An ex-Orthodox Jewish woman takes a dip in the ancient ritual bath to see if it really will make her—and her marriage—pure.
As I stood naked on the gold tiled floor, I flinched as the stranger picked stray, wet hairs off my bare back. When she pronounced me clean to enter the water, I wondered yet again: Was my life really so desperate now that I was actually going to go to the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath? But I didn’t have time for second thoughts—my biological clock was ticking away, and I desperately needed God’s help. Even though I had abandoned him years ago. So I tentatively touched my toe to the warm waters of the mikvah.
For thousands of years, Jewish women have immersed themselves in the mikvah (Hebrew for “basin of water”) to cleanse themselves for the sake of family purity. According to the Torah, a woman is impure during her menstrual cycle, and then rabbinical leaders tacked on another week afterward, which effectively means that Orthodox couples do not have sex for a minimum of twelve days each month (and longer, if a woman’s period is more than five days). Following her menstrual cycle, a woman immerses in the mikvah to make herself pure again.
In the olden days, that simply meant she went into a natural body of water, like a lake or an ocean, but today mikvahs are indoors—miniature pools just big enough for one person, filled with natural water. They are housed in synagogues, community centers and private homes—and in recent years, have become spa-like settings for women accustomed to the finer things in life.
There are a dozen public mikvahs in Manhattan, and too many to count in other heavily Jewish boroughs such as Brooklyn and Queens. There’s a worldwide mikvah directory online at www.mikvah.org, because no matter where a religious woman travels, no matter what she is doing, when her impure days are up, she must dip in the mikvah. (A convert to Judaism must also immerse in the mikvah.)
Now, I could see the benefit of not having sex with your husband for half the month. First, I wouldn’t have to shave my legs quite as often; second, it might be nice not to have the possibility of nookie on the agenda—Every. Single. Night. Even though I’ve only been with my husband for three years, that nightly will we or won’t we wondering probably takes up more brain space than I can afford (times ten for my husband).
But because Jewish law mandates it, I am, in principle, opposed to it. Hostile to it, really. I was raised Orthodox but stopped being religious a dozen years ago at age thirty. That’s rather late to extract oneself from a lifelong indoctrination, so shards of my Flatbush, Brooklyn, upbringing remain embedded within me like shrapnel in a war veteran, every so often giving me flashbacks.
I had never immersed in the mikvah and had never planned on it, not for a law that deemed women impure, unholy, unclean to be touched by their husbands; of course the men are always pure. The onus for so many things in Orthodox Judaism seems to be on the women, who have to cover their bodies, their hair, even their voices (men are not permitted to hear a woman sing) lest it lead to men being tempted.
In recent years, though, more liberal Jews have begun to reclaim the mikvah custom. Author Anita Diamant, who penned the historical fiction novel The Red Tent—named after the separate place for menstruating women during Biblical times—helped found Mayyim Hayyim (“Living Waters”), a liberal “mikvah community” in Boston that is open to men and women of every denomination.
Diamant writes in her collection of essays, Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship and Other Leaps of Faith: “I want a mikveh where converts will linger at the mirror, before and after the blessings of immersions that symbolically transform them from not-Jewish to Jewish. In my mikveh, there will be gracious room for song and blessings, for hugs and champagne, for gifts of books and candles. My mikveh will provide liberal time and space for savoring beginnings. Brides and grooms (gay and straight) will come, separately, in preparation for marriage. Setting aside the lists, and plans, and the rush, each will read a poem or a psalm…”
Renewal-hippy Jews may be taking a number of traditional Orthodox customs and making them their own—keeping kosher for ethics’ sake, fasting for health and religious reasons—but I wasn’t going to have any part of it. A rose by any other name still has thorns.
* * *
I hadn’t heard of family purity laws until I was a senior at my co-ed Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school in Flatbush. Sure, I’d heard mention of the mikvah, because my father went there once a year to prepare for the holy fast of Yom Kippur. (Men use the mikvah—a separate one than the women, of course—before their wedding, and before Yom Kippur, when they are supposed to be as holy as angels.) But until they pulled us girls out of gym class during our last semester, I had no idea about the need for women to cleanse away their menstrual impurities.
Ms. Kohl, our cool young English teacher and now the class’s ad-hoc purity advisor, told us back then that family purity is meant to protect a marriage. “Judaism believes that by limiting choices we create more choices,” she had said. Of course, we all knew that from a hundred other examples in our daily lives: Eating only kosher food made us appreciate our diet and prevented us from being gluttonous. Having the Sabbath day off, not using electricity or cars or money, made us appreciate the bustle of the rest of the week by slowing down.
“If you have sex all the time, it wouldn’t be special,” she said. (At that point we weren’t having any. Our co-ed yeshiva in the 1980s was like Middle America circa 1950. Boys and girls dated, went to parties, and even made out, but pre-marital sex wasn’t on the agenda; no girl who wanted to marry well gave up her virginity.) We knew that sex was supposed to be special, strictly within the context of marriage—and only, we now learned, during half the month. That made sense. Who would want to have sex during her period, anyway?
Ms. Kohl said the laws of family purity contributed to shalom bayit—domestic harmony, which is the highest value that religious couples have. She said it was the reason for lower divorce rates among the Orthodox. (It was only later that I realized the lack of divorce was likely better attributed to the taboo that surrounded it.)
Ms. Kohl took us to a local mikvah. The private preparation rooms were like run-down Lucille Roberts dressing rooms. The mikvah itself was in a basement and smelled like chlorine, and seemed dark and not especially clean. It was like a personal-sized swimming pool—not the water-treadmill kind advertised in the back of upscale magazines—but more like a four-by-four-foot tiled pool with water about four feet deep. Ms. Kohl explained that one entered naked, dipped completely under, and the mikvah lady—a rabbi’s wife or community volunteer—watched and pronounced the dip kosher.
As Ms. Kohl gave the tour, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that every single married woman I knew—every parent, teacher, relative—was secretly dipping in the mikvah each month and I knew nothing about it.
“Jews keep their private life private,” Ms. Kohl explained. “They don’t talk about going to the mikvah because it’s only between a husband and wife.”
Was that why every time I asked my mother where she was going she said, “It’s private?” And here I’d thought she had been going to therapy all along.
After the visit I didn’t think too much about the mikvah. I wouldn’t be dipping in it until my wedding—and even at seventeen, I suspected that wouldn’t happen for a long, long time.
* * *
Turns out I didn’t go to the mikvah before or after my wedding. And turns out that I didn’t get married for another 24 years, and by 41 my religious days were long gone. I was marrying a secular Israeli (which describes roughly half the country), who had only heard of the mikvah through horror stories from secular Israeli couples forced to attend marital purity classes as part of the state-mandated Orthodox marriage.
My husband was anti-religious, and I was formerly religious. Family purity laws, keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and the mikvah weren’t in our future 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 that at 41 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.
That’s when I started thinking about the Jewish family purity laws. For the first time in my life I was charting my menstrual period, checking for ovulation on day twelve, and 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’re having sex on their peak ovulation days. And their husbands are saving up their sperm, just as our doctors advised us to do prior to ovulation. Family purity laws are like a mandated fertility program.
“There are physical and medical benefits,” said my ultra-Orthodox sister-in-law (who prefers not to be named). She had been a “mikvah lady” in Washington Heights, helping women prepare for immersion. A nurse and mid-wife, she also told me that a woman’s pH balance the week after her period is very acidic, making her more prone to infection if she has sex. “God knew all this thousands of years ago and the world is now catching up,” she said, noting that a woman is also not allowed to have sex for six weeks after giving birth, an approach many physicians recommend, in order to allow for the vaginal canal to heal.
But the benefits are also spiritual, she added. “It also gives women an opportunity to be valued for who they really are, and not just as an object. It gives women an opportunity to have a relationship that goes much deeper than the physical.” Dipping in the mikvah, she said, had nothing to do with a woman being unclean: “Purity and impurity is a spiritual realm. You can translate that to make you feel terrible, but that’s not what the Torah has in mind.” Her point did make sense, but then again, she is a rabbi’s wife, teaching engaged couples about family purity laws, so of course she would say that.
I decided to ask some of my more modern, TV-watching, pants-wearing friends about the experience. I didn’t know which of my friends kept the family purity laws and to what degree.
“You’re not supposed to discuss it,” said one of my good friends, who had been my neighbor in Brooklyn since we were kids. She’s been married almost twenty years now and has several children. “I definitely think it’s really good—the separation really it makes it exciting, because you can’t and then you can,” she told me on the phone, cryptically referring to sex because her kids were in the room. “I think you start taking ‘it’ for granted after a while, but things are new and exciting for us—it still is,” she said.
My friend isn’t crazy about going to the mikvah, though. It’s hard for her to slip out of the house. But once she’s there, she enjoys the preparations. “It’s relaxing,” she said.
I had spent months on the Internet searching for alternative remedies for fertility problems, and found everything from eating pineapple core to aid implantation to taking cough suppressant to increase cervical mucus. One day I Googled “Jewish prayer for infertility.” On the main website for Chabad—whose Orthodox Jewish members evangelize on New York City street corners, accosting strangers and asking them if they’re Jewish so they can help them make blessings for various holidays—I found this answer to a woman seeking a prayer to help her conceive:
“The Rebbe would advise people in your situation to be meticulous in the observance of the laws of Family Purity.…there are three special times for a woman to pray for children: 1) After she immerses in the mikvah, as per the mitzvah of Family Purity, while she is still in the water. 2) After she lights the Shabbat or Jewish holiday candles and recites the blessing, while she is still covering her eyes. 3) While she is making challah.
We had been through months of failed conception attempts. My biological clock was about to go kaput. I began to despair. Maybe I should give the mikvah a go, I thought. There was no way I’d get my husband to try the two sexless weeks—he’d suss out that it had religious origins—but maybe the ritual bath would help me. Just until I got pregnant, of course. I’m nothing if not a pragmatist. And I’d been to a gazillion fertility specialists, a number of acupuncturists and even an intuitive psychic healer. Why not give my own religion a shot? Besides, the mikvahs on the Upper East and West Sides are meant to be like spas—for only thirty-five bucks a pop.
But deciding to do something and actually doing it are two separate things. For various reasons, I could not bring myself to go to the mikvah. One month I was out of town. Another I’d just gotten a pedicure (you can’t immerse with nail polish). I went during the daytime, not knowing it was only done after sunset. Once, I couldn’t find parking.
The truth is, I was afraid. I wasn’t shy about nudity, but I didn’t want some religious woman examining me and telling me what I could and couldn’t do, even though my sister-in-law said she had volunteered for that job in order to help women and comfort them—not to judge or look at them.
I was also afraid they’d catch me: they’d know I wasn’t religious and had never done it before. I felt like I was back in my religious high school, where some teacher was guarding the door, making sure our denim skirts were long enough to enter. I had stopped giving religion a power over my life. I didn’t want to start just because I was caught in a foxhole.
“Oh, you’ve done so much worse,” my younger sister pointed out to me. It was true. As a reporter, I’d been to Africa, gone skydiving, even had a facelift—all in the name of journalism. But I was scared to go to the mikvah. My sister said she found the whole experience quite nice. I told her it was the mikvah lady that I was afraid of.
“You’ve been to the Loehmann’s dressing room in Brooklyn,” she said, referring to our childhood nightmares of seeing saggy old ladies in nude stockings with nothing underneath. “It can’t be worse than that.”
* * *
With all my worries of passing muster, no one was even at the front desk at the Upper East Side Mikvah, in the basement of the Chabad House on East 77th Street. Like another one across town, this mikvah was meant to be a cut above the rest. But from the outside it was just a non-descript, narrow white building with some Hebrew lettering on it. Inside, there were a few chairs by the front desk, but I knew there would be no spa-like lounge with women sipping cucumber water and reading O magazine, because women are not supposed to interact at the mikvah; it’s meant to be private. A Hispanic female janitor asked me if I wanted a bath or a shower in order to make my mikvah preparations, and directed me to the latter (even though the bath was deep and had a Jacuzzi, it felt like I’d be taking a bath in someone else’s house). “Pick up the phone and dial 10 when you’re ready,” she said. “Take your time.”
The peach tiled room was warm, the lights glowed. I examined the toiletries, like I would at a hotel. Aside from the usual shampoo, soap and conditioner, there were Q-tips to clean your ears, a loofah to slough off dead skin, pointy wooden sticks to clean your nails, and files to remove hangnails. The rabbis dictate that there are to be no barriers between me and the water if I am to be kosher. 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 prepare for sex like this. To make sure I was clean, shaven, fresh, un-hangnailed. I’m sure my husband would appreciate this effort, preparing for each month like a bride, instead of wearing tattered sweatpants and waiting for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” 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 white slippers, picked up the wall phone and pressed 10. “I’ll be there in a few minutes,” the mikvah 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 picture listed all the rules: Remove jewelry, contact lenses and bandages (if you have to have a bandage on, ask your rabbi). Take off all nail polish.
Damn. I looked down at my red toes. I’d forgotten to take off the nail polish. I rummaged through the products but there was no nail polish remover anywhere. I guess this is one of those things that religious women know to do beforehand. Now I surely would be booted from the mikvah. Then, there was a knock at the door.
I opened it outward and walked into the mikvah. I was surrounded by gold-hued walls. A railing surrounded the mikvah. It looked like a mini spa.
“Hello,” said a woman ten years my junior. Her clear, unlined face was framed by a silky, auburn, shoulder-length wig (married Orthodox women must cover their hair).
“Have you been here before?” she asked. My sister told me to say “yes,” otherwise they’d tell me a million rules and examine me from head to toe. If I were a regular, they’d just do a cursory exam.
“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 standing there in a robe, clean as almost the day I was born. I told her I was just here for the week and looked down at my toes. My red toes.
“My nail polish is gel,” I volunteered. When fabricating, it’s always best to be pro-active. I knew from recent investigations that in the more modern mikvahs, they’d 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 okay…”
I nodded vigorously. The man I consulted with on all my religious questions—my husband—would surely say it was okay. Although he would probably prefer I refresh the polish more often. 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 for stray hairs and picked a few off, still holding my robe but not seeing my frontal nudity.
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 just couldn’t give God the satisfaction. Not after everything he’d 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 mikvah and into her arms, which were 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 and depositing me 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, buoying me, comforting me, standing by my side during all my suffering, rooting for me and my successes. I felt the pain of my last year oozing from my pores, like they’d been sweated out of me in a sauna. The past year 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—because that was all the time the immersion process took—I did not. I felt like I was part of something larger.
Of course, after I dressed, paid the mikvah lady and got into my car to drive home, my rational self came rushing back to me: I still felt tainted by the “woman-being-unclean” feeling, even though my sister-in-law said the process is about removing “impurity” on a “spiritual level,” not a physical one. I’d be more likely to go to the mikvah and prepare for sex if my husband did, too.
I also remembered the price I’d once paid for being part of the larger community: Everyone knowing your business, like the mikvah lady examining me, picking off my stray hairs the way they picked apart my privacy.
I’d 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 himself. That was one of the reasons I’d stopped being religious. My idyllic innocent childhood religion had become more and more particular. To me, all the rules disguised the original intent of the law. Like this mikvah experience, which, in many ways, was 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, and there’s that framed checklist and someone examining you and you think, Wait, why am I doing this again?
And yes, I remember what it felt like to feel a part of a community. It felt wonderful. Except that I no longer share any social or political values of the Orthodox community. I am a pro-gay, pro-choice, pro-two-state solution feminist Jew.
A married, secular, spiritual Jew who went to the mikvah once in her life and opened up her heart to ask God for a child. And who knows, maybe it will work. Just maybe.
* * *
Larry Buchanan is a freelance illustrator, designer and journalist who lives in Brooklyn. He’s done work for ESPN, The Onion, ADWEEK and others.