The mikveh mono­logues

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By ILANA STUTLAND

‘The mikveh was a tool to wield as pun­ish­ment. If my hus­band and I had ar­gued or he was late, I would ask him, ‘Why should I make an ef­fort for you?’ And then I wouldn’t go to mikveh so he couldn’t sleep with me. It was a weapon I could con­trol. I hate go­ing to the mikveh [rit­u­ual bath]. I never viewed it as a cleans­ing or pu­ri­fy­ing act.”

This is an ex­cerpt from Ta­mar, 38, in which she de­scribes the con­nec­tion be­tween the mikveh and her re­la­tion­ship with her hus­band, which ap­pears in a He­brew-language book of mikveh sto­ries writ­ten by Dr. Ella Kan­ner, who has a PhD in gen­der stud­ies and is a per­sonal and busi­ness life coach.

The book is a col­lec­tion of 29 mono­logues by women who openly and au­then­ti­cally talk about their ex­pe­ri­ences in one of the most in­ti­mate of places: the mikveh. This is where the mitz­vah of Jewish pu­rity is ob­served. The 29 women delve into the dif­fi­cul­ties, the lies, the ex­cite­ment, the shame, the em­bar­rass­ment and the ho­li­ness of im­mers­ing in the mikveh.

Kan­ner, 53, of Pe­tah Tikva, is mar­ried and has six chil­dren (as well as grand­chil­dren). When she was 18, she made the de­ci­sion to be­come re­li­giously ob­ser­vant. “Im­mers­ing in the mikveh is an ex­tremely im­por­tant part of Jewish re­li­gious ob­ser­vance, and I wanted it to be part of public dis­course,” says Kan­ner. “Us­ing the mikveh has al­ways been kept se­cret. Ev­ery­one knows that women go to the mikveh ev­ery month, but women would never dis­cuss their ex­pe­ri­ences with oth­ers. Things that are taboo of­ten­times hold great sig­nif­i­cance, and it’s im­por­tant that we be­gin talk­ing openly about mikveh.”

Why is it im­por­tant to have these women’s sto­ries ac­ces­si­ble to the public?

“Mikveh ex­pe­ri­ences are the­o­ret­i­cally a pri­vate is­sue, but in this case they are also a very highly po­lit­i­cal is­sue, too. Ac­tions that take place be­hind closed doors have ram­i­fi­ca­tions on the lives of all of us, not just on the spe­cific woman who dips in the wa­ter. First of all, we must un­der­stand that im­mers­ing in the mikveh is the pri­mary rite of pas­sage for women just be­fore they en­ter into mar­riage. Then, through­out the rest of their lives, it sep­a­rates the time when they are per­mit­ted to be in­ti­mate with their hus­band and when they aren’t. As a re­sult, this act has a great im­pact on mar­i­tal re­la­tions. It’s also a com­mand­ment that you ful­fill by get­ting fully and com­pletely naked.”

Ac­cord­ing to Kan­ner, the is­sue of full nu­dity is very im­por­tant. “We are forced to look at how our body is chang­ing,” Kan­ner ex­plains, “in­clud­ing the parts that we like see­ing the least. In ad­di­tion, many peo­ple ob­ject to the pres­ence of the mikveh lady. They say that hav­ing her look at them is an un­bear­able ex­pe­ri­ence. They feel like she is an ex­ten­sion of the pow­er­ful male es­tab­lish­ment. Then there’s the as­pect of sex­u­al­ity, since mikveh is sup­posed to be fol­lowed by sex­ual in­ter­course. For some women, go­ing to the mikveh is de­press­ing and anx­i­ety-pro­duc­ing, whereas for oth­ers it is an ex­cit­ing pre­lude to re­unit­ing with a spouse.”

What does the mikveh sym­bol­ize for you per­son­ally?

“In the in­tro­duc­tion to the book, I ex­press my­self in the best way I could: ‘For me, the mikveh was and still is the thresh­old for the love song I sing to Hashem and to my hus­band. It’s the tran­si­tional place be­tween be­ing sep­a­rated and then re­united through a cer­e­mony in­volv­ing wa­ter.’

“It’s one of the com­mand­ments that I love the most, and I’m al­ways happy to go. I’ve been go­ing to the mikveh for 34 years now, and I ad­mit that some of the vis­its were less suc­cess­ful. Some­times I was far away from home when mikveh night rolled around, and I’ve even im­mersed in dirty rivers and lakes in In­dia. I’m lucky I never caught cholera. But af­ter each dip, I came out happy.”

All of the women whose sto­ries ap­pear in the book have been given pseudonyms. The women are dif­fer­ent ages and hail from a va­ri­ety of com­mu­ni­ties. Most of them are re­li­gious, but cer­tainly not all of them.

“I was very sur­prised to find out that so many sec­u­lar women go the mikveh,” re­marks Kan­ner. “I don’t pre­sume to think that I’ve cov­ered ev­ery type of women and all the rel­e­vant sit­u­a­tions, but I do think I’ve suc­ceeded in achiev­ing my goal, which was to make women’s voices heard and to paint a pic­ture so that the public can un­der­stand what goes on in mik­vaot in Is­rael in 2019. Change is upon us, but so far the process has been quite slow. I’m hop­ing that the pub­li­ca­tion of my book will help speed things up a lit­tle.”

Some of the mono­logue writ­ers’ ex­pe­ri­ences were pos­i­tive. Oth­ers were neg­a­tive. For ex­am­ple, Rivka, 35, de­scribes the mikveh as “a womb. I feel pro­tected and em­braced as the mikveh lady watches over me, kind of like my mother would. I feel con­nected with all the Jewish women who came be­fore me – go­ing back all the way to our fore­moth­ers Sarah and Re­becca. Like they’re here with me. When I’m im­mersed in­side the wa­ter, I feel like I’m in an ex­tremely per­sonal place.”

Avishag, 32, also talks about how go­ing to the mikveh is an in­cred­i­bly in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ence. “I’m so ex­cited to fi­nally talk about mikveh. My friends and I don’t share any of our ex­pe­ri­ences be­cause it’s a taboo sub­ject that’s sup­posed to re­main se­cret. But why is it okay to talk about ev­ery­thing else, just not mikveh? For me, dip­ping in the mikveh helps me to feel cleansed and closer to Hashem – more so than even to my hus­band. It in­vites the type of self-ex­am­i­na­tion that is very hard to achieve in our busy daily lives.”

In con­trast, Bruria, 30, de­scribes a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence: “For me, go­ing to the mikveh is like a pun­ish­ment, some­thing I need to suf­fer through ev­ery month. I don’t en­joy it for even one mo­ment. In the win­ter, it’s even worse, since I suf­fer from chronic si­nusi­tis. Al­most ev­ery time I go to the mikveh and leave af­ter­wards with wet hair, I get sick the fol­low­ing week. But it’s a re­li­gious re­quire­ment in Ju­daism, so I’m not sure how to get out of go­ing. If I could find any loop­hole, I would stop go­ing in a heart­beat.”

“I love the wa­ter,” says Na’ama, 31. “I love that the pas­sage from the for­bid­den to the per­mis­si­ble hap­pens by im­mers­ing in wa­ter. I strug­gle with all the re­stric­tions. It makes me feel like the Halacha (Jewish re­li­gious law) is re­coil­ing from my body, is afraid of its cy­cle. I find the whole con­cept of­fen­sive. I do it be­cause I have to, be­cause it’s the rule. But I’d be a lot more com­fort­able if we had to carry out some rit­ual to­gether as a cou­ple.”

Some of the mono­logues deal with the ex­ces­sive in­ter­ven­tion by and in­ter­ac­tion with the mikveh lady. “It makes me sad to think about all these years of un­pleas­ant mikveh vis­its,” re­calls Miriam, 28. “The mikveh lady would check my eyes, fin­ger­nails, and teeth. Her touch was un­pleas­ant. In an ef­fort to take back a tiny bit of con­trol, I would ask her, ‘Do I have any hairs on my back?’ Se­lect­ing the place for her to look made me feel like I hadn’t com­pletely lost all con­trol over the sit­u­a­tion.”

Deb­o­rah shares some of the same feel­ings. “I told

the mikveh lady that I wanted to dunk on my own. She was an­noyed, but agreed. Right as I’d fin­ished tak­ing off all of my clothes, she en­tered the room. I told her, ‘Leave the room, I’m not dressed,’ but she didn’t care and was very den­i­grat­ing. I had to use ev­ery last bit of strength I had to keep my­self calm. I dunked on my own, but she in­sisted on ask­ing me lots of ques­tions af­ter­ward. I got out of there as fast as my legs would take me.”

“I was sur­prised by many of the things women wrote in their mono­logues,” ad­mits Kan­ner. “First of all, I’m amazed by how many women have been suf­fer­ing for so many years from their mikveh vis­its. Some suf­fer from poor body im­age, oth­ers from their in­ter­ac­tion with the mikveh lady.

Other women, how­ever, wrote about ex­tremely pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences with mikveh ladies. Some women say that they stay away from a cer­tain mikveh be­cause of the mikveh lady, whereas oth­ers say their faith has strength­ened due to in­ter­ac­tions with the mikveh ladies. At any rate, it’s im­por­tant to men­tion that fol­low­ing the re­cent Is­rael High Court of Jus­tice rul­ing, women are legally al­lowed to im­merse in the mikveh with­out the pres­ence of a mikveh lady.”

Were you sur­prised by any of the mono­logues?

“One woman cre­ated her own mikveh cer­e­mony. ‘I put on mu­sic I love – Ri­hanna,’ writes Zi­pora. ‘It puts me in a good mood. And I like the strong pres­sure of the warm wa­ter in the mikveh. It feels very nice. I re­ally en­joy com­ing to the mikveh.’”

Are most mikvehs main­tained well?

“Some of them are re­ally fancy, and some are kind of dis­gust­ing. A num­ber of mono­logues high­lighted the fact that the mikveh had mold on the walls. In this mod­ern day and age, it’s im­por­tant that a mikveh be clean and pleas­ing.”

Kan­ner was, how­ever, shocked by a num­ber of the mono­logues. “In Ethiopia, girls would start go­ing to the mikveh right af­ter they started get­ting their pe­riod, even if they were only 10 years old,” says Hava, 41. “Many peo­ple who didn’t grow up in Is­rael have a re­ally hard time ad­just­ing to im­mers­ing in wa­ter in­side a build­ing. In Ethiopia, women use the river as their mikveh.”

An­other as­tound­ing story Kan­ner in­cluded in her book was writ­ten by Deb­o­rah, who had to go to four mik­vaot un­til she could find one where the mikveh lady would let her im­merse by her­self. For most of the women she heard from, how­ever, go­ing to the mikveh was a won­der­fully pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

“What’s amaz­ing,” sum­ma­rizes Kan­ner, “is that ev­ery­one has their own unique ex­pe­ri­ence.”


‘I WAS very sur­prised to find out that so many sec­u­lar women go to the mikveh.’

(As­lan Ab­gana)

DR. ELLA KAN­NER: Mov­ing the mikveh into the public dis­course.

(Ella Kan­ner)

KAN­NER’S BOOK is a col­lec­tion of 29 mono­logues by women who openly and au­then­ti­cally dis­cuss their ex­pe­ri­ences in the most in­ti­mate of places.

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