by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
Memories are strange. They vanish and reappear in unpredictable ways. Sometimes their natural habitat is our solitary and unconscious mind; other times, a shared moment with a friend. We tend to memories in our dreams, in an unexpected wave of nostalgia, and at the dinner table. As Jews, we tend to them all year. In the Torah, God commands us to remember: Shabbat, the covenant, the Exodus, and the list goes on. We have days of remembrance, yahrzeit (memorial) candles, liturgy, Kiddush, and we say “Never Forget.” It is almost as though our survival in the diaspora has depended on revisiting the past. Remembering can be accidental/intentional, holy/mundane, private/public, and everything in between. I have a mikveh story that is all of those.
Years ago, I witnessed someone remembering, and I will not easily forget it. I was working late at Mayyim Hayyim, and when I was ready to head home, I made my way downstairs from the third floor. Landing in the reception area, I saw that there was a woman holding the entire Lucite container of Immersion Ceremonies on her lap. Usually, guests are invited to look through our ceremonies on the credenza where they live. I noticed the woman had two crutches at her side, and her foot was encased in a large cast.
I said hello and soon realized that her Mikveh Guide had thoughtfully offered her some privacy while she looked through the ceremonies. I grabbed my unfinished lunch from the fridge and prepared to head out. As I did, the woman burst into powerful sobs. Her chest heaved and between breaths she tried to get some words out. I put my bags down and sat with her. Eventually she spoke.
“I’m here for healing, because of this foot. But, I just saw this ceremony with the word ‘abortion’… I saw the word and I just stopped. I had an abortion, almost two decades ago. I haven’t thought of it in so long. I just buried it, but then seeing this written here, I realized that so many of the health issues I’ve had over the last 20 years have been related. I don’t think I would be here now if it wasn’t for that abortion.”
She tried to apologize and I tried to stop her. I was grateful for the chance to sit with her while she remembered, and I was especially awed that the mere existence of this ceremony allowed her to grieve, even a little, something that was long buried.
Jewish ritual often offers us language and parameters in order to revisit the past and look to the future. Many of our Immersion Ceremonies do just that. In this case, it just took one particularly weighty word, written on laminated paper, and remembered at a mikveh in Newton.
Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim.