Superstition, Infertility and Healing at the Mikveh

Remove all jewelry and makeup.

I unclasped my necklace and twisted and pulled at my wedding and engagement rings until they loosened from my swollen finger. I tucked them under the shirt on the counter.

Soak body.

I unhooked my bra and slid off my underwear. I was at least twenty pounds heavier than the first time I had gone to the mikveh. On that day, I was bursting with joy and expectation. I wasn’t raised in a household concerned with the laws of family purity, and mikveh was foreign to me; but it was three days before the wedding, and I was too happy to be nervous. When I emerged from that first foray into the mikveh waters, a fun, but ultimately uninspiring experiment, I smiled widely and beamed with satisfaction.

Almost four years later, the glow had tarnished.

Wash hair. Scrub entire body thoroughly.

In the interim years, I had tormented myself with silly notions such as hope and longing. But the flow of blood returned month after month. Not even the two surgeries had rendered me capable of conceiving. The innumerable procedures left me on a roller coaster of pain, anticipation, and crushing disappointment. I was now on my third reproductive endocrinologist, and my third cycle of IVF.

As I dried off my body and combed through my hair, I knew that just beyond the door, my friend was finishing her own dip in the mikveh waters. Her belly, too, was distended: hers from pregnancy, and not from ovary-stimulating medications. Janna, too, had undergone IVF, and she knew the loneliness of sitting in a crowded synagogue on a Shabbos morning surrounded by full wombs and the soft skin of small babies. She, too, understood the struggle to feel connected to a God who insists on p’ru urvu, but who created you broken. She, too, experienced the difficulty in being a part of a culture that constantly asks when you’re going to have children, and not being able to provide an answer.

I’m not superstitious. So when Janna offered to perform a segulah for me, I was skeptical. Implementing something symbolic in order to change one’s fortune was antithetical to my understanding of Judaism. Baking keys into challot in an attempt to attract financial gain seems akin to stirring a cauldron and reciting a magical incantation. Eating an etrog to facilitate an easy childbirth is just silly. Yet, here I stood, naked under my robe, prepared to bathe in the healing waters of the mivkah immediately following my pregnant friend. “It’s supposed to help you get pregnant,” she had told me. I scoffed at the idea, until, too desperate to dismiss it entirely, I agreed.

I walked down the stairs, each step slow and deliberate, until I stood at the bottom, the water rising above my breasts. This was not the fun experiment of my pre-wedding dip. I was trembling. Then, something strange came over me, filling me up as though I drank the water that buoyed me. I felt Janna’s presence in the warmth that surrounded me, comforting me. I felt her shared experiences, and I could see her joy at coming through on the other side, and I once again saw the potential for hope and happiness. I’m not superstitious, but I believe that when there is nothing else to be done, when all seems futile, magic lies in the friend who reaches out and says, ‘I know your pain and I want to make it better.’

I spread out my arms like wings, stretched my fingers wide, and sunk until I was fully immersed and even the lingering tips of my hair had joined my body under the water. As I did, my cocoon began to shatter into a million little pieces, melting as they dispersed throughout the pool. My high school friend who was pregnant with her third floated off my shoulders and into the distance. The old woman at shul who looked at me sideways and questioned my lack of offspring incredulously dripped down my legs and disappeared into the waters. The sadness in my husband’s eyes, the disappointment of my family, my fear, my anxieties, my expectations, all drowned in the warm liquid that enveloped me. When I emerged, they were gone, and in their place was only me: bruised, bloated, and free.

Talia Liben Yarmush just finished her first novel and has started working on her second. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and their two IVF sons.