by Shirah Hecht
Yaakov awoke from his sleep, and said, In truth, [the Glory of] Adonoy is [dwells] in this place, and I did not know it [would not have known it].
Mikveh and Embodied Judaism
Mikveh and I encountered each other a few times in my life, always with positive associations. I first went to the mikveh before my wedding, at age 22, and I found it perfect. Suddenly all the wedding preparations and nerves were on hold. In the calm space, my mother and “the mikveh lady” sat outside while I took a long warm bath. At the immersion, the “mikveh lady” was again respectful and kind as my mother waited outside. I felt cared for, with no impatience around me, alone in this space, yet supported. I noticed the quiet.
Many years later, in my 30’s, I had trouble conceiving. I thought practicing niddah and going to the mikveh might help. It didn’t.But once again, I found the ritual natural and comfortable, attending in Brookline before Mayyim Hayyim was created. Again I noticed – and enjoyed – the quiet peacefulness.
What wasn’t comfortable or natural was years of not being able to have children, abruptly ended by a bout with breast cancer, a lump found two days before my 39th birthday. I had finally decided to pursue “high tech” fertility treatments when the new doctor I visited found the lump the first time we met.
The chemotherapy knocked out my menstrual cycles temporarily, and medication after treatment eventually did so permanently. In between, I had a window in which my cycles hesitantly, unevenly returned for a period of time. I joked that if my periods were to come back, I wanted to make them feel welcome – hence, back to mikveh. But I could not have known what I would find there this time.
It’s important to understand that, by then, I had subjected myself to decades of painful expectations about what my body was supposed to do, and, more importantly, who I was supposed to be. With treatment, my body became (as with pregnant women, I imagine) an object of the medical tools, no longer private, no longer my own, and having an association of being “fatally” flawed. In a final irony, I couldn’t even “enjoy” the loss of my periods by having unprotected sex – I was to use contraception because it would be dangerous if I got pregnant.
It was in this last chapter of mikveh attendance that I felt I truly understood its meaning. I have sometimes felt that I was a “Jew” before I was a “woman” even to myself, as I attended all manner of Jewish events and rituals and activities all my life. In the year or so before and after breast cancer treatment, I sat on the Executive Board of a large Conservative synagogue I attended, learned to layn (chant) Haftorah and Torah, was among those who gave volunteer drashes at said Conservative synagogue, taught Sunday School at a large Reform congregation, and created a multi-faith conference on women in American religion for Hebrew College, having completed my Ph.D. in sociology by studying egalitarian minyanim.
I do not tell this to show off my resume. I tell it because I had been in a LOT of Jewish settings by around age 40 and at this “return” to mikveh.
But I had also struggled with the dark sides of Judaism. Where was Judaism when I needed to fight for my life – truthfully, Buddhism had more to offer me in those days. (Judaism does death well – not so much healing.) And importantly for me – where was Judaism when I could not conceive children? There, it seemed, Judaism was nowhere to be found, as I had lived it. I found some scattered crumbs of Jewish comfort in the occasional support group meeting, but they were few and far between. Truthfully, even with all of the new awareness and support offered now, Judaism is there to help you have children – not to help you when you don’t.
And then I came back to mikveh. Again I entered the small changing room, after sharing the outer waiting space with the Orthodox and non-Orthodox women in Brookline. I sometimes (often?) have trouble granting myself indulgent space and time. Upon returning to mikveh over time, I felt so cared for. I thought about how this community created this space and provided these resources – for all Jewish women, and for me.
One time in those visits after treatment, I looked straight at myself in the mirror, prepared to immerse, and I understood the ritual newly. First I saw what mikveh was – and immediately I also saw what it wasn’t. I realized that all of our “usual” Jewish experience and practice was so different from this. What was it? It was with other people. It was very, very verbal. It was “out and about” – whether at services or at a Board meeting, and whether you wanted to be out and about or not. And it was always thinking. It was, in short:
Mikveh reversed all that was “usual” about Jewish practice. It was:
- Alone/without people
- Private/not public
- And, importantly – physical
I saw that mikveh was, in a sense, the Buddhist yin to American Judaism’s dominant loud yang of energy.
In that moment, I saw that I was not a social being only. I was, instead, powerfully, a soul. All evidence of my being a social “event” was gone. In this, I then genuinely saw the spirituality in Judaism – the spirituality that all the other religions talked about.
When you are alone, quiet, private, and physical – you see that your vulnerable (and strong) body is the house for one thing only – your soul.
I was at that moment a physical, spiritual being rather than a social one.
As a sociologist, I saw what Judaism did there.
As I took off even my wedding ring to immerse – the only time I took it off, except for radiation treatments, and a representation of one’s sociality in so many ways – standing with generations of women who did the same thing, with entirely different social and personal circumstances – and as I stood naked and alone in this spiritual place, everything about me that was a “social marker” was absent. It did not matter whether I had children or not, was married or not, was on the Board or not, attended a meeting or not. All these “identifiers” fell away. There were no more comparisons. Each body was the holder of a unique soul and I was one of them. Here I was not a failed attempt to get pregnant, become a mother, live an illness-free life, one who is to be appreciated for their contributions to human society.
Without words – critically, without words – Judaism told me, as I healed from my trauma of both infertility and breast cancer treatment, and all the disappointments of life that this was exactly enough – to be this soul in this body. I was exactly the right size, shape and dimensions for my life’s purpose.
When my periods stopped coming, I stopped going to mikveh. I have no issues with the idea that it is designed for women in their childbearing years. Besides that practicing niddah and mikveh is a bit of a hassle, I simply appreciated it exactly as it had been given to me. Mikveh had no need to change me and I had no need to change mikveh. The intertwining of mikveh with the cycles of women’s periods is even a part of the story for me. Mikveh is all about the beauty and spirituality that is ours – that which we do not create or control but that is gifted to each one of us. And that we can access and remember in the one place our tradition offers us that is quiet, private, alone, and importantly physical.
American society, American Judaism, and maybe all human society emphasizes the social and the verbal. We must go out, in order to create things together. We must be gregarious. But unfortunately, we also begin to fear being alone. Mikveh perhaps tells us – don’t worry. When you come here, you will not be alone. First, the community has given you this place. And then – as Jacob said after his dream – it is here where God, whatever may be your conception of God, is. And I – I – didn’t know it. But then I did.
Shirah W. Hecht is a researcher by trade, teacher by chance, storyteller and writer by avocation, and shul-goer by necessity in the Boston area Jewish community. She was in the initial cohort of Mayyim Hayyim mikveh guides, guiding for five years. She has a Ph.D. in sociology (from that, you can make a living?), has conducted research in the Jewish community and is the current Program Team Lead for LimmudBoston. She attends Temple Emeth synagogue.