“Making the Mikveh Meaningful” – from Naomi Malka

from Theater J’s ritual consultant on MIKVEH, Naomi Malka, who serves as the Coordinator of the Adas Israel Community Mikveh. Naomi will be moderating two panels today, Sunday, May 16, following the 3 and 7:30 pm performances. The panel discussions are free (at 5:20 pm today – “The New Mikveh Movement” with Amy Chartock, National Programs Director of Mayyim Hayyiim, Boston; Gilah Langer, Washington Jewish Healing Network; Rabbi Ben Shalshvas; moderated by Naomi Malka — and 9:50 pm – “Alternative Mikveh Experiences,” with Amy Chartock — for a full list of discussions, click here)

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Making Mikveh Meaningful

I first learned about Mikvah in the summer of 1989, after my sophomore year of college. Although I wasn’t at an Ivy League school, I’d been recruited to go on a Chabad summer program called The Ivy League Torah Study Program. Each of the participants, about 50 Jewish women and men from very secular backgrounds, was invited to try on a frum way of life for six weeks to see if it fit. The camp was in the Catskills, the women’s camp a few miles away from the men’s. We learned Chumash (Bible), Halacha (Jewish Law), and Tanya (Hasidic mysticsm), davened (prayed) fervently, listened to tales of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, sang songs about Moshiach (the Messiah), ferbranged (drank schnapps) and melave malka’ed (drank schnapps late on Saturday nights). The men studied Talmud, the women did not. I think that, for most of us, the ultra-orthodox culture we were immersed in was too different from our own backgrounds to feel like a good fit. Though we wrestled for awhile with the possibility of adopting a Torah lifestyle, only a few participants followed the staff back to Crown Heights at the end of the summer instead of going back to school. In the end, most of us took the learning we’d acquired there and integrated it into a Judaism that we were already comfortable with.

We had some wonderful teachers there who brought texts alive and who showed us the beauty of Torah study. One of them, an older rebbetzin, taught a class called The Jewish Woman. It involved the usual discussions of the Jewish Home, the importance of Shabbat and Kashrut, and of course, the very Victorian-sounding Laws of Family Purity. Since none of the students were married or engaged, she didn’t go into a lot of detail about Hilchot Niddah (the laws of separation between spouses). But she made it very clear to us that Halacha had something to say about marital sex. Basically, there was a time to, and a time not to. There was a system for keeping track of when to and when not to. And before it was time to, the wife immersed herself in a special pool of rainwater called the Mikvah. The message she unmistakably implied was that by living within this rhythm, a couple had better communication and hotter hoohoo.

It sounded good to me. I wasn’t sure about some of the other stuff I learned that summer, like about keeping my wine bottles in black plastic bags so that non-Jews can’t see it (still haven’t figured that one out) or not saying exactly how many brothers and sisters I have (one), but I was definitely going to do the Mikvah when I got married. It sounded beautiful and special. It sounded simple, like something I’d have in common with my ancestors, both the shtetl-dwellers and the desert sojourners.

Fast forward ten years. I met my future husband in Jerusalem. We dated for three months and each of us was pretty sure that the other was marriage material. In a fairly vague discussion about our ideas of marriage, the topic of niddah and Mikvah came up. We just agreed that it was something that was an important part of a Jewish marriage and that was probably about as much as was said. Then it wasn’t until a year later, after we’d each returned to the States that we got engaged and soon after, married.
My first Mikvah was in Portland, OR, where we celebrated the Shabbat Hatan. It was before Chabad had built a Mikvah there and so my choices were the Willamette River or a place called the Jewish Ritualarium. It was a Mikvah built into the bottom floor of someone’s private home. It had a little salon where my fiance’s mother, grandmother, aunts, and cousins waited for me while I went in with my mother and my sister as my witnesses. My sister was making me laugh the whole time. I don’t remember what my mother did, but I’m certain she was crying. I was overflowing with joy. I came out in a beautiful white robe my fiance’s mother had brought for me and got lu-lu-lu’ed and showered with candies by the Moroccan ladies. Then we went back to a special luncheon at my future in-laws’ home while my fiancé went to the Ritualarium with his brother and cousins to immerse as a hatan.

I’ve never had a Mikvah experience that was as public or as celebratory as the first one. But the ones that followed over the last ten years have been very meaningful. Going to the mikvah marks a steady, comforting and important rhythm for our marriage. It definitely does for us what the Ivy League rebbetzin said it would. My husband even immersed when we began to conceive before each pregnancy. The brief reference we made to it when we first met can now be articulated like this: Just as one day of the week and many days of the year are holy (Shabbat and Chagim) and then there is the rest of the time, and just as there is food that is holy (elevated to a kosher status by how it was produced and how/when it is eaten) and food that is unkosher, so too can our sexuality be elevated to a holy level by being together during part of the month and by refraining during the other part. And just like observance of Shabbat and Kashrut varies greatly from Jewish home to Jewish home, so too can Mikvah and Niddah be practiced differently within each Jewish marriage.

Although I just wrote a lot about Mikvah in marriage, the way that I “do” Mikvah and the benefits that I derive from it actually have very little to do with my husband. I am affected a lot by hormones. (Alright, alright, he is affected by my hormones too, but this is about more than that.) I have two weeks a month when my mood is good, usually better than good, sometimes even golden. Then I have one week when things become difficult and I feel like I am swimming upstream or just struggling to keep my head above the water. I drop things, I cry easily, I’m so hungry I could eat the paint off the walls. Then my period comes and I’m in a bleak fog for a few days, feeling like a confused and ill-equipped visitor to planet Earth. It’s not until the bleeding stops, almost a week later, that I start to feel like my better self again. It has always been this way for me. I have learned some adaptive tricks but the cycle persists.
In addition, I have dealt with an eating disorder and a body image disorder and for nearly 30 years. That is a long time to feel less than okay about one’s body. Mikvah is the main way that I have found to cope with these feelings. Every month I start my Mikvah preparations with lingering negativity from the “off” week of my cycle. But when I come out, I am re-fortified. I emerge from the waters of the Mikvah feeling that my body has been forged with a coat of strength, like a sword being dipped into molten metal. I think of the line from Birchot haShachar thanking Hashem for girding Israel with strength (“oter Yisrael b’gevurah”). I re-enter my body with acceptance, hope and love. Sometimes I am thinking the words “zman simchateinu”, though here in a very intimate context. This propels me through the next few weeks of the cycle. At this point in my late 30s, I really don’t know how I would have survived psychologically without Mikvah.

I have the key to the Adas Israel Community Mikvah in Washington, DC, (and the privilege of being a balanit there) so I can use it by myself. I light twelve candles and put them in front of the mirror by the sink so I can see myself by candlelight rather than by fluorescent light while I am getting ready. Then I bring the candles to the side of the Mikvah and have a candle-lit immersion. (I got this idea from this picture of Haviva Ner-David’s Mikvah at Kibbutz Hanaton. Or maybe it was from this picture of Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, MA.) I don’t immerse as soon as I get in the water; I float for awhile first to find the right kavana before I dunk. I sing the blessing to the tune of Havdalah blessings to evoke an important separation in time. I actually have done that at orthodox mikvaot before and usually the balanit is surprised by it….pleasantly, I hope! (If you want to learn that melody with those words, email me (mikvah@adasisrael.org) your phone number and I will sing it into your voice mail.) Sometimes I stay in the water for awhile afterwards because, well, there’s no one telling me to get out!! Now, I am not going to tell all of my secret Mikvah habits here but these are some of the ways that I have personalized this mitzvah.

Not everyone who uses a mikvah has the chance to be creative because of either time constraints or the fear of a disapproving balanit or simply because of rules against such things. But I offer you, if you are in the DC region, to use our Mikvah creatively and meaningfully and by yourself, if you wish. There are other mikvaot out there that honor creativity; see this list of open-minded Mikvaot around the world. Or you could find a secluded beach….but that is a whole other blog post!! I hope that revealing my motivations and praxis lights a path for other Jews toward this powerful ritual.