It was as scary as anything I'd ever done, and I wasn't sure why. As a Reform Jew, my sense of being commanded by God does not come with a set of 613 unambiguous instructions, yet something had drawn me to the mikveh - the ritual bath - and to begin observing its laws, something about bringing God into my marriage in a more concrete way.
To me, being Reform means requiring of myself a thorough education in Jewish practices and their meaning. As I seek closeness to God, as I try to infuse my life with greater meaning and holiness, I know there is a roadmap that has been traveled for millennia and I know I need to study it. How can I reject rituals I don't understand? How can I demand new rituals when I haven't yet learned the old ones?
What I knew about the mikveh I had learned from books. In a nutshell, they said Jewish tradition requires a couple to abstain from sex for about twelve days beginning at the start of the woman's period; she then immerses in the "living waters" of the mikveh - a manifestation or symbol of God's presence - after which she and her husband can be intimate again. The laws of tacharat hamishpachah, or the "purity of the family," are often derided as attaching shame to menstruation, but my reading regarded them differently. The couple separates for part of the month in order to develop the non-physical parts of their relationship - much as we study Torah to develop the non-physical parts of ourselves; and immersion brings the woman physically close to God to sanctify her for what follows - that is, physical reunion with her spouse. I saw in this a commandment directed specifically at women and designed to sanctify marriage, too. I knew it was just a matter of time until I would try it. Somehow, I had to be there.
It was just a matter of time - but it was a little daunting, too, the idea of going into an Orthodox facility. (There is no Reform mikveh in my city.) No matter how clearly I understood that the commandment to immerse was as much mine as the Shema, I couldn't help wondering whether they'd let me in; surely they would be able to tell that I drive to synagogue on Shabbat and eat beef and ice cream on the same dishes! I wasn't sure I'd make it in the door, let alone into the actual pool of living waters.
First, of course, I had to begin to observe the laws - and that meant abstaining from sex on certain days, days prescribed not by our social schedules or how tired we were but by, shall we say, forces not subject to our control. In her book On Women and Judaism, Blu Greenberg says these laws are beautiful and profound, and that maybe if abstention were shortened to seven or ten days, more couples would observe them. Robbie and I decided to do seven. On day eight I looked up "mikveh" in the phone book and dialed the number. There was a long recording about hours, fees, location, and, at the very end of the tape, how to call "Shira" for other questions.
Shira answered the phone. I could hear children playing in the background. "What can I help you with?" she asked. I said I was trying to get up the nerve to go for the first time. Her first question was, "Are you married?" Then she asked who I was studying with. I gave the name of my Reform rabbi, which was not familiar to her. "Never mind, it's fine," Shira said. "And, of course, you've waited twelve days." It had only been seven, but it was clear to me from her seriousness that if I was going to use their mikveh I would respect their rules.
I said I wasn't sure I had the nerve to go, but that my husband would be really glad if I did. I was thinking Robbie would be glad for me to get over being scared, but Shira thought perhaps he was pressuring me to go. "It's wonderful that your husband is supportive," she said, "but immersion in the mikveh is really for you, you yourself." She went on to tell me that when you immerse in the water, you are as close as you will ever be to God - that you have to remove all jewelry, makeup, bits of food in your teeth, dirt under your nails, and so on because there should be nothing at that moment between you and Adonai. She didn't say anything about being perfectly "clean"; she talked about being completely uncovered (unmasked, I knew my rabbi would say, though I've never heard him discuss it). This is exactly what we work for all year long in our prayers, to free the soul from the bonds of culture, which get in the way of our purest selves. Obviously, we must be clothed from one another, but before God we must be as exposed as possible, to open our hearts to the divine love and truth. Thus our tradition offers women an allegorical "uncovering" (for men, perhaps circumcision) that opens a channel to heaven.
Then, at the moment of immersion, when you are as close as you can ever be to God - "at that moment," Shira said, you may make a personal prayer, not for world peace but for something in your own life. "The mikveh is for you," she said. "It's a beautiful personal moment. It's just you and God."
It took me two more months to finally do it. It was 9:00 at night. From the parking lot I saw a woman leaving the building with a scarf around her head. I realized I was wearing short sleeves. Knowing that the Orthodox require women's clothes to cover the knees and elbows, I arranged a scarf over my shoulders. A security guard stood outside three doors. I asked him which was the right one. I pressed the buzzer and - miracle! - they let me in.
The waiting room was crowded and I didn't know where to sit. I stood against a wall; then somebody offered me a seat. There was a box of lamina-ted numbers on the table; I took number 17, and they were only up to 9! I sat down and fumbled with my scarf. Then I noticed that all the women but two were wearing shorts and T-shirts. Two young women were talking about childrearing issues - a nice, uncranky conversation. Some were reading magazines. It smelled good there - like a bathroom when you've just filled the bathtub. Maybe it was steam, or a hint of soap. Anyway, it was nice.
From then on I wasn't nervous, just filled with anticipation. After a very long time my number was called and I was taken to a room that looked like any bathroom - simple wood cabinets, sink, shower tub, mirror, linoleum floor; the only clue that it was something else was an intercom speaker by the door. There were towels, paper slippers, and everything you needed to fix up your nails. And there was a checklist of preparations so you wouldn't forget anything. I stepped into the bathtub and mostly scrubbed my feet - Shira had said they would definitely check hands, nails, and feet - and it seemed that no matter how much I scrubbed, more dirt kept coming off. Finally I gave up and just hoped they would be considered clean enough. I readied my explanation that I'd been gardening barefoot for years and - could I say this? - I had never really looked at the soles of my feet before that night.
And indeed, this was a bath like no bath I had ever taken. I was striving not to be clean but to be uncovered, to remove anything and everything that could come between me and God. I wasn't trying to make my nails look pretty; I was trying to remove all dirt and particles from them. I had to comb out my hair, something I never do; my hair is short and naturally curly. When I was finished, I looked in the mirror and didn't recognize myself. And I knew that was good.
I buzzed. The "mikveh lady," whom I'd read about in books, came to the door. She was about 25, sweet and shy. I told her it was my first time and that I didn't know exactly what to do. She said okay; she didn't make any fuss, just smiled shyly. I had a towel on and these paper slippers, and she held up a big sheet as we walked by various halls and doors to the mikveh room. When we got to the top of the stairs that descend into the water, she said, "I have to ask you a personal favor." I was surprised. "I have a baby son. He is eight weeks old and tonight he fell off the bed. Would you please say a prayer for him?"
I was go glad Shira had told me about saying personal prayers in the water. "Of course," I said, and I told her my kids too had fallen off the bed and they were all fine. She looked relieved and grateful. Then she checked my hands and feet. They were okay. I stepped into the water, realizing I didn't know whether it would be warm or cold. It was very warm, almost hot. I walked down the stairs and went under the water. I said a prayer for the little boy. I had forgotten to think of a prayer for myself, so I prayed for him again during the second and third immersions. In between the second and third I said the blessing, which I had also forgotten and which the mikveh lady repeated for me. In English it means, "Blessed are You Adonai, King of the world, who has made us holy with Your commandments and commanded us concerning the immersion." Each time I came up, she said, "Kosher...Good!" She seemed a little surprised I knew what to do. I was thinking I must be the only Jewish woman in history who learned what to do in the mikveh from a book. Well, a book plus a telephone call.
How was it? For me the preparation felt more significant than the immersion because I had forgotten to think of something to pray for and the immersions were so fast I had no time to think or say much of anything. But it was nice. I felt that I was reaching out further to God, more than that God was there with me. But like all efforts at meeting the Divine - prayer, for example - surely this must take practice.
The biggest surprise was how normal and ordinary it seemed. The next day in the market every woman I saw seemed to be someone who might go to the mikveh; it no longer seemed alien or exotic - rather a gorgeous privilege, like who wouldn't eat chocolate if they had the chance, or go to Paris, or have children? To be able to immerse yourself in some manifestation of God...to come so close, and be held so warmly, even as you are bared and exposed - in my mind I heard the words "Ma tovu ohalecha, Yaakov, mishkenotecha, Yisrael!" - how lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
And yes, the twelve days of abstention are hard, but they have their rewards. Obviously deprivation makes you appreciate what you have taken for granted. And being thus separated while still having the same amount of time together has heightened our appreciation of the rest of our marriage. I think of the twelve days also as a kind of fast, giving thanks to God for fertility, for marriage, and even for sex, none of which would exist without God's endless love of humankind. And eventually the twelve days do end.
It's been several months now, and I can't imagine going back to how Robbie and I were before. Our bodies are but dust; they are on loan to us from God to house our souls, and to enjoy as God wants us to enjoy them. During the twelve days we are commanded to abstain, my husband and I live soul to soul. Sometimes it's hard, but that's when it's the most beautiful.
So - what was I so afraid of? In retrospect, I think I was afraid of looking like an imposter before God. Was I really ready to come into God's presence in such a profound way? Was I worthy? And what would I find there? The God of judgement or the God of mercy and compassion? Go for yourself and see - but I can tell you that the water was very, very warm. I myself am no longer afraid. And I know just exactly why I have to be there.
Jane Solomon is a freelance writer. Because of the personal nature of this piece, the author has used a pseudonym.