by Naava Pasternak Swirsky
Back in May, Penny Harow Thau and I published a book, There’s a Shark in the Mikvah! A Light-hearted Look at Women’s Dunking Experiences. We had contacted friends and family and used social media to collect funny mikveh stories. After the book came out, I wrote an article for the Times of Israel website advocating that women share their personal mikveh stories, that mothers share their stories with their daughters, and that women be more open about discussing the topic. Well, people are certainly talking about the mikveh now, but not for the reasons that we were hoping for.
By now, many people have heard that a prominent Orthodox Rabbi in the U.S. was arrested on charges of voyeurism for having installed hidden cameras in his community’s mikveh. The news was shocking to everyone, especially for the congregants of the Rabbi’s synagogue. Anyone spying on someone who believes that they are alone is horrible. The fact that this occurred in a place that is imbued with holiness is truly disturbing.
When we were working on our book we spoke to many women about their mikveh experiences. We were looking for funny and inspiring stories that women hadn’t previously shared for reasons of modesty. We promised that the stories would remain anonymous. Jewish Orthodox women are taught not to speak about their mikveh experiences. When Penny and I were collecting these stories we ended up having some great laughs with our contributors, but it also led to many serious discussions covering a range of topics.
Some women shared that for them, going to the mikveh is spiritually uplifting and they look forward to it. However, there are many women we spoke with, who, although quite committed to religious observance, struggle with the requirement of going to the mikveh. For many, keeping their visits secret from their children and neighbors can be daunting. Women on vacation or travelling for work have to find mikva’ot in unfamiliar towns and cities. In addition, there are some women who shared with us that they have been struggling with infertility, or who have had miscarriages, which has made their visits to the mikveh emotionally overwhelming.
When our book came out, we were thrilled by readers who told us that reading it made them feel that they could, for the first time, talk about their mikveh experiences with other women. I hope that, despite, (and perhaps because of), these recent unfortunate events in D.C, women will keep talking about this beautiful mitzvah, whether what they have to say is difficult or joyfully amusing.
I’d like to end with a very short story from our book:
Although I usually wear glasses, according to halacha (Jewish law), one is not allowed to tovel (immerse) in the mikveh while wearing anything. Because of this, I had a mikveh experience that I will never forget.
After removing my glasses, I blindly stumbled my way into the mikveh pool. On the second step, I lost my footing and, while trying to catch myself, ended up belly-flopping into the water.
The mikveh lady leaned over and said with a grin, “Kosher!”
We both burst out laughing.
Naava Pasternak Swirsky has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is a founder and co-owner of AlphaPatent Associates, Ltd, an intellectual property firm. She is the mother of four and currently lives in Beit Shemesh, Israel.