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Transforming Waters

Transforming Waters

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I don’t know what prompted me to go to the mikvah last week for the first time since my wedding. Part of it had to do with the fact that I was in Crown Heights, on my own, with no one around to tell me it was a silly idea, no one to say, “Why would you want to do that? It’s not like you’re an Orthodox woman.” Which may explain why I felt such a pull, a draw, an inexplicable desire to immerse in the waters I’d experienced only once, before my second marriage, when I found it so significant to experience a cleansing process, a rebirth of sorts, before embarking on the relationship I knew would take me through the second half of my life.

The spiritual benefits of immersing in a kosher mikvah are not only proactive but retroactive

From the point of view of Jewish law, going to the mikvah isn’t something women are commanded to do solely for our own benefit. We do it not to make ourselves feel better, but to serve G-d, and in turn, we bring holiness to an act that under the right circumstances, is the deepest expression of our love for one another and for G-d.

Our holy tradition teaches us that the spiritual benefits of immersing in a kosher mikvah are not only proactive but retroactive, in that going to the mikvah at the right time of the month, cleanses not only our own souls, but even those of our children who are already born and, if it applies, to those who are yet to be born.

This suddenly has become very important to me, as my daughter prepares to embark on her own Jewish life. As I walked through the streets of Crown Heights, through a community she has embraced as part of an Orthodox lifestyle, I wanted to give my daughter a gift she can get from no one else. I wanted to impart the spiritual purity on her life that I neglected to give her before her conception, but which – through the beauty of our tradition and faith –is never too late to provide.

And so, for G-d, for my daughter, for her unborn children, and yes, for my husband (though he was three thousand miles away and completely unaware at the time I was even thinking of doing this) I decided to go to the Lubavitch mikvah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn on a cloudy spring day in early June.

When I told my daughter my plan, she was ecstatic. She hadn’t pushed, she hadn’t begged, she had simply told me that if I’d only go once, it would change her spiritual life – and the life of her children and her children’s children – forever.

Another reason I’d chosen that particular day in June was that though the thought had actually been brewing in me for awhile, as I counted the days from the beginning of my menstrual period, I discovered that I happened to be in Crown Heights on exactly the right day of my cycle, seven days after the last sign of menstrual blood.

Before I went to the mikvah, I stopped to visit one of my daughter’s teachers. She reviewed the calendar with me, and gave me precise instructions as to how to prepare my mind and my body for the mikvah experience. “Go after sundown, which today is at 8:08 PM. Take off all your jewelry, your makeup, your nail polish. And then take a bath. Sit there for a good long time. Cut your fingernails and toenails, make sure your hands and feet and your entire body are completely clean. Wash all the hair on your head and body and comb it.Let all your tensions subside, let the outside world fall away. This is your time.” I thought about what a unique blessing this is for women. A moment, no matter how tense their month, just for them to connect with themselves, and with G-d.

And then she hugged me, telling me what a precious gift this was for myself, my husband, my daughter, and G-d.

That night, my daughter walked me down the tree-lined Crown Heights street, past teenage girls in their school uniforms, the long pleated skirts swishing in the evening breeze; past young, bearded men in black suits and hats, rushing to and from 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of the Chabad Lubavitch movement; past mothers, wheeling toddlers in strollers and fathers, trying to keep up with boys on bicycles. And then, of course, there were the West Indians, whose lilting voices rise beside those of their Jewish neighbors, as both groups try to live in harmony despite memories of conflict in years past. This is a thriving New York neighborhood, still throbbing with ethnic rhythms, new and old, black and white, that has managed to avoid the homogenization of the rest of the city. There isn’t a GAP on any Crown Heights street corner, nor even a supermarket chain. Butchers, bakers and yes, candlestick makers, line the streets of this urban enclave.

This is your time

And so we strolled until we reached the mikvah, housed in a quiet, non-descript building. I was a few minutes early. An employee was sweeping the sidewalk. I hugged my daughter, and went inside.

I had been on a tour of the place a few months before, when I’d come for a parents’ weekend at my daughter’s school, so I was comfortable with what might otherwise have been unfamiliar surroundings. There is a reception desk, where I paid my fifteen dollars to a friendly woman who – upon my exuberant confession that this was my first visit to a mikvah in quite some time – took me to what she said was one of the nicest rooms in the house. Indeed, it was a clean, well-lit, pink-tiled bathroom, not unlike that at a comfortable hotel. There was a tub/shower, a toilet, a sink, and a wide array of toiletries including shampoo, nail polish remover, toothpaste, a brand new toothbrush (you clean your mouth, too), a comb, a nail file, a pumice stone, fresh towels, a terry cloth robe, rubber flip-flops, and paper spa slippers. There were printed instructions on the wall explaining how to wash every part of your body in preparation for ritual immersion. There was also a phone. I’d been instructed to call when I was ready to enter the mikvah.

I sat in the tub. I relaxed. I freed my mind. I cleaned every inch of myself. I relaxed some more. I showered. I got out, combed my hair and made sure no stray hairs were anywhere on my body. I picked up the phone. “I’m ready,” I said. The lady at the reception desk replied, kindly, “There are three women before you, and we don’t actually begin until 9:15.” No one had told me that part. I had a half hour to go. What was I going to do for all that time? I sat on a little stool. I checked my nails again. I filed them. I tried to think spiritual thoughts. I tried to think relaxing thoughts. I realized I’m not good at either relaxation or spirituality on command. But I tried. And I waited. And I waited some more.

And that’s when I heard the singing. It was the sound of women, singing words I did not understand in a language I wasn’t sure of. It might have been Farsi, it could have been Hebrew. I couldn’t tell through all the doors that separated us. But I could hear voices, and I knew, somehow, that they were rejoicing for a bride. Sure enough, the next thing I heard was the kind voice of an older woman on the other side of the bathroom door instructing what was obviously a young bride on her first visit to the mikvah. I know the experience was supposed to be private and discreet. And I tried my hardest not to listen. But I couldn’t help being excited and inspired by the thought of this girl about to begin a new life, with the blessings of the mikvah as the first step of a lifelong journey.

Then there was a knock, and it was my turn. The Mikvah lady confessed that there should have been others before me, but she knew I’d been waiting for a long time. She asked to see my hands and my feet. I knew they were perfect, and displayed them proudly. She smiled and patted me gently on the shoulder. She took me to the side of the bath, a blue tiled pool with a sturdy banister to guide me down the steps in to the water. I slipped off my robe which she held up to provide me the utmost privacy as I descended into the clear pool. Only once I was completely covered by the water did she put down the robe and look at me again. The water was clean and warm. Earlier in the day, my daughter’s teacher had asked me if I could dive. I could. And so, as she’d explained, instead of merely dipping below the surface of the water, I dove headfirst, like a dolphin. It was a liberating experience, as if I were dancing, or flying, free of any boundaries, physical or spiritual.

As was explained to me, the idea of immersing like a fish, with arms and legs spread outward, is related to that of the most righteous person. The water is compared to the Torah, and a fish can only live when completely immersed in the Torah. This is why at the mikvah it is imperative that every aspect of the body be immersed at once, and the mikvah lady is there to ensure that not a single strand of hair rise above the surface of the water. When we are in the mikvah, like a fish who cannot live out of water, we make the statement that we too cannot live unless surrounded by Torah and mitzvot.

It was her soul that was thanking me, along with the generations of our family to whom we hadn’t yet been introduced

I heard the Mikvah lady’s voice cry out. “Kosher!!!” I knew that meant I had been completely immersed, that she could see my hair floating freely, a sign that every inch of me had been touched by the sacred water.

I rose to the surface and stood, as I’d been told, my arms folded over my breasts. I covered my head with a cloth waiting by the edge of the pool and I recited the prayer. “Baruch Ata Hashem, Elokeinu Melech Haolam, Asher Kideshanu B’Mitzvotav, Vitzivanu, Al HaTevilah.”

And then I dove a second time. Again I heard, “Kosher!!!” I rose, and dove again. “Kosher!!!” After the third time, I rose, again folded my arms across my chest, and said some private prayers for my daughter, my husband, my family, and myself. A woman in the Mikvah is said to have a special spiritual connection to G-d. I was told not to be shy, but in fact to pray for everything I want. And so I did. And at that moment, I knew G-d could hear my prayers. My tears mixed with the waters of the Mikvah, enveloping me in a warmth and love I had never experienced before. I knew I had come to the right place, at the right time, for myself, my family, and for G-d.

I got out of the water, with the Mikvah lady once again holding my robe up infront of her out of respect for my privacy. I wrapped myself in my robe and thanked the Mikvah lady for her kindness and support, and returned to the bathroom. I dried off, got dressed, and again picked up the phone. “I’m ready to leave,” I said. The receptionist made sure I would not be seen as I discreetly left the building. I walked out a different door than I’d come in, alone, into the night.

It was raining. I didn’t have an umbrella. I laughed, because I knew that the rain would be my cover, an excuse for having wet hair at ten o’clock at night, so I would not have to share with anyone that I’d visited the ritual bath. A woman’s monthly visit to the mikvah is supposed to be private. The Mikvah ladies don’t even ask for your name.

My daughter knew, however, and greeted me with tears in her own eyes mixing with the rain on her glowing cheeks. “I’m so proud of you,” she said. I basked in her approval, hearing words I’d said to her so many times now returned to me with the same love in her voice. She hugged me again. “Thank you,” she said. I knew it was her soul that was thanking me, along with the generations of our family to whom we hadn’t yet been introduced.

I can’t wait to meet my grandchildren, to know that their mother and I have taken care of them in a way only we can, as the mothers before us took care of babies they hadn’t yet conceived.

I hope G-d grants to each of them love and peace, and a lifetime of joyous occasions, blessing and a life enveloped by the love of Torah.

Jessica Klein Levenbrown is an award-winning television writer and producer. She began her career at Sesame Street, was the head writer of the daytime drama As The World Turns, and with partner Steve Wasserman wrote and produced the television series Beverly Hills, 90210. Jessica created the teen television drama Just Deal, partially based on her own experiences as a Jewish mother, and most recently produced the series Scout’s Safari.
About the artist: Sheva Chaya created the art for TheJewishWoman.org homepage. An art graduate from Princeton University, Sheva Chaya works in watercolor and glass, vibrantly exploring Jewish and women's themes. Her work can be seen in her studio in Tsfat, Israel and on her website.
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Discussion (6)
September 17, 2012
Lovely written
I felt as if I was there! Brings back some lovely memories!
Anonymous
nf, ny
June 24, 2008
Mikveh
What a moving story. I could not fulfilll the mitzvah of mikvah before my Jewish wedding, as I was bound to my hospital bed during our wedding ceremony. I made a vow that I would go as soon as time and healing would allow me to fulfill this most important mitzvah. I was finally able to go in the late spring of this year. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life- to be able to go down the steps and immerse myself in the clear, warm pool. I too wept- as the waters washed away all the suffering of the last year. I have been back twice, and each time there is more healing that takes place. I am glad to know that this mitzvah cleanses my children and rights wrongs- that consolation alone is enough to give me peace of mind. My husband is supportive despite the challenges of Taharas Ha Mispacha- he is already on his own path of transformation as a result of my choices. What a powerful blessing - to know that we as women can alter history just by our faith and deeds alone.
yafa plaut-cappon
Sacramento, california, USA
December 26, 2007
Transforming Waters
What a beautiful story--the mikvah ritual, the transformation in your life, how it affected your daughter. I am not Jewish, but the story helped me to see how very important it is to be in touch with G-D.
Cindy Lou Ray
Des Moines, IA
January 1, 2007
Transforming waters
Reading your article remainded me of my experience. As you, I also went back to the mikveh after a long time, and had the same feelings and emotions. Like you, the experience was very special in all aspects. Thanks for your article.
Anonymous
Panama
December 6, 2006
reading this I have tears in my eyes, the deep tikkun (rectification) ripples through the generations both forward and backwards. I can go to the mikvah now inspired that I can join into this pool of tears of joy of all the women since Sarah Imenu.
thank you
Anonymous
August 3, 2006
This is something I have thought about doing for awhile. I just returned from my first trip to Israel which was so beautiful and spiritual. You really made me feel how wonderful experiencing a Mikvah can be. Thank You!

Beth Berman
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