"Have you reached menopause yet?" Devorah Leah, the youthful, attractive Chabad Rebbetzin in Santa Fe, asked me.
"Yes. Uh, why are you asking?"
"Because I thought you might like to go to the mikvah. The Jewish ritual bath."
"Devorah Leah, you know I'm non-observant. The only time I dip is on Passover."
"Well, let me put it to you this way. After menopause, since you're no longer menstruating, only one visit to the mikvah is required. It will hold you for the rest of your life."
"So who commits to this mitzvah of misery?" I askedI was about to say no, but it occurred to me that as a travel journalist, I seek out, and frequently attend ceremonies from other cultures. Why not try my own?
"Okay," I said. "Lay it on me. What do I have to do?"
A few days later, Devorah Leah showed up at my house with a big grin and a pretty mikvah kit that looked like it could be sold at Nordstrom's. Inside were some toiletry items needed for preparation.
"That's it?" I asked, relieved that the preparation was so easy.
"Not quite," she answered. "You can't have any physical contact with your husband - no touching, nothing - for seven days."
No touching? No hugging? No little squeezes of the hand?
"Nothing," the mikvah maven insisted.
"So who commits to this mitzvah of misery?" I asked. The answer was that a lot of married women do (you have to be married to go to the mikvah), and a number of them aren't even religious. They just want to perform the mitzvah which stipulates that you go to the mikvah seven days after your period ends (and if your period is very short, you have to wait at least five days before beginning the seven-day countdown to purification).
Truth be told, I wasn't convinced. I couldn't relate to abstinence, I didn't understand the association of menstruation and impurity. I approached the experience like an anthropologist, and considered Devorah Leah an informant from an exotic sect.
She was very patient with my questions. She explained that a mikvah isn't just about a woman, but, rather, it's about her and her husband, and inviting G‑d into their home and marriage. The preparation and the mikvah itself are physical acts, but the reason behind them is spiritual.
"You see," Devorah Leah told me, "every month when we menstruate - which means there is no fertilized egg - it's like a potential for life isn't fulfilled. So a woman submerges herself in water, in the source of life.
When she emerges, it's as though she is reborn, and the divine energy of creation can flow again. It's a renewal, a spiritual cleansing."
She spoke joyously of how a marriage is renewed each monthI listened to her as she spoke joyously of how a marriage is renewed each month, thanks to the mikvah. The husband and wife are apart, and this restraint can be very hard. But it also keeps desire alive. When the couple gets together again, they appreciate each other even more. And the sacrifice, the performing of the mitzvah, takes their physical relationship to a spiritual level.
Devorah Leah was very open about the "M" word, but, in the past, it was shrouded in secrecy. Mothers didn't tell their children when they went off to the baths. It was very private - between a woman, her husband, G‑d and the mikvah lady, who oversaw the bath. Many Jews didn't - and still don't - talk about the cleansing ritual. But today, mikvah's have come out of the closet. They are often built to look like spas, they are listed in the yellow pages and it's an open topic of conversation.
Many women seek out the mikvah because it makes them feel special and connects them to the matriarchs. Sarah did the mikvah; in fact, she had a separate tent for the times when she and Abraham had to be apart. Miriam's well is purported to be a mikvah. In more recent times, when mikvah's were outlawed in Russia, and the KGB closed them down, the women would courageously go somewhere else and open new ones. The mikvah is so important in Judaism that if a congregation has money for either a Torah scroll or a mivkah, they are supposed to build the mikvah first.
"Devorah Leah," I asked, "if it's so great, why can't my husband, Paul, do it too?"
"He can," Devorah Leah answered. And when I asked Paul, he said he'd do it.
He's an amateur anthropologist too.
I read a bit about the mikvah and discovered a host of arcane and complex rules pertaining to the construction of the ritual bath. The bottom layer is pure, natural rain water. It is called "live water" and is a symbol of rebirth and the divine flow of creation. On top of the cold rain water is another pool of hot water, where the actual bathing takes place. The two waters are not supposed to mix so the rainwater can maintain its pristine quality. They "touch" in an opening between the two waters, but they don't blend. The bathing water is changed frequently, so it is hygienic. The rain water, which has never been contaminated, remains unaltered and intact.
I suppose you could say I was a mikvah monsterI began the seven-day ritual half-heartedly. It was an intellectual exercise that I approached with more curiosity than commitment. I did most of the preparation, but I cheated when it came to touching Paul. I suppose you could say I was a mikvah monster - determined to experience the bathing without totally embracing the experience. Devorah Leah tsk-tsked, but permitted me to go ahead with the mikvah plans. I suppose I was a bathing barbarian to her.
The night of the mikvah came. Paul and I crawled into the back seat of the rabbinic car, and the rabbi, Berel, briefed Paul about what to expect and how men approached the mikvah. It sounded like a quick stop at a drive-by burger place. You dunk before prayers, before Shabbat, before holidays. In and out.
When we arrived at the Albuquerque mikvah, which was spotlessly clean and cheery, we women went into a separate room for preparation. Devorah Leah showed me an array of products for me to clean myself - nail brushes, combs, shampoos, q-tips, make-up removers, ribboned floss. She scrunched up her face when she saw a colorful temporary tattoo on my arm, and began to scrape it off with polish remover, an emery board, and her fingernail. She told me not to floss between teeth that had any jagged edges because a bit might remain wedged in there. I had to cut my nails, bore into every orifice, and be. well. impeccable. Then she told me I could take the cleaning products into the bath tub with me, and I should stay there for close to half an hour.
I felt shocked. Overwhelmed. I consider myself a clean person, but there were so many areas I never thought about. What if I left a piece of floss in my teeth? What if there were a bit of crud under a toenail or in the corner of my eye? I stepped gingerly into the tub she had filled for me, juggling all the cleaning aids. Kerplunk. The shampoo plopped down in the water. I bent to pick it up and the nail scissors dropped. Finally, I organized all the products and lowered myself into the water. I took a deep breath and began the act of cleaning myself. At first I resisted, and then I got into it. I was sponging and soaping and paying attention to every inch of skin. I had never cleaned myself so thoroughly in my life.
About twenty-five minutes into the process, I was suddenly flooded with childhood memories of cleaning out the chametz -- the leavening -- before Passover. We went through the house with a feather, gathering up any crumbs that remained in the back of a shelf, a pocket, anywhere. Now I was cleaning out the chametz from my body. I was purifying my physical and spiritual self the way we had purified the house before Pesach. I felt like crying. My anthropological experiment had become very personal. I rubbed and scrubbed as though my soul depended on it.
I rubbed and scrubbed as though my soul depended on itWhen Devorah Leah came back into the room, she inspected me tenderly, looking for stray hairs on my back or anything else I had missed. She pronounced me clean. Then she led me into the mikvah room. It was like a jacuzzi, and I walked easily down the steps into the water.
"Now dunk three times. sort of like a fish or a whale," Devorah Leah instructed me.
Easier said than done. I couldn't get under the water.. It took me many tries to submerge. Devorah Leah watched patiently, smiled approvingly, and then she turned her back on me.
"You have done the mitzvah," she said, "and now this is private time for you.just for you. Take as long as you wish."
First I didn't know what to do, and then it just sort of happened. I submerged myself in the water, thanking the universe for my husband Paul, my health, my rich life experience. I prayed for my family and friends to be well. And I thought I heard a little sigh from the heavens as my prayers were heard.
After the mikvah, I was considered kosher, and I went to meet Paul in the waiting room. I felt vibrant, alive, buoyant, calm.
"You are glowing," Paul whispered to me. I beamed.
"And how was it for you?" I asked.
Paul said it was brief, but meaningful. It reminded him of his childhood, and it revived memories that were long buried. Memories of a family outing to Atlantic City, when they were visiting relatives back East. They checked into a hotel, and Paul was fascinated by the orthodox people who were praying in the lobby, eating kosher food and speaking Yiddish. It was like visiting a foreign country. His mother was horrified, and made them check out. That was the last time he had ever mingled with orthodox Jews.
During the ride back home, Devorah Leah told me that the mikvah is the most powerful time between a woman and G‑d -- even more so than lighting the candles, because in the mikvah, her whole body is involved. Some women go to the mikvah when they are in crisis, or someone is sick, or before a wedding or bar mitzvah. The rest of the family is involved in the mikvah experience because the husband has to cooperate and the children feel the infusion of spirituality their mother brings back from the baths. And when a baby is born after a mikvah, she is considered to have been conceived in holiness and she comes into life with that advantage.
I suppose I am a little sorry that I didn't observe the mitzvah thoroughly during the preparation. Perhaps it would have been even deeper and more meaningful. But it was too late for me to re-do it; I had my once-in-a lifetime purification experience. And for a non-religious person who has looked long and hard for spiritual connection in Judaism, it was certainly a great beginning.