Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

December 19, 2011 by

Immerse and Emerge: Revisiting the Mikvah

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A new year is approaching, and winter is settling in. As we prepare to jump into 2012, and think about what sort of resolutions we will be making, I can’t help but reflect on how the Jewish year began a few months ago, and the specific blessings I sent to myself then—while underwater in a mikvah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

When I was married, I struggled with going to the mikvah. I struggled with having the mikvah attendant watch me immerse in the waters of the ritual bath and then deem me kosher. (I realize that she was declaring my dips into the water kosher, and not my actual self, but having someone sing-song “kosher!” over you blurs the lines of how the experience feels.) Why did an outside institution, and another human being, get to have a say in the cycle of my most personal relationship? I resisted the structure. I often wished that I had access to a lake, where I could quietly go by myself under the moonlight, or I half-jokingly wondered if I could just take a really long bath at home.

This particular struggle was over—and others began—when my husband and I split up over the summer. Right before Rosh Hashanah, I received the get, the Jewish bill of divorce. I barely observed Rosh Hashanah this year; I had a meal with a friend with honey and figs on the table;  I bought a ticket in advance but didn’t go to shul. I napped, a lot. I felt guilty and thrilled and guilty I felt thrilled.

After the holiday, I was invited to a Jewish women’s event where we would go to a mikvah in preparation for Yom Kippur. I immediately said yes. Here was a chance to experience the mikvah in a way that had nothing to do with a romantic relationship, being “kosher”, or the cycle of my body. It also seemed like the perfect time to cleanse and prepare myself for a new and completely different year.

No mikvah attendant came to check my fingernails and hair to make sure everything was in order before I went in. No one escorted me to the mikvah room itself. No one saw me get into the water. It was just me. It was quiet. The water was comfortably warm.

I began to submerge under the water, pulling my knees up and crossing my arms in front of me. When I had gone previously to the mikvah, I would submerge three times, but on that night I wanted to do something different, bigger, more. I decided—in the water—to submerge twenty-seven times; I had just turned twenty-seven. There was nothing really on my mind at first as I began. No blessings, no prayers. I counted each time I went under to keep track.

About four or five dips in, I began to associate each number to that year of my life. I relived moving to Texas when I was five, my different schools and states as I grew up, seven, eight, nine, crushes I had in middle and high school, twelve , thirteen, fourteen,  transferring colleges and exploring Judaism for the first time, nineteen, school and plays and the one that got away. So many of my years were punctuated by the boys I loved or dated. My twenties blurred: first job out of school, marriage, moving, new jobs. Twenty-five was clear again—a year of revelations. My eyes were stinging with water despite being closed. I dipped for the twenty-seventh time, and sent blessings to myself for the new year.

I got out of the water, and put the white bathrobe on. Before I left the mikvah room, I said the shehecheyanu prayer—or tried to, as I don’t actually know it by heart. Thank you, God, for bringing me to this time. This very moment.

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