I was asked to write a blog as an anthropologist who had done work on Jewish Moroccan women, and to be personal and provocative, so here we go! The first image that came to my mind, is that of Ruth, one of my informants who told me, in the 1980’s, that she would go to her moshav’s mikveh through roundabout routes, with her towel hidden under her clothes. She did not want to be seen by her neighbors nor her children. She did not want them to infer the sexual connotations, obvious connotations in her culture that going to the mikveh meant preparing for sex with her husband on that night. Mikveh was hush, hush, she felt ashamed of the sexual connotations.
This is quite different from the ways Jewish American women are currently expressing pride in their relationship with the mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim. So, what has changed in thirty years? The pervasive use of contraception!
For women like Ruth, mikveh was part of a system that ended the niddah process and where motherhood was the main identity for a woman. In Ruth’s system of thinking, Mikveh was to be used as a way to be cleared from her “monthly impurity,” so that she could again enjoy sex and become potentially a mother.
For many of the women who use Mayyim Hayyim today (not counting the women who adhere to the same system as Ruth), mikveh is not a door to renewed intercourse and pregnancy but it is more a venue to find oneself. It is a door to express our yearning for spirituality through a connection to an ancient Jewish tradition. Each generation of Jewish women has to live through the tension between persistence, (what is the Jewish way of dealing with one’s body and sexuality) and changes, (what are their needs concerning these laws and rituals). In the last 50 years women have embraced contraception and made motherhood a choice (for the lucky ones) and not a given.
By freeing our sexuality from fear of unwanted pregnancy we broke the inherent connection between womanhood and motherhood that Ruth experienced. In so doing, we liberated the mikveh from its inherent connections to the system of niddah. We can reinvent mikveh and enjoy the possibilities of reclaiming it for our own needs. Mikveh has now also taken its place as a renewal/healing/marking ritual in our Jewish imagination.
Rahel Wasserfall is the principal at Educational Evaluation Advisors International. She is an anthropologist with a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has wide experience in three different continents. She has widely published in the area of gender and is the editor of Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law (UPNE, 1999). She also co-authored (with Susan Sevitz) a study on Jewish pluralism in a local Day School. Rahel is also a committed yoga practitioner and teacher, having completed teacher training in the Iyengar tradition.