by Ari Lev Fornari
One of my favorite facts about a mikveh is that the water cannot mekabel tumah, it cannot become ritually impure. Which is to say, it can’t be tainted or contaminated. Not even by a pig, the living embodiment of ritual impurity. When I first learned this concept, I remember releasing a sigh of relief. As a transgender and genderqueer person, I often experience my presence in gendered spaces as somehow contaminating. I feel this in a synagogue that has gender-segregated seating. I feel this in a public bathroom. And for most of my life, I associated this with a mikveh. My typical response to this experience is avoidance.
Until Mayyim Hayyim, I had not immersed in a traditional mikveh. Instead, I tapped into the mikveh powers of just about every lake or stream I swam in, my favorite being Walden Pond. I first immersed at Mayyim Hayyim after completing my first year of rabbinical school. It was a completely renewing experience. I have since immersed many times, both related to personal experiences and seasonal moments. What I treasure most about Mayyim Hayyim is that they have found so many ways to de-gender a Jewish ritual experience that has historically been hyper-gendered. They ask your preference for the gender of the mikveh guide and allow you to bring your own witness. The tubs and bathrooms are all gender neutral. There are no assumptions about why you are attending. The forms ask your preferred pronouns. They incorporate trans people into their trainings. The list goes on. This is an institution that has woven the needs and insights of trans people into its structure.
Even more so, it is a place where I feel safe, seen and sanctified in my body. They have a list of 7 meditations to be read while preparing to immerse. Each time I read the words, “Elohai neshama sh’natata bi, tehora hi – My God the soul you have placed in me is pure,” I am further liberated from the fear that I, as a genderqueer and trans person, am an abomination or even a contamination. For this I am continually grateful. On this Transgender Day of Remembrance, may we hold in our hearts those who have been murdered or who have taken their own lives. May the living waters purify their souls. And may their memories be a blessing – zichronam livracha.
Ari Lev Fornari is in his final year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College. Originally from New York, he currently lives in Boston and serves as the rabbinic intern at Temple Shir Tikvah in Winchester, MA. Ari Lev is committed to living a Judaism grounded in values of collective liberation and currently serves as a chaplain for the Essex County House of Corrections. He is passionate about biking, farming, cooking and studying Talmud.