I’m going to be honest – before I found this place I was totally ambivalent about the mikveh. Growing up Orthodox, we teenage girls were taught to venerate the mikveh as a mysterious, holy, beautiful thing.
We toured mikva’ot on school and camp field trips, where mikveh ladies would show us how gorgeous the rooms were, how intimate and spa-like the experience. That we would immerse monthly, for niddah, after marriage, was a foregone conclusion that did not even require discussion.
I confess that I barely remember my first immersion, which was the night before my wedding. I recall meticulously running down the checklist of preparations, worrying that I forgot something and that I wasn’t clean enough. My next memory is of emerging from the mikveh itself, underwhelmed. Was there something wrong with me? I shrugged it off and figured it would get better with time.
It didn’t. I’ve been married almost ten years now, and in that time, I’ve been to mikva’ot in four states and two countries. Nice ones, not-so-nice ones, nice mikveh ladies, intimidating mikveh ladies, one who yelled at me for not cutting my nails short enough. One who came equipped with her own cart of wipes and proceeded to, unasked, wipe my face down to remove any errant makeup.
I would take the dip: one, two, three, and out. Back in the car and home. It became just another thing I had to do in a busy day, one that I eventually came to resent. And let’s not even get into the issues I had with the practice as a feminist.
When I first heard about Mayyim Hayyim, I rolled my eyes. Who were these hippie Jews trying to ascribe some kind of greater meaning to an outdated, probably misogynist mitzvah?
I had a lot to learn. So I started with this very blog, and did a lot of reading. What changed my mind about Mayyim Hayyim and mikveh entirely, comes down to one word: relationship.
While I knew that some men immersed before Shabbat and holidays, it never occurred to me to use the mikveh to mark events and transitions in my own life. This was my first revelation.
As I read more about the history and values of Mayyim Hayyim, I realized that this place is one of the most radical Jewish organizations out there. It takes back an ancient mitzvah from authoritarian rabbinic rule and gives it to the people. As the mikveh itself is a gateway for new Jews coming into the fold, and women immersing for niddah, Mayyim Hayyim democratizes perhaps the biggest fault lines in modern Judaism — the “who is a Jew” debate, and women’s bodies and sexuality. Second revelation.
So after all that reading, I was pretty convinced. Heck, in that time I applied for a job and got it. I was officially Mayyim Hayyim material!
But I still hadn’t immersed. I put it off until my next official mikveh night, hoping that the experience would be different, and scared that it wouldn’t be.
I did my physical preparations and, with the help of a very supportive Mikveh Guide, did the dip as usual. It was beautiful, but I didn’t feel anything yet.
I read that it is common at Mayyim Hayyim to ask one’s Guide to have a few moments alone in the mikveh. I had never heard of this practice before, and certainly never been offered such an opportunity at any other mikveh. So I asked, and it was those moments to myself that made all of the difference in the world.
While this may be the norm at Mayyim Hayyim, I had never once spent time to myself in the mikveh. It had never even occurred to me to do so. You get in, you dip, you say the blessing, you dip again a few times, you get out. Done. But what if there was more?
Alone, I looked down at the water and realized that I had never, in almost 10 years, looked at my body in the mikveh. Not even once. I almost started crying right then. I never knew I could have the time and space to cultivate such a connection — just by being in the mikveh itself, with oneself. And God. It’s a vessel, and you gotta stay in it to get anything out of it.
I mean, DUH, right? But I don’t think I’m alone in this, especially among Orthodox women.
So that night, I took that time and space. I felt my body in the water, meditated, talked to God. I let myself feel the stone beneath my feet and water passing through my fingers. I breathed in the stillness. For the first time, I felt like the mikveh was mine.
Eventually, I stepped out of the water and looked back at it. There was a relationship now, a sweetness to build on.
Third revelation: I can’t wait to go back.
DeDe is the newly-minted Development Manager at Mayyim Hayyim. She looks forward to getting to know all of you and continuing to have mikveh experiences that are transformative.