“So, how was the mikvah?” asked my daughter. She knew I had been planning on going to the mikvah for the first time.
“Don’t laugh at me, Jen,” I said into the phone. “I got lost and turned around and came home. And I’m really disappointed, because I was going to ask G‑d to help you get the GMAT scores you want on Friday.” I said this half-kiddingly; Jenna knows that I don’t believe in a G‑d who can answer prayers.
“Oh, no!” Jenna shouted. “You have to go, Mom!” She was serious, pleading with me to get to the mikvah before Friday. Jenna had been studying for the GMAT for weeks, and was disappointed that she hadn’t seen an improvement in her practice test scores. I guess she figured some divine intervention couldn’t hurt.
What Jewish mother would refuse a daughter who pleaded for her to go to the mikvah on her behalf? “Okay, Jen. I’ll try again.”
So, on Wednesday at 8 PM, I again I got lost and turned around and came homeloaded my bag with toiletries and hopped in the car, this time headed to a more conveniently located mikvah. As I merged onto the first highway, I was struck by the full moon. I had never seen it so clear and bright—bursting with light against the dark blue sky. I later learned that indeed it was special—a Blue Moon, an extra full moon that occurs every two or three years. As I drove, the moon dropped below the trees, and I focused again on my directions. I exited and merged onto another highway, and was struck once again by the unusual moon shining in front of me. I laughed to myself as I imagined G‑d lighting my way to the mikvah. No getting lost tonight! I exited the last highway onto a residential road and made my way to the mikvah, a subtle building with no sign, but with bright lights in the parking lot to help women like me find it.
I pressed the buzzer by the door, and before I could announce myself into the speaker, the door clicked open. I walked down the elegant marble staircase to the small reception desk, where a slim young woman wearing a white blouse and a long black skirt stood and greeted me with a wide smile. “Hi. I’m Chevy.”
“Hi, Chevy. I’m Ellen, and this is my first trip to the mikvah.”
“Are you studying with anyone?” Chevy asked.
“Yes, with Chava Bekhor from the Randolph Chabad. She took a group of us here for a tour last month.”
“Oh, yes. I’m so glad you came.”
Chevy led the way down a corridor lined with a row of dark wooden doors, each with a number on it. With the instrumental music streaming from the speakers and the plush carpeting, I felt like I was being led to a treatment room for a massage. Following Chevy through one of the doors, I saw a large and beautifully appointed bathroom with Italian tile and dark wood, complete with shower, tub, sink, stool, towels, and a shelf full of toiletries.
Chevy explained to me what I should do in preparation for the mikvah. “First, you’ll need to soak for at least 30 minutes in the bathtub. Here’s a washcloth, pumice stone and nail brush. Scrub yourself well, so that there will be nothing separating your skin from the water in the mikvah.” She pointed to the large digital clock on the wall. “Make sure you check the time before you go in the tub, so you know when 30 minutes have passed. Then, you can rinse off in the shower and wash your hair. When you get out, you can put this on.” She motioned towards the white terry robe hanging on a hook outside the shower.
“Then come to the sink, where we’ve laid out all the things you’ll need.” She pointed to an array of toiletries neatly lined up like surgical instruments. “There’s a Q‑tip for your ears, a We’ve laid out all the things you’ll needtissue for your nose, a cotton ball for the corners of your eyes, an emery board to file your nails, and a toothbrush, toothpaste and floss to clean your teeth.” She moved over to the corner of the bathroom and pointed to the wall. “When you’re all done, press the ‘ready’ button and stand by this door. It leads to the mikvah, and I’ll open it for you from the other side.” With that she slipped out, closed the door, and I was alone.
I turned on the faucet and waited for the tub to fill. When I was comfortably settled in the tub I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and listened to the calming music. This was a real treat—I couldn’t remember the last time I had soaked in a bathtub—and I was feeling glad that I had come. After 25 minutes of soaking I sat up, grabbed the washcloth and soap, and scrubbed from head to toe. Then I pumiced the bottom of my feet and my heels until they were smooth as a baby’s. Last, I scrubbed my nails.
After rinsing off in the shower, I stepped out onto the plush rug, toweled myself off and wrapped myself in the robe. I untangled my wet hair with a comb, and then followed Chevy’s instructions at the sink, picking up each item and cleaning each orifice one by one. When I was done, I smiled at myself in the mirror. I felt like a bride preparing for my wedding night. I walked, squeaky-clean, over to the red “ready” button, took a deep breath and pressed it. A few seconds later, Chevy opened the door and welcomed me into the mikvah.
I had been there before on the tour, but this was different. It was late at night, and I was about to partake in an ancient ritual considered one of the three most important mitzvahs for Jewish women (the other two are lighting candles to welcome Shabbat, and taking challah).
As we stood in the mikvah chamber, my eyes took in once again the beautiful aqua tile, high domed ceiling, and the small square-shaped pool in the center of the room. Chevy reminded me that mikvahs are built according to specific requirements outlined in the Torah. Among other regulations, to qualify as a kosher mikvah, it must be built into the ground or be an integral part of a building, not portable, and it must contain 200 gallons of water, a certain percentage of it natural water that is siphoned into the immersion pool from a separate storage area. This mikvah stored rainwater collected through pipes in the roof.
I stepped over to the edge of the pool, which looked like a hot tub one might see at a resort spa, only deeper. Standing behind me, Chevy explained that she would hold my robe up to cover her I slowly walked down the seven steps into the warm watereyes as I descended into the pool, but would peek over as I immersed myself, to make sure that every strand of hair and every part of my body was submerged. Only then could my immersion be deemed kosher. I untied the robe, and Chevy held it as I took my arms out of the sleeves. “I’m just going to touch your back,” she said, “to make sure there aren’t any stray hairs stuck there.” After the quick inspection I slowly walked down the seven steps into the warm water, holding onto the metal railing, and waded into the center of the pool.
Standing with my back towards Chevy, I asked her, “So, do I immerse now? And then which prayer do I read first?” There were two framed prayers on the ledge, with two lit candles in between.
“Yes, first you immerse yourself, and then you read the prayer on the right. Remember to spread your fingers when you go under, so that every bit of your body is touching the water. And make sure all your hair is underwater.”
It was comforting to have a coach talk me through each step. I closed my eyes and mouth and lowered myself under the water, with my fingers spread and my feet lifted off the floor. My body was surrounded by the warm, soothing water, and when my head emerged from the surface, I heard Chevy sing “Koooo-sher,” signaling to me that my body had been totally submerged. I crossed my arms to cover my breasts in modesty, as Chava Bekhor had told me to, and read the first prayer in Hebrew. It was only one line, and the words were familiar, so I didn’t need to read the transliteration.
Then I submerged again. Chevy sang “Koooo-sher” when I lifted out of the water, and I turned to the prayer on the left. This one was longer, and written in both Hebrew and English. I read the Hebrew first, this time haltingly, struggling over the pronunciation of some of the longer words, and Chevy called out specific words when I had trouble. Then I read the English, and lowered myself for the third and final immersion. After Chevy’s “Koooo-sher,” she said, “I’m going to leave you alone so you can pray privately. You are the last one here, so take your time.”
After the three immersions, it is said that the gates of heaven are open to the woman to make any special prayers for herself, her family, or anyone else. I had wondered in the car driving over if I would have the courage to say my prayers out loud, or if I would feel too foolish and say them to myself. After all, I was a professed agnostic who did not believe in the power of prayer. When Chevy left the mikvah and I peered up at the domed ceiling, I knew what I wanted to do. I spoke softly at first: “G‑d, in the scheme of life, what I am about to ask seems insignificant, but because it’s so important to my daughter, I’m going to ask anyway. Please be with Jenna when she takes the GMATs on Friday, and help her get the results she wants.” Okay, it was out. I felt a little silly making this request, but I did it: I fulfilled my promise to Jenna, and I hoped that it would have a positive impact on her test scores.
Then I moved on to my stepdaughter, Sara, and her husband, who are expecting. I heard my voice get stronger and In the scheme of life, what I am about to ask seems insignificantbecome infused with love as I pleaded to G‑d to bless them with a healthy baby. For my stepson, Alex, I prayed for success in his work, because that is important to him and would boost his self-esteem. On behalf of my husband, Gary, I asked G‑d to give me more patience so I could offer the level of love and compassion that he deserved. And last, I asked G‑d to keep my 85-year-old father healthy and happy, and when his time came, for him to pass quickly and without pain or discomfort.
When I was done praying, I walked back up the pool stairs, put on my robe and returned to the bathroom. I was smiling; this was the first time that I personally prayed to G‑d, and it felt good. I loved the fact that I participated in an ancient Jewish practice, one that my Russian female ancestors probably followed in generations past. The whole mikvah experience was very special and, yes, spiritual. Although tentative, I did feel a connection to a G‑d.
The next day, I reported to Jenna that I spoke to G‑d on her behalf, and told her that she was going to have both her mom’s and a Higher Power’s positive energy in the GMAT test room with her.
It was just after 3:30 on Friday when I got the call from Jenna. Raising the phone to my ear, I said softly, “Jen?” There was a long pause and a lot of shuffling sounds coming through the phone. I repeated, “Jen?”
“Mom?” Yes, that’s who you called, sweetheart. My heart was pounding, and I thought, My gosh, it’s only a test score. But I knew how hard Jenna had studied, and how much she wanted to qualify for the graduate schools she had her heart set on attending.Then I heard Jenna sobbing through the phone, and I thought, Oh, no, she must have done poorly. Through the sobs, her voice came through softly at first, “I did . . .” and then louder, “well!” She broke down crying and quickly said, “I’m okay, Mom, I’m crying because I’m so happy. I can’t believe it! My score was higher than I’ve ever gotten on any practice test. It’s unbelievable.”
“I’m so happy for you, Jenna,” I gushed. “You deserved to do well because you studied so hard. And, you know, maybe you had some divine intervention that helped you out a bit, too. I think G‑d was pulling for you.” I smiled. You know, maybe there is something to this prayer thing.