This first essay, reprinted from the comment section in our previous posting, comes from Sarah Antine*, a poet in our community, and part of Theater J’s Mivkeh Advisory Circle.
I’d like to share some of my impressions about going to the Mikvah with you.
Going to the mikvah is not a private experience for me at all. Before the most intimate private experience, I go to the mikvah and meet the mikvah lady. A woman from the community that I may or may not be comfortable with who examines me before hand. When I stand outside the mikveh, the mikvah attendant examines my hands and feet, brushes off any dirt thats stuck there. Looks at both sides of my hands and feet to make sure I took off nail polish, cleaned the dirt under my nails well. It makes me very nervous and uncomfortable every time and I’ve been going to the mikveh for almost 9 years. The mikveh “lady” then asks me to lift up my hair and wipes off my back to remove any hair that might be loose, stuck to my back. One time an attendant told me to wipe my own back. I felt relieved. One time an attendant pulled out hair that was still attached. I felt intruded upon. I have often found going to the mikvah to be a difficult experience. I feel vulnerable. If the mikvah attendant is a friend it is much better.
I’ve had a mikvah attendant who made me feel really comfortable by holding up a huge towel over her head, and I’ve had a mikvah lady who didn’t hold the towel up at all. It is in the mikvah attendant’s power to dictate everything. My voice with them is smaller, friendly, I don’t argue with them. And even with all of the discomfort and difficulty. It is still a spiritual experience. I wrote a poem about this dichotomy. Here is the poem:
The Ritual Bath
It takes a tree a year
to do what I do in a month;
The moon unfolding its pearl–
At the edge of night
I peel off
layers of myself.
Maple leaves redden and drop,
limbs shedding their temporary hands.
Full of rainwater, I go to the ritual bath,
a room between I am alone
and I am together
May no part of me stay up when I go under –
Water closes its ceiling above me.
I am no longer a container for sadness.
* * *
The poem presents the spiritual, peeling off layers of the self, the fastidiousness with cleaning, the undressing. When I submerge, I am actually becoming a new person, shedding my old skins, old ways of being in the world, old ways of seeing. When I finally dunk, it is an internal transformation that gives a feeling of holiness, of newness.
It is also a poem that shares my discomfort with the mikvah, “full of rain water, I go.” I am full of rain water or of” tears,” of apprehension about the vulnerability I often feel at the mikvah.
As time has gone on, I have felt more comfortable at the mikvah. I have peeled off more of the layers of unease.
I wonder how much of what the mikvah attendants do is halachically necessary? Why can’t I check my own fingernails and feet? If a loose hair is on my back would that make my immersion not kosher? Wouldn’t that loose hair slide around, letting the water in? How about wearing loose fitting clothing like a huge t-shirt? Wouldn’t the water still touch everywhere?
I am just not certain that mikvah has to be the way it is.
I hope this helps start an interesting dialogue about the mikvah.
If you can, try to see the film “Tahara”. It is an Israeli film about Mikvah. It brings up interesting issues.
* Sarah Antine is a poet-in-residence at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington. She has an MFA from Hunter College and has published poems in various literary outlets, such as Lilith Magazine, PMS: poem memoir story, Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Big City Lit, and Bridges: Journal of Jewish Feminist Writing.