by Dr. Gail Levine-Fried
My mother first brought my sister and I to the water as children growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She loved swimming and the ocean, and took us to swimming pools, public and private, in parts of Brooklyn far from our neighborhood. Mom didn’t drive a car, but she schlepped us on the subway to Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach. Watching her gliding gracefully through the water, I came to associate water and immersing in water with refreshing body, mind, and spirit, simultaneously relaxing and energizing. I became a “water person,” seeking bodies of water to move through everywhere I went and swimming in local pools regularly. Later on in my life, my husband and I would seek out natural geothermal pools and hot springs throughout the world in which to soak. We espoused the healing properties of soaking in warm waters.
Growing up as a reform Jew, I never experienced mikveh except through negative associations of female “uncleanliness” related to menstruation. This concept of mikveh and the monthly practice of immersion seemed to reflect feelings of shame about a woman’s natural cycle. As an adolescent, I struggled with negative feelings about my body image and about sexuality. I certainly didn’t want to engage in any ritual practice that would reinforce my already intense sense of shame.
My breakthrough came when I attended an outdoor immersion experience at the Center for Jewish Healing and Renewal (Eilat Hayyim). Standing in my nakedness with the 50 other female attendees around the outdoor swimming pool, I saw bodies of all shapes and sizes. I was able to be nude in front of other women without feeling self-conscious or critical of myself or others, simply comfortable in my own body. The immersion experience in the pool was cooperative and actually fun. We worked in groups of three: the immersee, one person making sure she totally immersed, and one reciting the brachot (blessings), before changing roles.
My first immersion experience was a positive one. Afterwards, there was a lot of female bonding, embracing, laughing and yes, tears—but tears of release and of joy. That experience opened me to a radically different conception of the practice of immersion in mikveh: one that reflected purification in the sense of releasing and cleansing of any negative feelings and emotions one was holding, and of renewal and transformation.
Many years afterwards, I arrived at a place in my life where I wanted to mark a special birthday (my 70th) by becoming bat mitzvah. As a Reform Jew in the 1950’s, I underwent “confirmation” at the age of 15 but had never become bat mitzvah. I also wanted to mark my 3rd trip to Israel with our rabbi and members of the same congregation in which I had been confirmed so long ago. I learned about ImmerseNYC, and the idea of marking these special milestone events in my life by immersing in an inclusive mikveh resonated deeply with me. It would bring together so many aspects of my spiritual life and psychological development as a woman and as a Jew.
I worked closely with a Mikveh Guide and leader at ImmerseNYC. I found the Seven Kavanot for Mikveh Preparation very meaningful, and I studied and reflected upon them. The kavanah of “Hiddur Mitzvah – the unadorned body is beautiful in itself” was especially meaningful to my healing the negative body image I held for so much of my life.
Through my mikveh experience, I came to appreciate the sacredness and beauty of the body I had been given and lived in. My immersion was a release of old, negative emotions I had held inside me and an emergence of the person I have become today: whole, loving, and loved. Afterwards, my Mikveh Guide and I spent some time together as I shared my experience with her. I disclosed to her that I felt I had finally released the stigma I carried within myself of the young person who struggled with an eating disorder. She said something very profound: ”whatever you release into the waters of the mikveh, remains in the water.” I had finally released what I needed to and experienced the joy of feeling that my unadorned body was beautiful in itself.
Shortly after my first immersion, I decided to become a Mikveh Guide. Rabbi Sara Luria, the former Director of ImmerseNYC, ran a training for Mikveh Guides from the full spectrum of Judaism. It was an intense training experience and an opportunity to understand how mikveh immersion is meaningful at so many junctures in life.
In 2017, I experienced a heart attack and went into cardiac arrest. Through the heroic efforts of a team of doctors at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, I was revived and am recovered with no damage to my heart. To mark my return to wholeness and wellbeing and to express my deep gratitude to all who supported my recovery and to my Creative Source of All, I again returned to create a healing ritual of immersion in the mikveh. I needed to release fear and anxiety about a recurrence and to celebrate the miracle of my life renewed – a treasured gift. Working with another Mikveh Guide from ImmerseNYC, I was able to involve my husband in the ritual, as he was an important part of my recovery process. Although Bob couldn’t join me in immersing in the mikveh, he was with me before I entered the mikveh and gave me blessings. It was truly a shared experience. I emerged from this immersion filled with overflowing feelings of gratitude for the blessing of life and of appreciation of my wellbeing.
My cousin’s daughter, Shanna Shulman, has been instrumental in the flourishing of Mayyim Hayyim, a source of pride for myself and our whole family. It is so important to share this profoundly healing ritual from our Jewish traditions with all generations of Jews. Thank you, Shanna and Mayyim Hayyim for bringing mikveh immersion into our lives. It has meant so much to me.