by Leah Bieler
All four of my kids inherited things from me: some good, and some bad. And since I tend to be a bit strong-willed – some might even say stubborn – it’s no surprise that trait got passed down to all four of them…must be a dominant gene.
But my younger daughter, Nili – she brings stubbornness to heights I could only have dreamed of. If she sees injustice, whether in poverty, or in the allotment of the “scarce” resources in her home, or in her treatment by her history teacher, she can dig in her heels like a pitbull.
When she told me she was interested in going for a visit to Mayyim Hayyim before her Bat Mitzvah, I thought I knew why. As a staunch feminist, I assumed she wanted to take this mitzvah by the horns, and wrestle it to the ground. She wanted to turn what some women view as an anti-feminist ritual into a positive, empowering moment.
In a way, I was right. I asked her why she wanted to go. “We went with school last year. They talked about going before your Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and it seemed like it might be a good experience. And you go.” Indeed. I go every month, and have found that Mayyim Hayyim has managed to transform what was my most difficult mitzvah to fulfill into something that I sometimes even look forward to.
She went with none of the baggage that I carried about the mikveh. When I asked what in particular interested her, she was clear. “It’s a grown-up thing to do. It will make my Bat Mitzvah feel more official.” And then this: “I get in trouble a lot. I thought the mikveh might be a fresh start.”
This had not at all occurred to me, but I loved how she had figured out her personal way of making mikveh her own. Afterwards, I asked how it was, what it felt like for her. “When I came up, and the water came off my shoulders, it was the things I didn’t want inside of me rolling off into the pool.”
This is all to say: I am so appreciative to Mayyim Hayyim for having uncovered so many new avenues for exploring a mitzvah that was, for so long, in the shadows. I wondered what Nili would tell her friends about it, if she would encourage them to go. “I would tell other kids it’s a good experience. Even if they don’t like tefillot (prayer), or being in Toshba (rabbinics) class, they can connect to their Jewish identity in a different way.”
I wished I had felt this way at thirteen. She mentioned she’d looking forward to going when she gets married. I’m only a little jealous of her comfort with something that I’m only now learning to love.
I think she may need to go back before then, though, because that stubborn thing? It seems it wasn’t entirely washed away.
Leah Bieler is a freelance writer, teacher of Talmud and a mom of four. Nili Fish-Bieler is a rising eighth grader at Solomon Schechter Day School of Boston, and resents that her parents saddled her with two last names.