Private Places, Private Moments
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Private Places, Private Moments

One woman's reflection on mikvah, ritual, and privacy.

Silhouette of woman / Pexels
Silhouette of woman / Pexels

These are private places. But the evening is dark, so my husband walks with me. I walk alone in this town during the day, but it’s so dark in the evening. I don’t like walking alone in the dark. Last time I did this, it was daytime. Last time I did this, it was a thousand miles away. We walk together to the house. I see the sign. Large enough to read, small enough to be discreet. You wouldn’t know unless you knew. My husbands checks that I’m all right.

“I’ll text you when I’m finished.”

“I’ll meet you back here.” I watch him dash around the corner, because this is a woman’s space.

This attendant knows these are private places. She doesn’t want us to see each other.

I ring the bell. A woman’s voice answers, and I tell her I have an appointment. She sounds flustered. She opens the gate. “I just have someone finishing up. Would you mind…?” She looks around, asking me wordlessly if I would wait out here. I won’t, not in the dark, not in the cold. And my hair is wet. She realizes this, and invites me into the antechamber. “You can sit here, and I’ll tell the woman finishing up that you’re here.” This attendant knows these are private places. She doesn’t want us to see each other. She wants to preserve the anonymity.

She goes into the other room, maneuvering her pregnant belly through the doorway. But the room is not soundproof, so I hear the conversation. “I don’t want to rush you, take your time. There is someone waiting outside, so just let me know when you are ready to leave.” I think I recognize the voice that responds. It’s a small town.

A few moments later, the woman emerges, wearing a scarf around her wet hair. I didn’t know she covered it. I was right about her identity. She chats to me for a moment, tells me she tried to make the bathroom tidy. The attendant seems surprised that the woman did not want the anonymity. Did I?

I go into the preparation room. The attendant asks me what I normally do, and what I would like her to do. I have no normal; it’s only my second time. I tell her this. So we decide together that she will check my back for stray hairs. I go in and shower, making sure to breathe, remembering the last time I did this, last month, a few days before my wedding. I was with my mother. She’s back home, thousands of miles from here, and as I comb through my hair one more time, I miss her.

I expected to feel resentful about being shackled—shackling myself—into an ancient menstrual taboo.

I expected nothing of that first time, when I went with my Mom. If anything, I expected to feel resentful about being shackled—shackling myself—into an ancient menstrual taboo. I felt that resentment, that sharp, debilitating sting that comes with realizing what womanhood in my world seemed to mean, when I stood in the bathroom and performed my first hefsek tahara, an internal check to make sure I had stopped bleeding.

These are private moments where only rabbis’ words intrude and instruct me to wrap a piece of cloth around my index finger, squat, and check myself. Only rabbis’ words make me wear white underwear for the next seven days, and do some more internal checks. Only rabbis’ words can make me clean. But it’s just words, right? No one transgresses my private places. I could stop listening, couldn’t I? I have shackled myself.

These are private moments where only rabbis’ words intrude.

But I did not feel that resentment when I immersed in the mikvah for the first time. I choose not to describe what I actually felt, but it was something powerful, positive, that I never thought I’d feel. But these are private places, private feelings.

These private feelings made me excited, in some sense, for this second journey. I wanted the chance to thank my God. I wanted to pray about my life and my marriage naked and wet. So I leave the preparation room, and the attendant checks my back. She holds up a towel as I enter the water. A curious practice, I think. Small modesty in full nudity. I sink myself into the water and breathe again. Ready. I dunk. When I emerge, I say the blessing. “Amen.” I am reminded that I am not alone.

And then I remember that I am not alone.

I breathe. Ready. Dunk. When I emerge this time, I take a vulnerable moment to think, to pray. I have not yet memorized the prayer I want to say, so I blabber to my God. I choose not to repeat what I prayed, but my words surprised me. Praying naked with the sounds of water lapping against the walls feels rare, as if I must lap up every moment, make every word count. It is my one chance to pray in a ritual space that is not shul. I feel simultaneously free to speak and aware that I will not have this moment for another month. I’d better make it count. And then I remember that I am not alone. It’s hard to pray on one’s own with someone else behind you.

So I finish, breathe, close my eyes. Ready, I suppose. When I emerge finally, I take one last short moment, and then climb the stairs. My towel is waiting.

In the preparation room, I text my husband. Ready. And I walk back outside, my wet hair cold in the dark night, and take my husband’s hand.

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