What Makes the Mikvah So Mysterious?

May 27, 2016

BH

If there’s one mitzvah in Jewish life that swirls with misconceptions, it’s ritual immersion, otherwise known as The Mikvah. The canard is that mikvahs are dirty and that menstruating women are viewed as somehow dirty, but neither of those things matter to the Jewish women committed to this ancient, secret ritual (if this one doesn’t sound pagan, I don’t know what does) that is anathema to everyone who is educated in biology and/or hygiene. True, some 21st-century folks enjoy incorporating the mikvah into modern, meaningful rites of passage–whatever floats their boats–but not as a G-d-ordained means to sanctify the marriage relationship. No how, no way.

Because mikvah touches on everything private in Jewish life–mainly, intimacy–you have to look pretty hard to find firsthand accounts of what mikvah observance means in a marriage. You can imagine the different ways women say the same things about feelings of rebirth and enjoying a honeymoon every month. But real mikvah experiences are only shared exclusively between husband and wife. Good for marriages, bad for myth perpetuation. We’ve heard about our immigrant ancestors abandoning Shabbos to earn a living when they came to America; why don’t we know any details surrounding their giving up on the mitzvah known as taharat hamishpacha, family purity? One of the first factoids I learned about Jewish law was that a community’s funds must be used to build a mikvah first and a synagogue second. When did the mikvah to go under?

A recent article in our Pittsburgh newspaper celebrated the retirement of the community’s 92-year-old “mikvah lady,” Mrs. Malka Markovic. The first time I met her 29 years ago, she wasn’t yet the “mikvah lady” and I had never been to the mikvah. My husband and I had become observant while expecting our third child, so I didn’t have to contend with this ancient, secret part of the package. Instead, I met Mrs. Markovic when she catered our son Izzy’s bris. (I had never seen such a large pan of anything before seeing her legendary pumpkin kugel  that day; I later learned the secret was her own homegrown pumpkins.)

When I met her many months later as the mikvah lady, I also marveled at her catering ability, only this time, she was helping me prepare for immersion. It may sound ritualistic to think that by my following a checklist that includes removing makeup and cutting my nails (the mikvah’s waters should reach every part of the body without impediment) I am protecting the holiness of the Jewish nation, but that’s how important the details of mikvah observance are. If I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. I don’t have to tell you how long I took or how often I second-guessed my scrupulousness, but Mrs. Markovic never got rattled by my mishhegas.

On Friday nights, when I walked to the mikvah before nightfall (immersion for women is always after dark), we always ended up discussing her life. Her voice was matter-of-fact as she described the line-up when she arrived at the concentration camp, complete with details of seeing women go crazy when their babies were pulled from their arms and shot before their eyes. These could be unsettling images in the moments before I’m supposed to connect to G-d as the source of all life and all goodness, but Mrs. Markovic was somehow living proof that, in her case, He is. How many eighty-something-year old Jewish ladies would insist on taking apart the bathroom sink pipe just so she could find the back of your earring? I learned that when a woman emerges from the mikvah in her new, spiritually pure state, she’s supposed to touch something holy before facing the world. I could never imagine a better way to do that than to kiss Mrs. Markovic good-bye as I left.

Will one Jewish woman want to experience the mikvah based on the newspaper’s description of this “ancient Orthodox Jewish ritual”? I doubt it. (For the record, one immersion is better than none and a post-menopausal woman gets a one-time-only deal that sanctifies her entire marriage retroactively.) And even though there aren’t many “mikvah ladies” like Mrs. Markovic, the mikvah’s not the place to go to meet inspiring people. It’s a place to go to meet G-d, to bring Him into my marriage, and to be reminded that everything comes from Him, mysterious as all that is.

8 Comments

  1. Reply

    Batya

    Beautiful commentary. And I also saw the article on Mrs. Markovic–very complimentary. In Pittsburgh, we were fortunate to have a mikvah lady who was a neighbor, friend, and a Bubby. We could have as personal a relationship with her as we liked. In other cities one visits the mikvah like a customer in a bakery, taking a number, and being served when ready.

    My take on what makes the mikvah so mysterious is just that: mystery. Our secular culture infantilizes sexuality and our holy Jewish culture keeps it hidden and refined. Modern Americans do not sit easily with mystery and the sublime. We want facts, entertainment and unfortunately, enjoy titillation. Jewish children are not educated about mikvah until they are ready for marriage… or in the playground, if at all.

    How can something associated with the duties of the High Priest be associated with family life? It does not compute. I’m not an educator or a Rabbi so I do not have suggestions how–or if–to introduce the topic to our young adults with the sensitivity and seriousness. But I think there is a place for that type of education so we raise a community of people committed to marriage and not, G-d forbid, opting to choose divorce or promiscuity.

    The real issue relies upon inculcating our children and immersing them in authentic Jewish culture (not the bagels and lox jokes of the Borscht Belt). The home is important but we cannot shield them from outside influences. The more aware they become of how irreverently and ridiculed authentic Jewish practice is presented in modern secular media, the more they will value our way of life.
    The mystery is part of us, and part of our connection with G-d.

    1. Reply

      Lieba Rudolph

      Thank you for your insightful thoughts, Batya!

  2. Reply

    Chaya Lieblich

    Beautiful article

    1. Reply

      Lieba Rudolph

      Thank you, Chaya, and thank you for commenting!

  3. Reply

    Mary Neumayer-Stolle

    It is a wonderful experience. When I converted I went through it. Unfortunately, Mikvahs are few and far between, and not easily accessible, especially if you don’t have a car.

    1. Reply

      Lieba Rudolph

      Sometimes mikvahs are very accessible and women still don’t avail themselves of them…but you are fortunate to have had a wonderful experience. Thank you for commenting, Mary!

  4. Reply

    Barbara Shear

    Lovely article. Thanks. I always feel better after I read your blog.
    Hugs

    1. Reply

      Lieba Rudolph

      And I love when you comment, Barb. More than I can say. Hugs back.

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