so pure and modest once they step out of the mikve. The balaniot view them as partners in their main objective - to preserve the tradition of the purity of the Jewish family. And so they easily close their eyes with regard to the non-religious women's manner of dress and behavior and treat them very gently." Unmarried women pose another dilemma. "According to rabbinic law, it is absolutely forbidden for unmarried women to go to the mikve, since sex outside the bounds of marriage is forbidden," explains Pollack-Sahm. She adds, "Yet I discovered, once again, that even here, reality is far stronger than any law or rabbi. Of course, it does depend on the mikve - in Mea She'arim such women would be thrown out immediately. But in other mikvaot, the balanit doesn't ask the woman, doesn't ask for a rabbinic ruling (since a rabbi would, of course, tell her not to accept the woman). They chose to decide for themselves, again and again. Purity is far more important than anything else. "These unmarried women are sinners, but in the eyes of the balaniot, as long as their visit to the mikve assures purity and pure Jewish babies, the rest can wait." They were initially much less tolerant of her first attempts to photograph in the mikve. "It was so inconceivable to them that I would bring a camera into the mikve that I had to resort to tricks. I brought a model with me and presented her as a very shy young bride who was ashamed to show her body to unknown women. With the help of my mother, we staged pictures of the "bride" in the mikve water. Later on, as the atmosphere changed and they trusted me more, I was allowed to take real photographs."