The human spirit: lifesaving at the mikve

Barbara Sofer attends a graduation ceremony for lifeguards at the mikve.

An ancient mikve (photo credit: asaf peretz IAA)
An ancient mikve
(photo credit: asaf peretz IAA)
Ma’aleh Adumim, Israel. I’m at a graduation ceremony for lifeguards at the mikve.
No, this isn’t a joke. The women who run the ritual baths do more than watch for a woman’s misstep on slippery stone stairs. They have volunteered for one of the most challenging jobs in the Jewish world, and they can indeed be lifesavers.
The 17 women who have gathered on a weekday morning have completed an innovative course run by Eden, a nonprofit aimed at improving the experience of Jewish ritual purity and in this case, in conjunction with Ma’aleh Adumim’s City Without Violence initiative of the city council. Local families have also raised funds to provide this course for the women who work in their mikvaot.
The graduates of Eden’s in-service training – 14 sessions at three and a half hours each – are already experienced balaniot, or ritual bath attendants. To become attendants, they have passed the Rabbinical Authority qualifying test on Jewish law. They work long hours, from sunset until late into the night.
Some are young mothers; others are middle- aged women with large families. Taking a 50-hour course is a hefty commitment.
For readers unfamiliar with this Jewish water ritual, observant married women should not touch or be touched by their husbands during menstruation and for a week after.
The time of abstinence ends with immersion in a mikve. Preparation for immersion requires rigorous bathing and untangling hair. This can be done in one of the bathing rooms; sometimes – particularly in the Diaspora – preparation rooms are lavish and spa-like. Most Israeli mikvaot are utilitarian.
The need for secrecy about when you go to the mikve as an element of modesty is drilled into brides in the special classes they take to prepare for marriage. Usually women arrive alone, toting bath supplies. Only the visit to the ritual bath on the night before a woman’s wedding is an event she might share, and brides may come with mothers or sisters. The atmosphere is festive, with plates of almond cookies and drums. Siblings and aunts leap into the warm pools, and the halls reverberate with singing and trilling chants.
A trained religious attendant checks each woman before she can immerse in the pool to make sure that despite the bathing, a stray hair or towel thread isn’t coming between her and the waters. The attendant also checks that each woman has dipped completely under. Then, ideally with conviction and zeal, the attendant calls out “kosher,” and the woman in the bath recites a blessing.
Only then can intimate relations be resumed after nearly two weeks of abstinence.
Immersion can be a moment full of joy, spirituality and anticipated sensuality combined.
But for some, it’s a moment of dread.
From behind other doors of the private dressing rooms, you can sometimes hear women weeping – because month after month they have to show up at the bath, unable to conceive.
And there are women who expose ugly purple bruises. Still others slump towards the water’s edge, worn down from verbal abuse. Sometimes a long-married woman will request a note, like the one given a bride, as proof that she has gone to the mikve. Her husband doesn’t trust her level of purity.
That’s called “spiritual abuse,” says Dr.
Naomi Marmon Grumet, founder of Eden and the director of the course. “A husband like this might advise his children not to eat their mother’s home-baked halla, because she isn’t pure enough to be making it.”
Marmon Grumet earned her doctorate from Bar-Ilan University on Jewish ritual purity, interviewing both men and women about the role the mikve played in their lives. “We religious couples see ritual purity as the foundation of our relationships and family life.”
Still, the mikve is ultimately a woman’s space, where she not only continues the tradition of her people in good faith but can take advantage of “the potential to allow women to connect to their bodies and spirit.”
A lot is on a woman’s mind when she goes to the mikve, says Marmon Grumet. “She’s thinking if she wants to get pregnant or not, if she wants to go home to her husband or not, if she’s sick or if he’s sick, and she’s praying for all the things she wants for her family.”
Women may be uncomfortable with the nudity. Religious women have all been taught of a woman named Kimchis. Mentioned in the Talmud, Kimchis is held-up as the role model of modesty: “Even the walls of her home have never seen her uncovered hair.” She was rewarded by seeing seven of her sons become high priests. But when a woman prepares for her ritual bath, she stands revealed and vulnerable before a stranger.
Marmon Grumet believes the key to the quality of the experience is the attitude and sensitivity of the attendant. She can see herself solely as an authoritarian gatekeeper, or as source of help and inspiration.
“The so-called ‘mikve lady’ is actually one of the most powerful positions in the Jewish world,” says Marmon Grumet.
Indeed, a mikve attendant is one of the only formal positions for women within the traditional Jewish world. Because of the difficult hours and low pay, many carry on year after year out of a sense of mission.
“You see difficult things, make important decisions and face pressures,” said one of the course graduates. “No one cares if you’ve had a bad day or have a cold.” Pressures on the attendants, say the graduates, include women who are in a hurry and claim they have waited too long for their turn, others who compulsively take many hours to scrub themselves out of fear of missing something, and those who need the attendant to come in and wash them to make sure they are clean enough, or show up every time just as the mikve is closing and the attendant wants to go home.
“And no one – not even her doctor – is better able to see the signs of abuse,” says Marmon Grumet.
The Eden course includes sensitivity training with an emphasis on role-playing, and provides attendants with a vetted list of referrals for those who want help.
An overriding question: Just how much is the mikve attendant’s business? Is she required to report what looks like abuse, and if she does, will a woman simply switch to a different ritual bath? What about a woman on whose shoulder she spots what might be cancer? Is a woman suffering from severe postpartum depression, or has she just had a moody day? Often it’s a tough call between being intrusive and helpful.
“When we explain the complexity of feelings that come from a range of women and different life situations, they begin to understand their piece in making all women feel comfortable and respected in this most precious but delicate situation,” says Marmon Grumet.
That includes coaching on what not to say, (“Never ever comment on a woman’s body shape” is an Eden golden rule) and what to say (“You’re not alone” is an Eden-suggested opening statement when abuse, infertility or other problems are apparent).
Just recently, said one attendant, a woman was so distraught “to the point of barely being able to get out the blessing.”
When the attendant gave her the chance to share, the woman said her husband has been ill and undergoing treatments for six years, which had made it impossible to be intimate for all this time. Still, she came monthly to the mikve. The attendant listened, reassured her that help was available, and referred her to both a cancer support center and a sex therapist.
Another woman reported that a middle- aged woman was listless and couldn’t make eye contact. She later revealed that her well-regarded husband “wouldn’t touch her” during the weeks of abstinence, but he allowed himself to beat her. She didn’t know about religious women’s hotlines and shelters.
“The attendant isn’t a social worker, but while she is enabling women to fulfill the beautiful mitzva of family purity, she is in a unique position to provide help when needed,” said Marmon Grumet.
For a number of the women, the course provided another benefit: “What a relief it is to be able to call a fellow ‘balanit’ and ask how she would have dealt with a problem that came up,” said one graduate. “Not only aren’t the women whom we attend not alone, but neither are we.”  The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.