A young bride, a British olah, prepares for her imminent wedding in Israel. She has been given a paper with an address. Trying to be discreet, she and her mother make their way to a taxi stand to take her to the desired location: the mikvah. She sheepishly presents the paper to the first driver. Oblivious to her discomfort the driver announces “Oh, the mikvah! Come on guys, we have a kallah here!” At that, all the other drivers come out of their cars and begin singing and dancing.
This anecdote is the inaugural entry of the Anthology There is a Shark in the Mikvah, a booklet that attempts to inject a lighthearted note into the often heavy experience of mikvah. It refers to the celebration of the bride’s immersion in the mikvah, practiced in many Middle Eastern Jewish communities. A women’s only event, the celebration may occur in the mikvah itself, or at the bride’s home afterwards. In my own Turkish background the minhag, known as “Cafe de Banyos” in Ladino, did not survive to my generation; but in Israel some communities are still known to party up the event.
It seems that in today’s mikvah culture, secrecy and privacy is the name of the game.
I place the taxi incident approximately 20 years ago, when drivers were mostly Sephardic Jews and Israeli culture was less formal. The culture clash that is at the heart of this story returns again and again in the booklet, as the tension between the expectations of privacy and the compromise thereof serves as the basis of the joke.
Is there really a cultural difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi mikvah-goers?
It seems that in today’s mikvah culture, secrecy and privacy is the name of the game. Many girls from observant families are completely unaware of the practice until their late teens. Women go to great lengths so that no one should find out that they are going to the mikvah–efforts that often put a significant strain on their schedule and time management. This is true among liberal circles and traditional ones alike. “Modesty and privacy are integral elements of the mikvah experience,” explains Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz in Taking the Plunge, a book about mikvah use for liberal Jews.
No Children Allowed
Women go to great lengths so that no one should find out that they are going to the mikvah.
I encounter this truth most frequently on Jewish social “mommy” media. It seems that after vaccines and home-birth, nothing evokes as much intensity as when a new mom timidly asks just how awful it really would be if she brought her baby along with her to the mikvah. The responses I have encountered are a nearly unanimous “No,” some so emphatic that they even suggest the women delay going to the mikvah altogether if she does not have a satisfactory child care arrangement, or even if the baby is exclusively breastfed.
Why? The reason most commonly offered is that a woman struggling with fertility may happen to be at the mikvah at the same time and the presence of a baby may trigger her grief.
A child’s presence would clash with the feeling of the mikvah as a deeply sexualized space.
Such reasoning seems inadequate to me. A woman struggling with fertility may happen to step into the supermarket, the synagogue, or the OBGYN office, and we do not suggest sequestering women with children from any of these spaces. In fact, a custom has developed for women in their last month of pregnancy, who have no halachic requirement to attend the mikvah, to immerse and invite a woman trying to conceive to immerse along with her as a positive omen. Surely, if we so chose, we could view the presence of the child as a positive omen as well.
I believe the resistance to the idea goes deeper than the off chance of triggering other women. A child’s presence would clash with the feeling of the mikvah as a deeply sexualized space where women are preparing for the most intimate of activities.
Perhaps this perception also accounts for the confusion at bridal parties held at the mikvah. A communal celebration in the mikvah? The idea just doesn’t fit. I find my English speaking online community also rather unenthusiastic about the ritual. They suggest that, at the very least, single friends of the bride should not attend and that participants should refrain from the use of drums.
But as basic as the feeling seems to some, this attitude is far from universal.
A Site of Anxiety
Sagit Peretz-Deri, an Israeli Orthodox feminist and Mizrahi activist, claims that this heavy, secretive approach to mikvah immersion was unknown to her growing up in a Moroccan Jewish Moshav in Israel. In her article “The Fine Line between Modesty and Silencing in the Mikvah Discussion,” Peretz-Deri describes a culture in which young girls would assist with their mothers’ mikvah preparations, sometimes even accompanying her carrying towels. Children knew about it from an early age, even if they didn’t understand its relation to sexuality. The Balanit (mikvah attendant) would often wave to the young Sagit, as she made her way to the mikvah each evening.
Mikvah to them was associated with hardship, with sacrifice, pressure and anxiety.
But in the course of her activism as an adult, Peretz-Deri encountered another mikvah narrative amongst her Ashkenazi colleagues that she found perplexing. Mikvah to them was associated with hardship, with sacrifice, pressure and anxiety. One of the most commonly heard refrains had to do with women immersing in icy rivers. Indeed I only recently heard this refrain expressed quite graphically, in which the themes of anxiety and secrecy were very prominent: “I’m so glad I don’t have to dunk in a frozen river somewhere, rushing and worrying all the while about someone appearing on the riverbank.”
The woman who made that statement clarified to me that she personally found this concept to be inspirational. But Peretz-Deri remembers her grandmother describing immersion in the Atlas mountains of Morocco in a very different way: “[Savta] answered me with her eyes filled with laughter. ‘Oh don’t even ask how cold it was! But the minute a woman emerged from the river, we would give her a cup of Arak to warm up!’”
The narratives that we tell may be more important than the actual history in shaping our culture today.
The narratives that we tell may be more important than the actual history in shaping our culture today. Our Bubbe’s in Poland and Russia didn’t trek to the rivers alone. Other women were almost certainly looking out for her on the riverbank. For all we know, when an Ashkenazi woman emerged from the freezing waters, her friends quickly handed her a shot of vodka. But they have not become part of the story. The story is one of aloneness and anxiety, not one of female companionship and solidarity.
Female Ownership of a Ritual
Perhaps this reflects a much wider dynamic in the traditional Jewish community–the dichotomy between male and female spirituality. Male spirituality is communal and upbeat; its arena is the minyan or beit midrash. Female spirituality is solitary and intense. Its most common representation is the image of the Jewish mother lighting Shabbat candles, praying silently while covering her face. The bridal party in the mikvah is one of the few traditional practices that afford a communal female religious expression.
Today, religious feminists fight for more privacy at the mikvah–not less.
Unlike Peretz-Deri, who promotes gradual exposure to the mikvah from an early age, similar to shabbat and kashrut, I do not believe a return to the past is feasible. The privacy associated with the mikvah is here to stay, in large part because modern culture dictates a higher level of privacy between members of the same sex. Today, religious feminists fight for more privacy at the mikvah–not less. In Israel women have recently won the right to immerse without an attendant supervising.
I do believe there is still room for bridal parties, single friends and drums included
The days when young girls accompanied their female relatives to the mivkah may not be coming back. But I do believe there is still room for bridal parties, single friends and drums included. I am sure that there are ways that the mikvah can be approached as a legitimate communal space, without violating other people’s privacy. At minimum, there is room for a relaxation of those invisible boundaries and a welcoming of all women and their practices. There is room at the mikvah, as there should be everywhere, to extend a hand to women encumbered with children.
I’d like to close with another story from Peretz-Deri’s grandmother, a story of mesirut nefesh, self-sacrifice, in the hot desert–no less moving than the stories of the frozen ice, but with an alternate emphasis.
The story takes place in the far flung Negev settlement to which the Morroccan immigrants were taken in the 1950s. “There was no mikvah. No river. No means of traveling anywhere. So all the women got together, and we dug a pit next to the water pipeline at the edge of the settlement. And that’s where we immersed.” And if it wasn’t halachic enough, said Savta, “God will forgive us.”
This story highlights female solidarity and female ownership of the mitzvah–two forces that empowered these women vis a vis halacha as well as the secular Zionist establishment. Because both forces are intertwined, and we will not have one without the other.
Sara Maimon is pursuing an MA in Jewish History and Jews of the Islamic world.
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