by Daniela Ovadia
I bumped into Mayyim Hayyim almost by chance: I was in Boston last summer and I wanted to understand more about the Jewish life in the US. I am from Italy, where my parents arrived from Egypt in the 60’s. I married a non-Jewish man, but we have a Jewish family. Both of my daughters, as I did at their age, attend the local Orthodox Jewish community school, even though we have a very secular approach to Judaism. I grew up in Hashomer Hatzair: my “Jewishness” was linked to food, holidays, Israel, kibbutz life, and a sense of belonging to something important and valuable, independent from observance.
I would describe Italian Jews as more traditional than religious. Intermarriage has always been quite common, and conversions are common too. Recently, the Italian Jewish communities have adopted a more stringent approach to Jewish identity, and the Italian rabbinate decided to apply more restrictive norms to conversions. Italian Judaism used to have a long-lasting story of openness, inclusiveness, and acceptance of intermarriage that has changed quite abruptly. Reform synagogues have appeared, but they represent a small opposition to the institutional shifts, and they don’t have much influence over Jewish policies.
While observing those changes, I started thinking about how my community approaches intermarried couples and women. I don’t want my daughters to abandon their roots, but I don’t like the general attitude toward intermarriage; couples are struggling to be accepted and to keep their children among the Jewish people. I also realized that my two daughters are encountering models of Jewish women that are anything but egalitarian. When the oldest one, now 14, reached the age of Bat Mitzvah, I looked on the internet for educational programs with a more egalitarian approach than were available in Milan. Suitable resources came up short. So I googled intermarriage, Jewish education, and egalitarian, and I found Mayyim Hayyim for the first time.
In an attempt to reconcile my feminist identity with my Jewish one, I read many books on women and Judaism. They often mention the mikveh as a key ritual, but I had ambivalent feelings toward it: the immersion in water – linked to the menstrual cycle and the rules of niddah – was, in my view, as an instrument of control over women’s sexuality. So I simply rejected it.
I came across mikveh again when I took a course on ethnopsychiatry, the science that analyze mental diseases and symptoms in light of the cultural framework of the patients. I am a neuroscientist by training, and I read the studies by Tobie Nathan, a French psychiatrist of Egyptian Jewish origins (like me) who investigated the role of rituals in helping patients suffering from mental disorders, especially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I discovered with amazement that Nathan used the mikveh to successfully treat the traumatic stress in children of Holocaust survivors, even the most secular ones. His research demonstrated that rituals have to be linked to the personal story of the patient: we cannot adopt a ritual that is not engraved in our origins, even if we don’t believe in its religious meaning. I am not a mystical person: I’m a scientist, I need to be rational. Although I reject many of the norms that would oblige us to practice them, I embrace some Jewish rituals because they ground me in my history.
I decided I wanted to go to the mikveh at least once in my life, as my mother, my grandmother, and probably all my female ancestors did. I asked my community mikveh lady, but she told me I wasn’t allowed to immerse: I was married to a non-Jewish man and I wasn’t keeping the rules of niddah, so why should I immerse? I didn’t want to explain my feelings to someone who was clearly unable to understand them. So I started my search of a welcoming place: I found one in Israel, but it was too far, so I gave up. Later, while in Boston, Google led me once again to Mayyim Hayyim as a top search. I read the stories on the blog, perused the educational programs and I decided it was the right place.
I arrived on a sunny morning, I sat in the garden surrounding the house. I observed a young lady with a bunch of flowers and a lot of family. There were three rabbis; clearly, a conversion was going on. Everybody was smiling and seemed happy. I compared such a beautiful scene with the conversions in my community: no friends and only few members of the family are allowed to be present at the mikveh and certainly not the non-Jewish family. I was witnessing a totally different approach to conversion, as seen in Mayyim Hayyim’s new documentary film about welcoming new Jews into the community.
Then I met Amy, my wonderful guide. I had a tour of the building and I discovered such warmth and inclusivity. When I entered the preparation room, I started crying. It was an unexpected reaction: I’m not used to crying in front of strangers, but emotions overwhelmed me.
Almost a month has passed. I’m back in Italy, but I find myself thinking of my immersion at Mayyim Hayyim frequently. I still need to better understand why a Jewish Italian woman from Egyptian origins had to travel to a Boston neighborhood to feel reconnected with her roots.
I want to thank the women who built and lead Mayyim Hayyim: we need welcoming places to practice our rites, like trees need strong roots to resist the windy days.
Daniela Ovadia is neuroscientist, neuroethicist, and science journalist based in Milan, Italy. She is married and has two daughters, 14 and 12. She is interested in the role of women in Judaism and is actively involved in groups that promote Jewish culture.