Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the mikveh
It’s cold in the East Village in November, especially when you’re standing outside naked. And I’ll tell you what: it’s even colder in the pool. But it was the morning of my wedding, and—surrounded by women in a dear friend’s backyard—I had chosen to immerse in a mikveh.
(Yes, my friend Marjorie has a lap pool in her backyard on Third Street. It’s awesome. I know. Let’s move on.)
The word mikveh means pool, or more literally, a “gathering of waters.” It’s a bath used since ancient times by men and women for Jewish rituals of transition. Contrary to belief, immersion in the mikveh is not strictly a transition from unclean to clean, impure to pure. In fact, you’re supposed to get spic-and-span—no contacts, no jewelry, no errant eyeliner—before you dunk. The ritual can represent transition from the workaday week to Shabbat, from non-Jew to Jew, from menstruation to ovulation, from single to nearly not. When you go under, all of you must be submerged, even stray hairs, and no part may touch the sides or bottom. Dunkage therefore requires a fetal position, which is no accident. You float in the water like a baby in the womb, and emerge born anew.
According to Jewish law, an official mikveh must contain at least 480 liters of rainwater or melted snow (mayim chayyim, or “living water”), which can be supplemented with “tap.” My wedding mikveh: not so official. Marjorie deliberately left the cover off the pool a couple days before my wedding, but I’d be lying if I said we measured. Also, my nails were polished within an inch of their lives, and I left in that one earring at the top of my ear that’s impossible to take out.
But it was good enough for me. The idea to immerse at Marjorie’s had come from my husband-to-be, a Reform rabbi. When David told me he was planning to go to a mikveh that morning with his guy friends—his “bachelor pool party”—I panicked. What was I supposed to do with myself until 2 p.m.? I don’t care if I’m about to marry a rabbi, I thought, I’m not Jewish enough to go to a mikveh! And if I do go, how am I supposed to go and get my nails done in time? Plus, there was no way in hell I would subject myself, on the morning of my wedding, to an inspection by a frowning drill sergeant in a sheitl who would no doubt discover eraser dust under a toenail and send me home unimmersed and probably cursed.
Then David suggested Marjorie’s pool. This, reader, is why I married him. I loved the notion of preparing myself with something other than hairspray to stand under the chuppah. I loved the symbolism: water, women, womb. I’d visited the remains of mikvehs in Israel and Spain. The civilizations above them had crumbled, but down in those mossy spaces, I’d walked in the steps of my foremothers.
Out in Marjorie’s yard, my closest female friends and my mom gathered around the pool, holding copies of a brief service I’d written with the help of ritualwell.org. (Yes, my husband has the skills, but I wanted this to be my thing.) Everyone read a section. As Adonai cleansed the earth with the waters of the Great Flood, making it livable for a new generation, so I pray for renewal and prepare myself for new life. I dropped my robe to my ankles—this felt very Falcon Crest—and eased myself into the water.
Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu al ha-tevilah, I said. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us by Your commandments and commanded us concerning immersion. I dunked again, praying for a healthy marriage and for feeling to someday return to my toes. And a third time. Marjorie wrapped me in a fuzzy robe she’d warmed up in the dryer. And then we all immersed in whitefish.
Many months later, I found myself at a different mikveh. Again with Marjorie, but this time not so cold. Marjorie had read that, according to Jewish folklore, a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy has mystical powers to bless other women. And if a woman who wants to get pregnant uses the mikveh after a pregnant woman, she’ll get pregnant too.
Marjorie was the pregnant one. I desperately needed her magic.
This one, we felt, needed to be more official than Marjorie’s pool. The nearest mikveh was the Orthodox one in Brooklyn Heights, but that was out of the question; Marjorie has a nose ring and a tattoo. The middle ground: the Conservative mikveh up in White Plains. Marjorie had read about it, and from what she’d heard, she thought it would be welcoming, maybe even a little crunchy. Her hunch was confirmed when the mikveh lady told her on the phone that we could bring our own music to listen to. Laid back! Create your own ritual! Bring Enya! Perfect.
The mikveh lady had a long braid and an easy, if shy, smile; she looked like she’d be at home with a guitar at a song session at Camp Kutz. She led us into the mikveh, its bright blue-and-white-tiled spiral staircase leading down into the water like the inside of a shell. Pointing toward the changing room, she suggested—suggested!—we shower, then left us alone. What with all the scented candles and fluffy towels, I half-expected her to offer us a mud wrap.
Of course, we’d forgotten to bring CD’s. But I liked the silence. A soundtrack would have been a spa treatment; this, I thought, was a mikveh. I liked seeing Marjorie step down into the water, hearing the splashing and rushing as she dunked her giant belly, and wondering, because this is all about ME, which time she prayed for my pregnancy. I imagined what she called her “pregnancy mojo” seeping invisibly into the water like salt in the ocean. And, when I stepped in, I imagined the mojo making its way to my womb. As Adonai cleansed the earth with the waters of the Great Flood, making it livable for a new generation, so I pray for renewal and prepare myself for new life.
I was sure this was going to work immediately. I was sure that my “pregnancy story” was going to be “for all the fertility drugs and decaf, I believe it was the mikveh—and the sense of peace and blessing it brought—that did it.” But no. Not the following month; not for the next nine. Then one July day, shortly after consuming three consolation margaritas after a negative pregnancy test, I discovered I was indeed pregnant. Okay, I thought, we just hadn’t given the mojo a deadline.
Three months later, I underwent a diagnostic test that carries a less than 1% chance of miscarriage. Immediately afterward, my amniotic fluid began to leak in great, terrifying gushes. After a week of bedrest, petrified, I had an ultrasound. The doctor shook his head. “No fluid,” he said. “No heartbeat.” My womb was dry. The living water was gone.
I wrote a special Havdalah service in which my husband and I said goodbye. Be gracious to me, Adonai, for I am sorely wounded. My eyes, my soul, and my womb are consumed with grief. I am like a broken vessel.
And I went to the mikveh. In White Plains? No way. Too far. I was so tired, so limp. Walking distance was all I could manage, and so I went to Brooklyn Heights. I was a little nervous about passing inspection, or doing something so crazily, sacrilegiously wrong that they’d be forced to drain the mikveh and burn the building, but the anxiety took a back seat to my pain. This mikveh was to mark the end of my emotional shiva, the beginning of trying again. Marjorie couldn’t make it; that was fine. I just wanted to get in, get out, get it done.
The mikveh lady came rushing up late, harried and apologetic. (I found this promising; drill sergeants are never late.) She didn’t look any older than me, but—with her plain knee-length skirt, button-down blouse, sensible heels, and wig—she seemed like so much more of a Lady. Though she did have a set of those “invisible” adult braces, to which I also warmed; on some level she was my sistah in geekdom.
She showed me into the changing room, which might as well have been the Sheraton. Spotless tiles, tasteful shower curtain, inch-thick towels. And a giant sink equipped with every tweezer, clipper, pad, and file known to Walgreens. Cotton balls, Q-Tips, combs in a jar filled with blue fluid. Dental floss, polish remover, mouthwash. I showered and scrubbed, picked and smoothed. Finally, dainty paper slippers on my feet, my own special prayers in the pocket of my robe, I called for the lady and shuffled in to the mikveh room, beige and dark. God, thank you for removing my braces at age 11. And please, God, don’t let the mikveh lady inspect me.
“I need to check your back for loose hairs,” she said. Dammit. I dropped my robe. (Less Falcon Crest this time, more Heidi facing the governess.) No hairs had crept from the comb to my back, but I was busted on two other counts: My nails needed filing—and clinging to a lash, visible only to mikveh lady’s bionic eye, was an eensy clump of mascara.
On round two, I passed. I stepped into the water, realizing I’d forgotten to take my special prayers out of my robe pocket. I’ll just get them when she leaves, I figured. But mikveh lady wasn’t budging.
Dear God. She’s not leaving.
She explained to me how to make each dunk “kosher.” She’d watch, she said, for hair that doesn’t go under, for fingertips grazing the side. Rattled, I dunked. My silent prayer: OhGodohGodohGod please let me be doing this right.
I popped up.
The mikveh lady’s proclamation was both sing-song and no-nonsense, like a kindergarten teacher saying “COATS on!” This I had not expected, this verbal green light. But once I’d suppressed a nervous snicker, it occurred to me that it was kind of reassuring.
My second dunk: denied. Hair issue. I tried again. “KO-sher!”
And again. “KO-sher!”
Then she said, “I’ll give you a minute.” I thought I’d want to scramble out, dripping, to grab my own prayers to say. But I didn’t. As Adonai cleansed the earth… I couldn’t remember. But it was okay. When I’d dunked, my mind had been blank, first with fear of mikveh lady, and then with nothing at all. Which was the first time in weeks that my head had been clear.
I dressed. That, I thought, went very, very well. It was just what I needed. Not the pool, not White Plains: the big guns. The real-deal ritual. I determined, superstitiously, that going through all that scrubbing trouble was precisely what made it more magical. If no one had caught that mascara, it—whatever “it” was—wouldn’t have worked! And those funky prayers I brought? Didn’t need them. When I was in the mikveh, I was just there. Floating. Open. Letting the water do its job, knowing one day it will fill me again.
I stepped back into the foyer, feeling clean and worn like I’d spent the day at the beach. The mikveh lady pointed out the sink near the door where I could do one last ritual washing, this time just my hands. As I let the water run through my fingers, I heard her speak behind me. “I hope you get what you want,” she said.
“KO-sher!” is now a running joke in our house. But honestly, it’s good to know mikveh lady’s got my back.
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