We were so excited about the new opening of Jerusalem Pita in Brookline. We ventured out of our apartment in Cambridge with our 2.5 year old and 2 week old to taste what everyone was talking about. While the dining experience was nothing to write home about, the real experience of the evening came from the next table. A frum woman sat there with her children. She looked at me and I looked at her. It took me a moment to place where I knew her from. She helped trigger my memory, by leaning over and whispering that she had been my shomeret (guide) at the mikveh. My shomeret, a lovely woman, whom I had only encountered naked in the privacy of the Daughters of Israel mikveh, I was now encountering dressed with my family tagging along, experiencing bad service together, with screaming hungry kids, in an out-of-the-mikveh encounter in Brookline. What I had loved about my experiences with the Daughters of Israel mikveh was my ability to immerse, practice Taharat Hamishpacha, in complete anonymity. Now, I was breaking bread with one of the few people in the world that I encounter naked. In my mind the place of the mikveh shomeret was in the mikveh, in the realm of my insecurities and privacies. In that safe anonymous state I could share with the mikveh attendant that I was visiting the mikveh following a miscarriage. She could share with me that she had the same experience. The comfort of the anonymous disclosure, the anonymous fulfillment of Taharat Hamishpacha, made the experience plausible for me. I could be sadder at the mikveh about my loss than I could anywhere else. The mikveh was my Niddah Anonymous. I could share and be supported by my mikveh attendant sponsor.
Right after my husband and I married we spent two years in Israel as part of my husband’s rabbinical school training. I loved going to the anonymous mikveh in Katamon. I would only slightly freak out when I ran into people I knew on the way home and stood for a long moment on a Jerusalem street corner with my hair dripping wet trying to not focus on the fact that there was no swimming pool for miles and that I am not really known for my swimming work outs anyways. But in Jerusalem too, for the most part I could stay anonymous. However, on one of my first visits to the Katamon mikveh I sat down next to a woman there. She looked at me and said: “Your name is Liba and you went to school with my brother in 6th grade in Haifa”. Busted. I had no idea who she was, but my anonymity was gone.
The Katamon mikveh closed earlier than other mikvehs. One night I had to go to the Rahavia mikveh. I had grown accustomed to the Katamon mikveh and did not really appreciate the change. But what sticks in my memory from that visit is that when I had finished immersing, covered in a towel, the attendant asked me if she could shake my hand. Again, I felt my anonymity betrayed by a handshake. I wanted to just walk in and out, do my business, and leave. But now we were entangled in a handshake.
I tried to keep my “business” through my years in NY and Boston to mikvehs where I could stay anonymous, where I could practice Taharat Hamishpacha without unnecessary encounters, without much pomp and circumstance, and in keeping with the idea that this was a Torah commandment, not a spiritual experience or a female night out.
Then I moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. I was happy to know that there was a mikveh here. While the bayou did seem anonymous, I was not sure about the chance encounter with an alligator while performing the Biblical commandment. In this community I was going to know the women with whom I would be scheduling my appointments. All of a sudden I had preferences. All of a sudden I was running into Chabad women in Kosher Cajun, our local kosher store, with whom I have a “mikveh relationship.” I got invited to a Chabad wedding of my favorite mikveh attendant simply because we knew each other from the mikveh. On one of my first trips to the New Orleans mikveh the attendant on “duty” that night lived out in the suburb I lived in. She asked if we wanted to carpool. I was amenable. We spent the twenty minutes on the way to the mikveh talking about schools, educational philosophy, and our families. On the way home, I realized that I was never going to be able to call her again. I could not drive with her, talk to her, and then have her watch me in my most vulnerable state, immerse in the mikveh.
In New Orleans, in a Jewish community of 8,5000, my anonymity around the mikveh is gone. There were no conciliatory feelings at the mikveh when once again immersing following another miscarriage, there was no possibility of having my Biblical Taharat Hamishpacha be anonymous. We contemplate building a community mikveh here in New Orleans. Among my personal wishes for this new mikveh is a restoration of a sense of anonymity.
Liba Kornfeld is the Education Director of Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation in Metairie, LA. Liba is married to Ethan Linden, the rabbi at Shir Chadash. In her spare time Liba spends lots of time outside with her 2 year old and 5 year old boys. Liba looks forward to immersing (anonymously) in the Chabad mikveh in New Orleans following the birth of their baby (IY”H) this summer.