Sometimes two Jews can be a mixed marriage. I am a conservative Ashkenazi-American who married into a large Moroccan-Israeli family. My husband’s grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins are a warm, loving, and generous bunch. But on our visits to Israel, there is a lot about me that gets lost in translation. We have a hard time describing our varying levels of religious observance to them. For several years, telling them that I am the balanit (attendant) at a local Mikvah seemed out of the question. I think what held me back from telling them about this rather important part of my life was a fear of comments like, “You? In your pants and your sleeveless shirts? Fine if you want to use the mikvah yourself but how can you be a balanit? You’re not even…..didn’t you go to the beach last Shabbat?!?! What…this mikvah is open during the day? Who ever heard of going to a Mikvah in daylight? Is this Mikvah for the reformim? You mean they do conversions there? Oy.” Oy.
So on previous visits I didn’t bother to bring it up. But one Shabbat afternoon, in the summer of 2008, I was sitting with a few of the aunts, the ones in their 50s. Now, the fault line between Israeli religious and secular society runs straight through the middle of their family. In the case of one aunt and uncle, it runs straight through their living room. We were drinking tea, looking at a newspaper (Yediot) and chatting. I saw the word “Mikveh” in big letters in the entertainment section of the paper. Unclear why that word belonged there, but curious, I asked. They explained that there was a play with that title at a theater in Tel Aviv. They had heard about the production and were familiar with the plot line. One aunt, definitely secular and maybe the most educated aunt in that generation, explained it as a drama about the Haredi community which takes place at a Mikvah. She asked me why I was interested in it. Well, uh, stam, I was interested. Was I really going to open up the can of worms and talk about my work with her? Yes…yes I was! I explained that I work at a Mikvah in DC and that it is a liberal Mikvah. It was hard for her to wrap her mind around this idea at first but after telling me why she doesn’t like the reform movement and how she prefers rabbis to be men, she seemed to accept at least the existence of a liberal Mikvah with me as its coordinator. The more she thought about how something like that could exist in the US, the better she felt about it. And although I couldn’t convey all of the nuances the issues, by the end of the conversation, I’d even gotten a “kol hakavod lach” from her. Wow, four semesters of Hebrew just bridged a gigantic cultural gap. Phew!
I wish I’d studied more Hebrew. I can usually understand what people say to me directly, but sarcasm or irony, the linchpins of Israeli banter, are as lost on me as on a child. Slang steamrolls me. I struggle to grasp more than 75% of most newspapers, radio, TV programs, or signage. Basically, I wished I could justify paying the ticket price to see the play in its original production. But I couldn’t quite do it. Nor did I want to bring someone along to whisper translations in my ear, ruining my theater experience, theirs too, and that of the people around us. So I let go of the opportunity and hoped for another chance to see it somewhere down the road, maybe after studying my 500 Hebrew Verbs book for another few years.
Back in the States, I am so “immersed” in thinking and writing about Mikvah that I keep a Google Alert for the words Mikvah, Mikva, Mikveh, and Mikve. When I first heard last summer that Theater J was going to be performing this same play, here spelled Mikveh, in Washington DC, I jumped at the chance to get involved with this project. I first saw the actresses do a read-through at the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival last Labor Day weekend. I was immediately struck by their ability, without costumes, props, or a stage, to bring this drama to life. They even intimated the presence of a mikvah. But what frightened me about the story of this play was the question I couldn’t answer, “Is this mikvah a safe place?”
The mikvah in this story is a refuge, a shelter, a light shining truth on some very dark secrets, but ultimately, is also the means of two suicides. I almost couldn’t forgive the playwright for maligning a space I consider so sacred. Imagine the difficulties that I, whose passion is sharing the joyful, positive meanings of Mikvah with other Jews, was going to encounter after this played out on stage. But that is my challenge. And after all, one message of the play–that women are stronger when we turn toward one another and validate each others’ experiences–is absolutely universal, even if slightly trite.
I knew last Labor Day that this was going to be a very powerful production. I also saw that the actresses would benefit from some exposure to an actual Mikvah. So I invited Ari and Shirley to consider the Adas Mikvah as a resource in learning about the how’s, who’s, and why’s of this world. Later in the fall, Shirley attended a class that was given by one of the Rabbis at Adas Israel to learn as much as she could. She and Ari both came to talk with me about the theological and ideological underpinnings of Mikvah observance. And recently, the cast and some of the design staff came to see for themselves what a Mikvah looks like, sounds like, feels like and smells like (chlorine!). One of them (a Jewish woman who had been to Mikvahs before) did a demonstration immersion for the rest of the cast to learn from, with a bathing suit on. The amazing thing about her immersion was that even though it was staged for everyone else’s benefit, the experience was absolutely real for everyone present. I was thrilled to have facilitated this learning for them and I am very excited about seeing the play finally up and running this week and to hear the community’s responses to it.
The Mikvah in the play represents a very different culture than the one I work at, but the ritual is the same. Seven steps down into a given depth of rainwater. Three complete immersions. Blessings, intentions, wishes. Entering the water in one state, leaving in another. Connecting to the Source of Life with one’s entire being. Any Jew can experience this. In this partnership with Theater J, I continue my work of translating the practice of Mikvah into a modern reality for post-modern Jews. Participating in this project has generated new ideas for me about how to talk about Mikvah with people who haven’t encountered it before, about engaging in dialogue with other Mikvahs in our area, and about designing public programming around Mikvah-related topics. And….I’m still studying my Hebrew verbs.