On Wednesday night, I took in a performance of “Mikveh” at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. (And thanks to my friend Rabbi Tamara Miller, who led an interfaith panel on “Water and Ritual” afterwards, my ticket was comped! Free stuff = good.)
The two-hour piece takes place exclusively in a mikveh in an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Israel; all of its characters are female (although the male characters — the husbands — play important roles in the action off-stage). A mikveh, or a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion, is the way in which these women regain ritual purity after menstruation. Ostensibly, the women come to the mikveh each month for the same reason, but it becomes clear during the course of the play that things are not as they seem with the mikveh’s regular visitors.
One of the most serious secrets that is revealed to the two mikveh attendants, who supervise immersions to ensure that they are completed according to halacha, or Jewish law, is the physical abuse suffered by one of the women, Chedva, at the hands of her very powerful — and purportedly very religious — husband. Ultimately, the women who end up at the mikveh together each month band together to help this “battered wife,” as well as to comfort each other in their respective problems.
I didn’t love the way that the domestic violence was handled on stage. For one, the new mikveh attendant, Shira, a community outsider and the subject of much speculation and gossip, is set up as Chedva’s savior. New on the scene, she tricks Chedva into accepting a DV helpline number, is insistent that Chedva leave her husband, and then offstage, after a particular bad beating (we assume), makes the decision to remove Chedva from her home and hide her and her daughter.
As my friend Alicia notes in her blog post on battering in public places,
often, survivors would say that they didn’t want people to get involved because it only made it far more dangerous for them- they know their abusers best, and how to survive just enough. they know their partner’s moods, schedules, patterns. they have had to. they are surviving. they are incredibly resourceful and resilient. other folks coming in to “save” them only makes abusers mad (and leaves the survivors feeling more disempowered). and those abusers very rarely take it out on the strangers. they take it out on their partner.
It was great to see the very different women in the play come together to buck the patriarchal world of Jewish Ultra-Orthodoxy, but I couldn’t help but feel that the narrative was a little insulting to those women. Were they not capable of seeing the abuse and devising an organic solution, one specific to their community? Wasn’t Chedva herself capable of deciding if and when she left her abusive husband? Plus, the scene in which Shira is trying to get the other women in the mikveh on board with her solution suffers from being an unfortunately strained, melodramatic moment on stage.
I was also concerned that the literature around the play didn’t contain any trigger warnings, which it really should, dealing as it does with the traumatic issues of domestic violence and rape. (The website and program do contain the spoiler that the play contains nudity (gasp!), which seems both kind of obvious and not really a big deal at all.) Indeed, it was really hard for me to be unexpectedly faced with fairly graphic representations of these issues. One of the women (spoiler alert) commits suicide over, in part, the non-consensual sex that she has with her husband. It’s not pretty.
I did enjoy the variety of women’s experiences that were presented in the play: All of the characters were seeking something slightly different from her mikveh experience. Unfortunately, the presentation was on the heavy-handed side.