by Karen Calechman
The theme for my synagogue’s “Joys of Jewish Learning” event this past year was mayyim (water). Sharon Amster Brown, our Director of Education, excitedly chose “The Mikveh Monologues” as the perfect theatrical piece to be performed at Temple Israel of Long Beach, California. “The Mikveh Monologues,” a play based on stories from visitors to Mayyim Hayyim, would enhance congregants’ learning about mikveh. My husband, Jerry N. Prell, is a director, actor, and theatre professor who grew up in Newton, and was surprised to find out that Mayyim Hayyim was located in his childhood hometown!
Jerry and I began our mikveh education journey through the various workshops and presentations on mikva’ot held at Temple Israel during this past year. “The Mikveh Monologues,” performed on June 11, 2017, was the culmination of that learning, and an experience that we will cherish.
Mayyim Hayyim presents “The Mikveh Monologues” as a staged reading, with actors reading from scripts: the stories demonstrate the impact of ritual immersion in the lives of very different kinds of people: from a bat mitzvah girl to a bride to a breast cancer survivor. It includes conversion stories and reflections from fathers and rabbis.
The stories were extremely moving: at times funny, at times extremely sad, but all very relatable and meaningful. The inspiration and transformation of each individual character was palpable. The liturgical music was interspersed at just the right moments, setting the mood for the entire piece and adding a level of respect and spirituality. The actors’ portrayals of the characters seemed very real. The director’s interpretation of each character was so accurate and believable that it really brought these immersion experiences to life. I found tears streaming down my face in response to these powerful stories. I was a bit embarrassed, but then looked behind me, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
My husband’s experience directing the piece, and my experience of seeing it, motivated us to travel to Mayyim Hayyim this past summer for our own immersions. My mother passed away in April, and I was in the grieving process. We each set our own intention and picked out specific prayers. I didn’t know how I would feel after I had gone through my immersion, but I felt this was a very necessary next step in my grieving. The entire preparation for my body, mind, and soul as I entered the preparation room was transformative. I took my time and did every step with intention. As I immersed and said the prayers aloud, I was sobbing uncontrollably, talking to God and to my mom. My emotions were intense and raw.
For many reasons, I never felt that my mother’s soul was at rest, and because of that I couldn’t move any further through my grief. I wanted to know and believe that her soul was at peace. I know that she wouldn’t have wanted to me to have this internal struggle. I begged God to let me come to a place of acceptance and peace, and to know that her soul was at peace. As I rose out of the water the last time, I inadvertently turned my head to the wall tiles between the steps and the banister. There, at the intersection of the two tiles that my eyes happened to focus on, was a perfect heart formed at their meeting. I thought I was imagining this, so I immersed again. When I arose, and looked at that exact same spot, the heart was still there.
Whether the installers purposefully laid the tiles this way, or it was just coincidence, the fact that my eyes landed on this exact spot was nothing short of a miracle. I felt a strange calmness come over me. When I told my husband, he said he had not seen a heart. He had taken a picture of the mikveh after his immersion. We quickly looked at the picture to see if there was a heart in the same place in his mikveh. No heart was seen. I felt a kind of settling of emotions and a sudden quiet. I could finally feel that my mother’s soul was at peace and now so was mine.
You, too, can bring “The Mikveh Monologues” to your community. Learn more here or call us at 617-244-1836.
Karen Calechman and her husband Jerry Prell live in Long Beach, California. They hope to bring “The Mikveh Monologues” back to their congregation soon.