Programming Round-Up #1: Notes from the New Israel Fund panel on MIKVEH

from Karen Paul-Stern, Washington Regional Director, of the New Israel Fund:

Last weekend, the New Israel Fund sponsored a panel conversation at Theater J in Washington, DC, about the role of women in religious life in Israel. The panel discussion followed a performance of “Mikveh”, Hadar Galron’s moving and provocative play about the Jewish ritual bath and a group of mostly ultra-Orthodox women and the community they form in one particular bathhouse.

“Mikveh” is a startling story – one of secrets and silence, prohibitions and proscriptions, tragedy and redemption. It is a story that leads us to many questions – about women and Judaism, women and relationships, women and politics, women and community.

The play has caused a great deal of controversy, given both its on-stage nudity and its primary subject matter – domestic violence. But a battered wife is only one of many characters that are revealed and issues that emerge from the play. “Mikveh” also observes questions of:

– marriage, loyalty and adultery
– the stultifying nature of the ultra-Orthodox community and what happens to people, specifically women, who choose to live a different life outside the community
– arranged marriage and both the pain and the love that can form as a result
– aging and its implications for women’s worth in a community that places a high premium on childbearing
– the bitter and tragic silence around the issue of violence against women
– the mikveh in the play is also visited by a secular woman who is trying to navigate a foreign world into which her newly-religious husband has thrust her.

My job, as moderator and representing the New Israel Fund, was to take these questions and apply them to the lives of women in Israel and their relationship to religious and spiritual life.

The New Israel Fund is the leading organization dedicated to democratic change in Israel. We believe that Israel can and must live up to its founders’ vision of a state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, without regard to religion, race or gender. As such, we have been at the forefront of the women’s movement in Israel, from funding the first rape crisis centers, to being partners with the Israel Women’s Network, to working with hotlines and shelters for Orthodox women, to addressing the current day tragedy of trafficking in women.

There has been a recent spate of violence against women in Israel who have been trying to assert their right to practice something other than the Orthodox-proscribed version of Judaism. Anat Hoffman, the leader of the Israel Religious Action Center and former Jerusalem City Council member, was recently arrested illegally for participating in a weekly prayer vigil at the Wall with Women of the Wall, who have been praying there in protest for over 20 years.

Noa Raz, a young GLBT activist, was recently harassed and physically assaulted by an Orthodox man while she was waiting at a bus stop in Jerusalem. Her crime? Her arms showed the indentations of having recently laid tefillin, the Jewish prayer straps that are only required for Jewish men in prayer. I don’t know if there is an actual rabbinic prohibition against women wearing them, but I imagine the Torah doesn’t discuss it.

There are also many instances of prejudice against women in both religious and public life. Just last week in Elon Moreh, a settlement, a young Orthodox women asked her rabbi if she could run for the public office of community secretary. His response? “The first problem is giving women authority, and being a secretary means having authority,” he wrote. “The second problem is mixing men and women. Secretary meetings are held at night and sometimes end very late. It is not proper to be in mixed company in such situations.”
She could not run for office.

When I led a New Israel Fund study tour to Israel last December, a female rabbi co-led the tour with me. We also had a bar mitzvah boy, whose bar mitzvah was going to be held on top of Masada, with a follow up at the hotel near the Dead Sea where the group was staying. Ten minutes before we got to the hotel, we learned that the mashgiach at the hotel refused to allow our rabbi to touch the hotel’s Torah because she was a woman.

The list can go on. One of the challenges we face as advocates in the women’s community is the fact that our issues often get swept under the rug when larger issues of national security and today, the very existence of civil society and democracy in Israel, loom large. We also are continually thwarted by the growing hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate over all life cycle matters and its intrusion in women’s lives.

Our panel discussion at “Mikveh” was lively and controversial. We could have talked for hours about these issues and the raw feelings the play raised for all of us. But what I couldn’t get out of my mind was the day that I went to the mikveh, many years ago, two days before I got married.

I was a neophyte in the Jewish community, looking for spiritual and communal connection, but having had nothing in terms of religious upbringing. There was no god in my life. There was no ritual. And I was searching for both. I thought going to the mikveh would offer me both a nice memory and an opportunity to do a little soul searching as I entered this next phase of my life.

A friend drove me to the mikveh in the Woodside neighborhood, a plain shack of a house that is indistinguishable from other houses surrounding it. We stepped in, and the mikveh lady gave me my instructions and tools for cleaning myself from head to toe – a washcloth for the face and body, Q-tips for the bellybutton, nail polish remover, contact lens solution. There was to be nothing between me and the water. Nothing to “block.” I scrubbed myself raw, afraid that I would somehow defile the mikveh’s spring waters with my non-believing body.

We walked into the room, and I let my towel drop. I was not used to being naked so publicly, but somehow this felt safe. I stepped down the several steps into the pool. The mikveh lady instructed me to dunk three times and say the prayers. She handed me a cloth, which I clunkily thought I was supposed to put on my head, but it was actually to wipe my eyes.

I dunked.

I dunked.

I dunked.

I was declared clean.

And that was it.

As I got dressed and prepared to leave the mikveh, my friend, who had given me a little mikveh preparation gift bag earlier in the evening, read me a poem.

I felt energized, glowing, blessed. And I have never forgotten that feeling.

But as we discussed the oppressive aspects of mikveh on our panel last week, I was overcome by the understanding that while I went to mikveh as a lark, as a chance to add a ritual to my upcoming marriage, women who are required to go to mikveh do not have the same opportunity to question its value and its proscriptions.

The laws of “niddah”, or family purity, insist that, once a woman is “clean” after the end of her period and then seven-day “white time,” she must then spend an entire day preparing for relations with her husband later in the evening. She must wash at home, wash in the mikveh, and dedicate a large portion of her day to ensuring that she is clean enough to give herself to her husband. All this washing is symbolic of the religion’s utter inability to perceive women as anything but sexual provocateurs, whose very presence is nothing more than a temptation to men. We are dirty. Men are not required to clean themselves for their wives.

Thinking about it in this way doesn’t diminish my memory of my pleasure at the mikveh that one time nearly 20 years ago, but it does fuel my anger at the misogyny that infuses our religion at its very core.

I continue to believe that some of the most important work taken on by the New Israel Fund and its grantees is their commitment to help Israeli women stretch the boundaries of how they practice and how they pray. We are committed to ensuring that Israeli women of all faiths and all practices are safe to live their lives as they see fit.

For without freedom of choice and freedom of will in such personal matters, how can we expect women to step up and participate in the struggle on the looming issues of democracy and state?

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