by Lindsay Rosenfeld
I recently – and quite unexpectedly – found a ritual that I absolutely never thought I would participate in to be part of my journey to reconnect body and mind spiritually and emotionally.
Growing up, I knew what mikveh was, but it always seemed a ritual prescribed to a woman – and prescribed because there was, frankly, something wrong with her. Something wrong with menstruating, having a baby, or miscarrying. And, because of this, she had to purify herself for others, mainly her husband.
While I respected any woman’s decision to do this, it felt largely like this wasn’t her choice and wasn’t something for her, but rather something to make her okay for others.
Merriam Webster defines mikveh as a ritual bath or bathing place for purification in accordance with Jewish law.
MyJewishLearning.com notes that niddah (literally, separation), or taharat hamishpacha (family purity) has been observed for thousands of years by [heterosexual] Jewish couples to sanctify their sexual relationship. Traditionally a married couple refrains from intimacy during a woman’s menstrual period and for seven days afterward. Immersion in the mikveh marks the point at which the couple may reunite physically.
I connected with nothing about traditional immersion for the laws of Jewish purity.
Mikva’ot were something I observed in old synagogues in Crete and Amsterdam and in films and photographs.
That is, until last month.
Over the last couple of years, I have been receiving emails from Mayyim Hayyim, which describes itself as a 21st century creation, a mikveh rooted in ancient tradition, reinvented to serve the Jewish community of today. On their home page, the following blurbs repeatedly scroll:
- making mikveh accessible and meaningful for the full diversity of our people;
- a resource for learning, spiritual discovery and creativity for all;
- an intimate center for spirituality, learning, celebration, and community.
This is something I could connect with.
Mayyim Hayyim is where women, men, and people of all genders and ages can celebrate milestones like weddings and b’nai mitzvah; where conversion to Judaism is accorded the honor and dignity it deserves; where survivors of trauma, illness, or loss find solace; and where those who immerse monthly can explore the ritual on their own terms.
Two recent experiences solidified the possibility of this mikveh being for everyone and anything. One was hearing Anita Diamant speak at a Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project event about her vision and role as a founder of Mayyim Hayyim. The other was a recent article on JewishBoston.com in which the child of a mikveh educator wrote beautifully about immersing to mark their gender transition.
Ok, I thought, this is not the mikveh I thought I knew.
I read more and met with the mikveh educator, explaining my reasons for exploring mikveh and ritual immersion. She was kind, comforting, and affirming. Yes, she noted, this is an ideal space for marking transition – and connecting mind and body in a physical, spiritual, and emotional process. We created an immersion ceremony to fit my needs.
Mayyim Hayyim notes the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook: The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy.
Indeed. This ancient Jewish ritual that I had previously considered so restrictive, prescriptive, and about doing something for others became something I was doing purely for myself.
That was revolutionary in and of itself. A mother of young children carving out space and time for herself, with no other purpose than exactly that.
The day I visited the mikveh to immerse for the first time, an energy rose up. I found the practice of preparing with the kavanot (intentions) a deeply restorative ritual to ready body and mind for soulful immersion. I was present and alert to the experience. Entering the mikveh itself, I felt warmth from the sun streaming through the skylights and warmth from the waters in which I immersed. I also felt truly in my body, through a practice rooted in my own tradition.
In a Jewish space that I had once held a far and not my own, I experienced something new and integrated it into my journey.
Lindsay Rosenfeld is a mother, connector, teacher, public health scientist and constant student. Her first visit to Mayyim Hayim was in 2019. She and her husband, Andrés, live in Greater Boston with their 2nd grade twins, Eliana & Mateo.