Family Matters: Watershed
As the mikve lady picked loose, wet hairs off my back, I shivered, standing naked and barefoot on the cold floor tiles. Satisfied I was spotless, she said I could enter the water. But I hesitated: Was my current situation so desperate that I was actually going to dip in the mikve?
The ritual bath, according to the Torah, purifies a woman after her menstrual cycle, during which she is forbidden to have sex with her husband. Many believe that following these ritual purity laws sanctifies a marriage and blesses the couple with fertility.
Unlike most women I know— from traditional to Orthodox—on my wedding day I did not immerse in the mikve. I was 41 years old, long done with my Orthodox upbringing and especially opposed to antifeminist customs, where the onus of everything was on women: We were unclean. We had to cover our bodies, our hair, our voices, lest it lead to men being tempted.
Besides, I married a secular Israeli. Family purity laws, keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath and the mikve were not part of our plans.
But a funny thing happened right after I got married: I got pregnant. And then I wasn’t. And then I was again. And then I wasn’t. I knew I might have trouble conceiving, but I had no clue it would be so hard to stay pregnant. And then, as hard as we tried, it seemed we couldn’t get pregnant again.
As I charted my menstruation cycle—checking for ovulation on day 12 of my cycle—I realized it was the same day a religious woman is allowed to start having sex again. No wonder religious women have so many children: They are having sex on their peak ovulation days, and their husbands are saving up their seed, just as my fertility doctor advised us to do prior to ovulation. Family purity laws, it seemed, were like a mandated fertility program.
We had been through months of failed attempts. My biological clock was soon going to go kaput. Maybe I should give the mikve a go, I thought. My husband would never agree to abstention for two weeks, but perhaps dipping would do the trick. I had been to many fertility specialists, a number of acupuncturists, even an intuitive psychic healer. Why not give my own religion a shot?
But month after month passed and I could not bring myself to go. I could not bear the thought of some religious woman telling me what to do. I was also afraid they would know I was not observant and had never immersed before. It felt like I was back in high school, where the rabbis inspected our jean skirts to make sure they covered our knees. I had stopped giving religion a power over my life.
I was not an atheist—I just did not believe in the Orthodox God of my childhood. And yet, here I was, caught in a foxhole.
The mikve’s peach bathroom looked like a private spa. There was soap, shampoo and conditioner as well as Q-tips to clean your ears, a loofa to slough off dead skin, sticks to clean nails and files to remove hangnails. The rabbis dictate that there should be no barriers between a woman and the water: Anything that can be removed, from jewelry to dirt, is considered a barrier. I took a long, luxurious shower, shaving my legs, scrubbing my body, brushing through my long, curly hair with conditioner, making sure there were no knots—knots are barriers between a woman and the water.
I could understand how it would be nice to get ready for my husband like this: To make sure I was clean, shaven, fresh, un-hangnailed. I’m sure he would appreciate this effort—preparing each month like a bride, instead of wearing tattered sweatpants and waiting for The Daily Show to be over. Maybe my people were onto something here.
After my shower I donned the fluffy white robe, slipped my feet into the plush slippers, picked up the wall phone and pressed the green button.
“I’ll be there in a few minutes,” the mikve lady said. There was another door at the end of the bathroom, different from the one I had entered, like a double-door into a therapist’s office.
On the marble sink, a framed piece of paper listed the rules: Remove jewelry, contact lenses and bandages (if you have to have a bandage on, ask your rabbi). Take off all nail polish.
Uh oh. I looked down at my red toes. I had forgotten to take off the nail polish. I rummaged through the products but there was no nail polish remover. This was one of those things that religious women know to do beforehand. Now I surely would be booted from the mikve. Then, there was a knock at the door.
I opened it outward to a gold-hued room. The 4 x 4 green square bath looked like a tiny swimming pool, four steps down.
“Hello,” said a woman 10 years my junior. Her unlined face was framed by a silky auburn shoulder-length wig. “Have you been to the mikve before?” she asked.
My sister told me to say yes, otherwise they would lecture me on the rules for an hour.
“Actually, I’m visiting from out of town,” I improvised.
“When are you staying until?” she asked, as if I had just met her for coffee, not berobed, in my birthday suit.
“A week,” I said, looking down at my toes. My red toes.
“My nail polish is gel,” I volunteered. When fabricating, it is always best to be proactive. I knew from recent investigations that in the more modern mikves, they would give the three-week-long gel pedicures a pass, because the lacquer is semi-permanent. Like braces: Hard to remove.
“Well,” she said dubiously, “if your rabbi says it’s OK.…”
I nodded vigorously. The man I consulted with on all my religious questions—a k a my husband—surely would say it was OK. (Although he would probably prefer pink.)
At her command, I held out my hands. She examined my fingers for stray pieces of dirt, loose skin and nails, and then moved behind me. With my back to her, I opened my robe and she held it up as I faced the pool. She checked my back, still holding my robe.
She pointed to the blessings resting on the floor in picture frames. I nodded and quickly memorized the Hebrew one and said it to myself, barely moving my lips: “Blessed are You, King of the world, Who has made us holy with Your commandments and commanded us concerning the immersion.” I was supposed to say it aloud, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t give God the satisfaction. Not after everything He had done to me this last year.
As she held the robe up, I gingerly stepped into the water, red toes and all. I walked down the steps and around them where the water was deepest. It came up to my chest. I dipped once, leaving my eyes open as mandated, and quickly popped up.
“Your head wasn’t under all the way,” she said.
I dunked again, forcing myself not to hold my nostrils, for that would be a separation. When I emerged, she said one word in an even-keeled voice: “Kosher.”
Was I supposed to do this more than once? I remembered something from my high school lesson about “kosher, kosher, kosher,” so I immersed two more times and each time she said, “Kosher.”
And then I was done. I walked out of the mikve and into her outstretched arms, holding my robe. “May you and your family be blessed and may you have shalom bayit, peace in your home,” she said, opening the door back to my bathroom.
I closed the door behind me and burst into tears.
I didn’t know exactly why I was crying. For just a moment I felt what it would have been like to have an entire community, a plethora of souls, in my corner, comforting me, standing by my side during my suffering, rooting for me and my successes. I felt the pain of my last year ooze from my pores, as if they had been sweated out of me in a sauna. The failed pregnancies had been too much, suffering in secrecy, with only a handful of friends and family in the know.
I had felt so alone. And here, for just a few minutes, I did not. I felt part of something larger.
Of course, after I dressed, paid the mikve lady and got into my car to drive home, my rational self came rushing back: I still felt tainted by the “woman-being-unclean” feeling. I would be more likely to go to the mikve and prepare for sex if my husband did, too.
I also remembered the price I had once paid for being part of the larger community: Everyone knowing your business, like the mikve lady examining me, picking off my stray hairs the way they picked apart my privacy.
If I were religious, I would have to subject myself to that framed list of laws, laws so nitpicky they sometimes seemed to be written by people with OCD rather than mandated by God. That was one of the reasons I had stopped being observant: My innocent childhood religion had become more and more particular. To me, all the rules disguised the original intent of the law.
Like this mikve experience, which, in many ways, is a lovely, lovely tradition: You prepare yourself immaculately to be with your husband; you dunk in a natural body of water; you make sex special, desirable. All good. But then the rabbis pile on rule after rule after rule. There is that framed checklist and someone examining you and you think, Wait, why am I doing this again?
And, yes, I remembered what it felt like to feel a part of a community. It felt wonderful. Except that I no longer agreed with the social and political values of most Orthodox people. I am a pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-two-state solution feminist Jew.
I am a married, secular, spiritual person who went to the mikve once in her life and opened up her heart to ask God for a child. And who knows, maybe it will work. Just maybe.
Amy Klein writes “The Fertility Diary” column for The New York Times Motherlode blog. Her Web site is www.KleinsLines.com.