The human spirit: Let me tell you the one about the mikve

(LEFT TO right) Sarah Landman, Michele Thaler, Adina Feldman, Yael Valier and Malka Abrahams. (photo credit: REBECCA KOWALSKI)
(LEFT TO right) Sarah Landman, Michele Thaler, Adina Feldman, Yael Valier and Malka Abrahams.
(photo credit: REBECCA KOWALSKI)
The funniest moment in Mikva the Musical involves a woman who is stuck in a chairlift above the mikve after immersing.
I’m going to tell you that the woman is using the specialized ritual bath because she can’t walk, that she was paralyzed while giving birth. What could possibly be funny about that?
That such a story can be carried off with grace and yes, humor by the very woman to whom it happened speaks to the impressiveness of Mikva the Musical, the show that debuted recently in Jerusalem and is now making its way to living rooms around Israel. Yes, in living rooms. The production is performed as salon theater. You don’t have to be a royal or aristocrat to invite the world’s most unusual floating chamber theater to perform. All you need a large living room with unobstructed space and wheelchair access. You don’t even need a piano.
Prepare for a night of surprises. This is the most nuanced show you’ll see this season – if you’re a woman. No men allowed. The subtitle of the show is “Music and Monologues from the Deep.” That’s supposed to be funny – and it is – but the show is indeed deep.
Our Jewish woman’s water ritual is full of paradoxes. For observant married Jewish women, the monthly immersion in a ritual bath is a crucial commitment, on a par with keeping a kosher home and observing Shabbat. Yet, it’s intensely private. The ritual is touted as a monthly spiritual awakening, but it’s ultimately a physical process, demanding rigorous bodily inspection and total immersion in water.
Despite its potential for being enveloping, regenerating and purifying, for some women, going to the mikve might be trying, tedious – or even terrifying.
In a religion where rulings are usually made by rabbis, the timing of permitted conjugal intimacy is judged by women. For the actual dipping, a second woman is usually involved, most often a mikve attendant. The so-called balanit has one of the few paid positions for women in the Orthodox Jewish world. It pays poorly and the hours are bad. She sees every woman at her most exposed and vulnerable. What she notices and how she reacts, her perspicuity and sensitivity or lack thereof have enormous impact on the experience.
In one of the show’s monologues, an attendant is struggling to keep pace with the numerous demands of women on a crowded night at the mikve. Checking one of the women, she’s initially concerned with the length of her fingernails, which are traditionally trimmed before immersion. But just before she mentions the nails, the attendant notices the bruises on the woman’s neck. The focus of the evening suddenly changes.
The kernel of the idea for this uncommon musical performance germinated over years in the mind and soul of the witty, sometimes acerbic Jerusalemite Myra Gutterman. Coincidentally, Gutterman is a swimming teacher who spends many hours in pools of water teaching challenged persons to swim. It turns out that she has an undergraduate degree in theater arts and dramatic literature from California. It took 12 years, like a bat mitzvah, for the play to develop. Along the way, Gutterman joined forces with Toby Klein Greenwald, a veteran theater-for-women playwright and producer.
The Gutterman-Greenwald script is based on interviews of tens of women on their mikve experiences. In that, it resembles playwright Eve Ensler’s controversial Vagina Monologues, written in 1996. You won’t find the “v” word in Mikva the Musical, which remains modest and chaste, despite the subject matter. Still it’s neither treacly nor preachy. The torments of women who have immersed despite hydrophobia and obsessive compulsive disease share the stage with the sleepy pleasure of a woman who is taking her first long uninterrupted bath after giving birth.
I met Ensler on her trip to Israel with Jane Fonda in 2002 and I found myself thinking, “Eve has to see Mikva the Musical.”
Several of the monologues are drawn from a book called Total Immersion, A Mikva Anthology, an early trailblazer in demystifying and broadening the discussion of ritual baths. Like Ensler’s Monologues, it was first published in 1996, originated and edited by Chabad emissary Rivkah Slonim, in Binghamton University, New York. By the time the second edition of her book was published in 2006, she found that it was gaining a certain popularity among women beyond the world of Orthodox Jewry.
Mikva the Musical is the next step. The monologues expose the challenges without destroying the potential beauty. Greenwald herself makes one hilarious cameo appearance on stage. The five actors include well-known professional singer Adina Feldman, whose superb singing galvanizes the others, who also have excellent voices and abundant acting talent.
While four of the women tell the stories of others, Michele Gray Thaler gradually reveals her own story, acting from her wheelchair. Born in Pennsylvania, Thaler came to Israel to study and work. She married and had four children. An epidural went bad in her fifth birth and left her unable to move from the waist down. While undergoing physical therapy after the event, a religiously observant nurse encouraged her to be in touch when she was ready to go back to the mikva, which seemed distant.
“I simply wasn’t there yet,” says Thaler.
That day came. The nurse spent three hours with Thaler to help her prepare. Thaler gave birth to two additional children, and the nurse, who had been suffering from secondary infertility, got pregnant, too.
When collaborators Gutterman and Greenwald asked to use Thaler’s story, she agreed if she could play the part herself.
“I didn’t want anyone portraying me as a poor soul,” she said. “I thought I could best express who I am.”
She plays herself with frankness and cheerful resignation, eliciting empathy, never pity.
Mikve lore is full of stories of women who traveled great distances or who broke holes in ice in order to immerse. Indeed, Mikva the Musical has its own take-off on this theme called “Dipping in Aruba.” But heroism comes in many forms, as you’ll see when Mikva the Musical plays in a salon near you.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.