guide my steps

I’m a mikveh guide!

Or as my friend Sarah likes to say: I’m a mivkeh lady!

This is not new information; in fact, I completed my training at Mayyim Hayyim at the beginning of May. But since I’ve hardly written in this space since the beginning of the year, I thought I would start to do some catching up.

mayyim hayyim nametag

it’s official!; photo by salem pearce via instagram

In the spring I participated in an eight-week course for new mikveh guides. The group was mostly middle-aged women, save one man, as well as Sarah and I and two other students. We were the ninth cohort of mikveh attendants trained since Mayyim Hayyim opened its doors 10 years ago. The training consisted of history and law of mikveh, most of which I already knew, logistics of facilitating immersions, and general education about the different reasons people might immerse. Mayyim Hayyim is a community mikveh that allows all Jews to immerse for just about any occasion, which makes it unique among most mikva’ot. Folks come to celebrate conversion, marriage, childbirth, gender transition, and cancer remission — as well as to heal from divorce, miscarriage, and sexual abuse, to name a few.

I have written about mikveh in general before in this space. I shared my last two pre-High Holiday immersion experiences, in the fall of 2012 and in the fall of 2013 (both at Mayyim Hayyim) as well as at least a little about my conversion immersion. I also wrote about a powerful play about mikveh I saw at the DCJCC a number of years ago.

As you might imagine, my experiences as an immersee have been quite moving. I was a little nervous about how it would feel to be on the other side, to witness immersions, and indeed, the curtain has been pulled back a little. I can still see the magic of Mayyim Hayyim, especially through the eyes of those who visit, but it’s hard to view as a refuge a place where I’m asked to do laundry. (Keeping the machines cleaning the constant accumulation of sheets and towels and robes and bath mats and wash cloths is part of my job now.) I was able to do my annual pre-holiday dunk last month, but I’ll admit that it felt less special than it had in years past. I did have a really wonderful experience facilitating the immersion of a friend who was preparing for a big life event, and I hope to be able to talk about that in this space soon.

park slope mikvah towel

embroidery on the towels at the park slope mikvah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

What I do want to share is my experience this summer in New York. I did a fair amount of reflection on the ritual of mikveh this summer for a number of reasons — one of which is that my friend Sarah facilitated a series of salon conversations about the practice of niddah as part of her work as a summer fellow with ImmerseNYC, another community mikveh.

Niddah is the term in Hebrew for a menstruating woman, with whom intercourse is forbidden; the metaphorical impurity of menstruation is expunged by immersion in the mikveh some days after the end of her cycle. It’s an ancient practice — still held by many Orthodox communities — most definitely informed by misogyny. However, there is a movement in more liberal Jewish circles to reclaim the practice. Though at first skeptical, I’ve come to believe more in that possibility.

So this summer I twice immersed at the Park Slope Mikvah, which I discovered by accident on a walk around my adopted neighborhood. I scheduled the appointments around my menstrual cycle, but mostly out of respect for the space, which caters to women who practice niddah. I was more interested in exploring a regular practice of mivkeh — and in experiencing a different mikveh.

With all due respect to Mayyim Hayyim, the Park Slope Mikvah is unparalleled in its facilities. It’s brand new (open for less than a year), and it feels like a spa: Beautifully appointed rooms with music and candles and huge bathtubs; embroidered, fluffy white towels, robes, and slippers; gorgeous, shimmering pools; and supplies in a gift-wrapped box, complete with preparation instructions on Park Slope Mikvah stationery. Even more welcoming than all of these creature comforts were the two mikveh ladies that witnessed my immersion.

The mikveh in Park Slope is a project of Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish outreach organization. So the folks associated with it are by profession welcoming. But I don’t present as a typical woman who practices niddah, and the guides still could not have been more kind and helpful. One mikveh lady in particular was effusive in her blessings. And the names of the preparation rooms reflected this expansive feeling: I prepared both times in the hilariously dubbed “Chamber of Chic Simplicity.”

park slope mikvah handwashing sink

park slope mikvah handwashing sink; photo by salem pearce

I don’t know how I would feel about restricting intimate contact with my partner for about half of each month, which is the traditional practice of niddah, but this summer I was struck by the effort it takes to go to the mikveh each month (and I only went two months in a row), and by the appeal that I’m guessing that visit has for many a busy woman. Having the time to take a bath — and being expected to take that time in careful preparation for immersion — seemed even to me, without children or partner, to be a decadent luxury. During my training this spring one of the instructors pointed out that for some women, the time they spend at the mikveh is the only time they will truly have to themselves all month. I feel like I understand the appeal of the mikveh a little more now.

To be sure, the heterocentric focus of the mikveh in Park Slope is procreation. Hence, for instance, the plaque above the ritual handwashing sink:

The unique eggshell shape of this vessel sink in both sculptured and inspirational . . . Just as an egg opens to reveal new life, the mikvah waters breathe new life into our most meaningful relationship. The mikvah has always been — and continues to be — a place of spiritual rebirth and renewal. a mitzvah that celebrates Jewish marriage and family.

As heavy-handed as it’s possible to read this — along with the meditation prayer for fertility that I was handed to read after immersion — I think the fact that the mikveh is clearly engaging in literal hiddur mitzvah (“beautification of the mitzvah”) speaks to the potential power of the use of the ritual for any reason.

One final note: As of this writing on 10/14/14, the D.C. Jewish community (of which I was once a part) is reeling from the news of the recent arrest of Kesher Israel Rabbi Barry Freundel on charges of voyeurism — specifically that there was he installed a hidden camera in the showers of the synagogue’s mikveh. While assuming Rabbi Freundel’s innocence until proven otherwise, I mention this as a way of understanding the vulnerability and intimacy inherent in this ritual.

10/15/14 update: Read Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s beautiful response to these allegations here.

tikkun halev

On Monday I went to Mayyim Hayyim to use the mikveh, as I do every year before the holidays to prepare for the new year as well as to commemorate my conversion four years (!) ago.

I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but . . . my first year of school was really hard, psychologically and spiritually. And despite my intentions, my summer matched the academic year. So when I returned from England on Friday, I was looking forward to leaving 5773 behind with the start of Rosh Hashanah this evening.

I love going to the mikveh. I love the feeling of calm and of possibility and of transition. I love cleaning and scrubbing every part of my body. I love combing my wet hair to rid it of tangles. I love wrapping myself in a sheet as I enter the immersion room. I love counting the steps down into the pool. I love the warmth of the water. I love breathing deeply and saying blessings and setting intentions. I love floating underwater, suspended in time and space, touching nothing. I love doing that three times. I love re-emerging. I love drying off and getting dressed again and feeling, for at least one moment, perfectly anew.

honey for a sweet new year; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

honey for a sweet new year; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Every time I go to the mikveh I think that I shouldn’t wait another year to go again. And then I wonder if it’s the infrequency of my visits that give them power. And I still can’t help but wish I could feel that way more often.

As last year, I used the mikveh’s immersion ceremony for Rosh Hashanah. This year I was especially struck by a few parts of the text. After the first immersion and Hebrew blessing, I read,

Though the future is uncertain, I release this past year and all its difficulties and joys. I open my heart to receive the blessings of the new year. (emphasis mine)

And then after the second blessing,

May I return to my true self and be strengthened as I continue my journey of tikkun halev — repairing the heart, tikkun hanefesh — repairing the soul, and tikkun olam — repairing the world. (emphasis mine)

I am definitely feeling a desire for the seemingly contradictory events (to me, at least) of heart opening and heart healing. I often wonder whether opening my heart makes it vulnerable to pain. But maybe the heart can only heal when it is able to open, even if that is a risk.

When I popped out of the water after my third immersion, I felt, for just a split second, dfferent. Somehow. It was hard to believe and yet oddly comforting.

May we all have shanah tovah umetukah (a good and sweet year)! I am hopeful for 5774.

born jewish . . . to baptist parents

Although most people who know me know that I’m a convert, it’s not an assumption that people I meet make. At least as far as I know. And based on the experience of other converts, those who aren’t able to pass, I probably would know.

A friend who is a rabbinical student of Irish descent has written about her frustration with the questioning of her identity because of her appearance (as well as other challenges of being a convert). Another friend — a black rabbinical student — can’t escape the questions; she posts on Facebook almost daily about the explanations she is constantly asked to give.

in the balcony of sixth & i, shortly after i converted; photo by mark gail

in the balcony of sixth & i, shortly after i converted; photo by mark gail

Though I am always honest about my background, I don’t always volunteer the information. Sometimes I just simply answer negatively when asked if I went to Jewish day school or grew up in an observant Jewish home (usually questions asked about my journey to rabbinical school). And sometimes, I am downright relieved when I pass. As a fellow convert classmate and I have talked about, it can be exhausting having to tell “the story of my conversion” to everyone I meet, as well-meaning as they almost always are. Especially at Shabbat meals, the conversation often becomes all about me — and then I don’t really get to learn about other people, or just to talk about what we have in common. I enjoy the privilege I have in being able to pass.

I make my own assumptions about converts as well; that is, I always assume I’m the only convert around. I am generally pretty surprised when I find out that someone else is, too. Besides my classmate, there are two other converts (who I know of) at my school, neither one of which I would have thought were converts. In fact, the first time I met one of them, I irrationally worried — based on his appearance (peyottzitzitkippah) — that he was an Orthodox Jew who might not consider me Jewish.

The denominations don’t agree on much, but respect for converts is near universal (as long as the conversion as recognized by that denomination — which is another conversation). Once a person converts, it is as if that person has always been Jewish. So technically, I am simply a Jew — not a convert. I love this response, which I modified from an article about how to deal with negative reactions to converts: “Yes, I was born Jewish, but to Baptist parents.”

I do struggle how much of my identity is that of a convert. I’m as Jewish as anyone else — but I am who I am because of my upbringing, and I don’t want to discount that. So I go back to the mikveh each year on the anniversary of my conversion; this year I also asked for an aliyah (the honor to say blessings before and after part of a Torah reading) to celebrate the third anniversary of my conversion, shortly before the high holidays in 2009.

In the past week, two people have made insensitive comments about converts in my presence. Both are good people, and I know neither meant any harm. The comments stung nevertheless. It was strange that both happened within a few days of each other — especially since it’s been a really long time since I have heard any such comments.

In fact, Hebrew College has been one of the safest places I’ve ever been in terms of feeling authentically Jewish. I imagine that most students and faculty know that I’m a convert, but not a single person has ever made so much as an insensitive comment about my status. I suspect my school may be a bubble in this respect though. I have wondered whether, for instance, my status might affect my job prospects.

conversion certificate; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

conversion certificate with my Hebrew name (רחל בת אברהם ושרה — Rachel daughter of Abraham and Sarah); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

One of my fellow converts didn’t even realize I was a convert until he saw me come up to the Torah for an aliyah; the gabbai (person conducting the Torah service) calls up people so honored with their Hebrew name — and those of their parents. Since converts’ parents don’t have Hebrew names, they are ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah (“son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah”). It’s really the only place in Jewish ritual life where converts are marked as such (though it is possible that a born-Jew could have parents whose Hebrew names are Avraham and Sarah). I’m not sure how I feel about this singularity.

He and I have talked about our experience developing our tefila skills in the school community. We both agreed that we feel very comfortable practicing and learning; we know that we can make mistakes without judgment. But this perception is not shared by everyone at school: There are some who do fear the judgment of those around them. I am not sure on what experiences that fear is based. But we’ve wondered whether our experiences as converts — not growing up in the organized Jewish community — has given us some immunity from that fear.

For another time: the story of my conversion process, which I don’t think I’ve told here in any detail. For now: I don’t have a strong opinion on the nomenclature “convert” versus “Jew-by-choice.” You?

living waters

Before the holidays, I visited the mikveh, as I usually do in the early fall, when I officially became Jewish three years ago, completing my conversion with a beit din and a visit to the mikveh.

mikveh at mayyim hayyim; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The community mikveh in Boston is called Mayyim Hayyim (“living waters”). It’s egalitarian, which means that both men and women can use it “at the same time.” Most traditional mikvehs are used almost exclusively by women, with prescribed, separate times for men on those rare occasions when they might visit, and the pool is drained and refilled between the times for women and those for men. At Mayyim Hayyim, there are co-ed times, when men and women could both be immersing, though obviously in separate pools. It’s an unusual arrangement.

Every time I go to the mikveh, I think that I should do it more often. It is a truly relaxing and refreshing experience. It’s also a wonderfully solitary experience, which this introvert especially appreciates from among the majority of Jewish rituals that are communal experiences. (There are some immersions which are halachically required to be witnessed, but mine was not, and so I declined the presence of the mikveh attendant.)

The ritual of the mikveh requires complete cleanliness and removal of all clothes and accessories, “[i]n order to remove all physical barriers between you and the water of the mikveh,” as the preparation instruction sheet notes. You shower and clean every part of your body, scrubbing underneath nails and sloughing off dead skin on knees and elbows. You remove all makeup and nail polish. You brush and floss your teeth. Mayyim Hayyim has a beautiful set of meditations for this process.

I actually got a little stuck on the removing of nail polish this time; I’d just gotten a pedicure the week before (I should have timed that a little better). It is so silly that it was so hard for me, and I tried to reason that it was just because I hate to waste money. But I finally decided the polish was emblematic of something that I was trying to hang on to but also needed to let go for the new year. (I’m actually not sure I’ve identified that specific thing is. At least I’ve symbolically let something go?) Off it went.

mayyim hayyim gate: “go in peace”; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

A mikveh visit typically consists of three complete immersions, with head underneath the water and feet off of the ground, and with blessings said after each one. Mayyim Hayyim has a selection of blessings for various rituals, from conversion to marriage, from coming out to healing. There’s not an existing ritual, as far as I know, for commemorating a conversion (more on that below), so I chose blessings for the new year.
The meditation after the last immersion follows:

May I return to my true self and be strengthened as I continue my journey of tikkun halev—repairing the heart, tikkun hanefesh—repairing the soul and tikkun olam—repairing the world.

As part of the commemoration of my conversion, I also asked for an aliyah at the morning Torah service that week. I told a classmate when he asked that I don’t usually mark the anniversary publicly. As he noted, Jewish tradition holds that once a person converts, it is as if s/he has always been Jewish. Indeed, there is a sense in which I have been Jewish my whole life. But there’s also a part of me that likes to remember that day, which felt like the first day of the rest of my life.

The classmate who was leading shacharit that morning offered the kavanah of gratitude for the service, and she asked me to connect the occasion to gratitude when I came to the Torah.

I am grateful, every day, to be Jewish.

beit din

Yesterday, I got an email at 7:30 a.m. from the rabbi who married me and for whom I do clerical work once a week (she has a private practice). She needed a third for a beit din and a witness for the concomitant mikveh. I had a meeting that ended when the event was supposed to begin, but I agreed to duck out early, grab a cab, and race north to Adas Israel, the location of the community mikveh in D.C. It wasn’t what I was planning to do yesterday morning, but I am so happy that I did, for many reasons.

The event was a conversion for a 13-year-old boy who was marking his bar mitzvah in Israel in two weeks. Neither of his biological parents were Jewish. His father died when he was very young, and his Jewish step-father adopted him at a very young age (the boy even had the stepfather’s last name). His mother is still not Jewish, but she and her husband have raised the boy so.

A beit din (literally “house of judgment”) for conversion consists of three individuals — generally rabbis, but two can be educated Jews as long as one is an ordained rabbi who is an expert in the rules of conversion. I served along with two rabbis.

adas israel mikveh

I was really impressed with the young man. He was articulate about his desire to affirm his Judaism — and he was honest (saying, for example, that he didn’t like his Hebrew school — hee!). The beit din was mostly just a conversation among everyone. We then headed to the mikveh. The male rabbi and his father actually witnessed the three immersions, but the door to the mikveh was slightly ajar so that we could all hear him say the blessings, including the Shehecheyanu, one of my favorite blessings. We threw candy at him when he emerged from the room. Unfortunately, the rabbi had brought (kosher!) taffy, which he couldn’t have because he had just gotten braces; I was able to scrounge up a piece of hard candy in my purse for him. At the end of the ceremony, the father asked if he could make a donation to a charity I cared about to thank me for my participation, and I asked for a gift to the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, where I serve on the board.

This experience was so amazing — very special to me and incredibly holy. I was thrilled that I made the effort to be there. Plus, the rabbi on the beit din who I didn’t know has already been super helpful. He was very encouraging about my rabbinical school decision, and we’re already having a discussion about a possible fundraising job during school!

I got to sign the conversion certificate, the same template that I received two-and-a-half years ago. (Also, it turns out that I have as much trouble writing in cursive in Hebrew as I do in English. Must practice!) Before the family departed, the father thanked me for participating, noting that “you always remember these moments and those who were there.” I smiled and flashed back to my own beit din, knowing it was true.

mikveh

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.

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