I know that the comings and goings of women to and from mikvahs are private. Family purity is a personal matter between a husband and wife. Where exactly it is a woman slips off to once a month is only for the husband, wife and G‑d to know. Under the cover of darkness, millions of women all over the world take part in this ritual. The mikvahs may vary in decor, but the essence of what they are doing and the prayers they are saying are the same.
Despite the privacy of the mikvah ritual, I am going to discuss one of my visits, actually my only visit, so far. My visit was a little "different" from most first-timers. I was not a bride. In fact, my twentieth wedding anniversary had been celebrated six months prior, and I had just turned forty-three a few weeks ago. It was a winding and ironic journey that brought me to that moment.
In my mind, mikvahs were dirty pools of unclean waterRaised in a large, Long Island Reform Temple, there were no mikvahs. Actually, we had moved from Queens to Long Island because of a mikvah. When our neighborhood started to become "ultra-Orthodox," no one would talk to us or allow their children to play with my sisters and me. Our new neighbors would turn their backs when they saw us. The ironic part was that the breaking point for my parents was, as I said, the mikvah. We had been on vacation, and when we came home, there was a sign on a corner near our house that a mikvah was to be built there. My parents saw the sign, bought a New York Times, checked the real estate section, went out to Long Island and bought a house, all in one day. Our house went up for sale the next day.
In the Reform Temple we joined when I was ten, the only talk of mikvahs was stories or jokes. Most of the time, they were references to them being less than clean. In my mind, mikvahs were dirty pools of unclean water where old women in crooked wigs checked your finger and toenails. It was where you went so that you could be with your husband after your cycle because you were "unclean."
When my husband, son and I moved into New York City from Long Island this past year, the rabbi at our Long Island Chabad House spoke to the rabbi at one of the Manhattan Chabad houses, and they welcomed us with open arms. My son, Jack, is now studying for his Bar Mitzvah and loving Hebrew School. I also knew that the Chabad synagogue that I was now attending had a brand new beautiful mikvah; I often looked at the brochures while waiting to pick up my son at Hebrew School.
One day, my mother was visiting me and we took my son to Hebrew school together. While dropping him off, I showed my mother a pamphlet about the mikvah and how beautiful it is. As we were leaving, we ran into the rabbi's wife with her youngest in tow, and we told her how beautiful the building was and the mikvah seemed as we stood there with the brochure. She asked if we would like a tour, and we said we would. We giggled a little nervously as we waited while she took her daughter upstairs.
She came back down and asked what we knew about family purity and the mikvah, and we told her the truth: we knew next to nothing, and what we did know was negative. She took us downstairs for a tour of the mikvah. It was as beautiful as a high-end spa. In the preparation rooms, gorgeous tile covered the heated floor. There were showers with modern heads to simulate rain, and a jacuzzi tub! The robes similar to those in the most expensive hotels and the towels thick and soft, it was fully stocked with any type of notion and lotion you could ever need. An intercom system rounded it out.
Old thoughts from the back of my mind surfacedNext, the Rebbetzin opened the door that led to the mikvah. The beautiful tile work continued into the room and down into the pool. Down a few steps was the water which she explained to us was partially filled with rain water collected on the roof of the building. She also explained how the water was cleaned and sterilized after each user without the use of chemicals. When we looked up, we saw that the ceiling was domed and a scene of the sky was painted. Then the Rebbetzin showed us the prayers the women would recite, and told us that after the requisite prayer, a woman could say her own personal prayers and that this was the time when she is closest to G‑d. I had to admit it sounded good.
After we left the mikvah the Rebbetzin explained to us how to calculate when you are to go to the mikvah and how to prepare. She also spoke of family purity and how it can make a marriage stronger. As she spoke, I wondered if I would ever use the mikvah. As kind as she was in taking nearly two hours to give us a tour and speak with us, old thoughts from the back of my mind surfaced. If I did go, there was a part of me that would still feel ashamed to tell anyone that I went to a mikvah.
But the thought of the closeness with G‑d was so tempting that I decided to go and carefully calculated the evening. I was actually looking forward to it.
I called the mikvah attendant ahead of time to let her know I was coming. On my appointed day, I hopped in a cab and went to the Chabad House. At a separate door, I was buzzed in and led down a marble staircase. The mikvah attendant was a young woman, smiling and serene and in no way made me feel uncomfortable or stupid as she asked me the required questions to make sure I was there on the correct day After, she escorted me to the bridal preparation room, the nicest of all. It wasn't being used and she wanted to make my first time special.
She instructed me in what to do to prepare. I was nervous, but not scared. I washed my hair, cleaned my ears, and brushed my teeth, among other preparations. When I was ready, I pushed the buttons on the intercom. I stood in my fluffy terry robe and toss-away slippers, waiting. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, "What's a nice Reform girl doing in a place like this?" There was a knock at the door and I told her to come in. She again went through a checklist of everything I needed to do and I passed with flying colors. She examined my shoulders for loose hairs, and looked at my finger and toenails, then led me into the room with the pool. She held the robe as I slid out of it, explaining that she would be looking straight ahead and not at me. I walked down the steps into the warm water and immersed myself as she instructed. I said the prayer and immersed myself again twice. Each time, as I came up, I heard her say "kosher." She left me to my personal prayers.
I thought about all the women in my family who came before meAlone in the room, I floated, looking up at the beautiful image of a blue sky with clouds and thought about all the women in my family who came before me, who went to mikvahs every month, about the women all over the world who went, and the ones who went even though it might have been dangerous or difficult for them. I felt a connection to them. I did my personal praying to G‑d and reluctantly stepped out of the pool.
Back in the preparation room, I dressed and blew my hair dry. I hailed a cab and went home. I could still smell the scents of the soap and rainwater as I moved about at home. It sounds cliché, but I truly felt serene and renewed, and I felt feminine.
I know that the mikvah serves many purposes, but I believe one of strongest is to take us from our hurried lives as Jewish women, wives and mothers, and take time for ourselves. Time where there is no meeting to go to, child to tend to, dishes to be done or phone to answer. To pamper ourselves and give ourselves some time to reflect and be with G‑d on our own.
And, yes, I will be going back.