Bloody Waters at the Mikveh

Sensible flats in place, we accidentally drove through the wealthiest part of a wealthy suburb to the mikveh itself, rather than to the venue listed on the invitation.  An ever-so-slightly judgmental woman (mikveh guide, please) answered the buzzer and as humid, pool-scented air puffs out around her through the open door, declared we were the sixth group to stop by the tiny building looking for the gala. We run along.

Mayyim Hayyim is Boston’s progressive community mikveh, better known these days as “that mikveh I wouldn’t be caught dead in” to a sizable chunk of the Orthodox population of the city, or “that place my gay/intermarried/convert friend went before their wedding,” to the rest of us.

It is the brainchild of Anita Diamant, whose novel The Red Tent retells the story of the biblical Dinah and also prominently features menstrual huts. Mayyim Hayyim opened in 2004; the 2018 gala honored Idit Klein, the Executive Director of Keshet, the LGBTQIA  outreach and advocacy organization, and the Gurocks, a prominent local family who have given both time and money to the mikveh.

I first went to Mayyim Hayyim before my wedding in 2008; a dip that served both as an official conversion and a pre-wedding visit. I went after my children were born and after my abortion. And I went some in between. Suffice to say, most of my encounters with the mikveh have had to do with blood, sex, or old-time religion. 

At the gala, children and adults on the stage talk about mikveh-based life-cycle events foreign to me. One girl talks about a mikveh visit before her first day of high school; another speaks of visiting with her mother, before her bat mitzvah; a veteran describes immersing before deployment. In between, half the troupe of tattooed dancers perform acrobatics on blue fabric streamers while the other half play New Age music. A light show over the cloth tricks the eye into seeing ripples and eddies. A writer for Transparent in a green velvet suit and stylish sneakers performs a jingle. No one says the words “vagina” or “period” or “blood.”

Eventually, S. and I sneak out, piling tiny pareve desserts on paper plates and eating them on the hood of her car. She’s taken her girls to Mayyim Hayyim to experience it; it has never occurred to me to take mine. We’re both grateful that this mikveh has been there when we needed it.

I wonder, though, what it means to shift a twelfth-century ritual so radically away from the bodily processes and rites of passage with which it originated. Elisheva Baumgarten argues that menstrual use of the mikveh began as a symbolic, female parallel to the blood shed at circumcision, eventually growing into the practice of ‘family purity’ normative in the Orthodox world today. The most powerful rituals—the ones that last—map onto biological processes and encode them into culture. After enough time, mikveh symbolized transitions, whether those transitions are marriage, gender, childbirth, adoption, or even military deployment. The potency of the ritual, in other words, has outlasted its origins. That flexibility has its advantages, allowing new generations to push back against patriarchy without losing the faith of their mothers.

Yet, when the flagship of the liberal mikveh movement can hold an entire fundraiser without saying the word “period,” we run the risk of reinscribing the very stigma around menstruating bodies Mayyim Hayyim was built to escape. Without a nod to that link between blood, water, and the Covenant that first wrote mikveh into the medieval Jewish imagination, liberal Judaism and the progressive mikveh movement miss an opportunity for sex-positive, body-affirming discussion of what it means to be a person who can get pregnant.

Most liberal, observant Jews agree: we want to keep the mikveh as a cornerstone of Jewish life. LGBTQ Jews should have full and unimpeded access to a community mikveh and unmarried women, cis- and trans- alike, deserve mikvaot that welcome them: human dignity and Jewish values demand it.

What’s less certain is the future of niddah—or menstrual—use as normative, rather than a quirky thing a few do and most don’t. But we’ll never get around to figuring that out if we can’t take the most basic step of acknowledging the blood in the living waters.

T.S. Mendola is an academic editor and writer who has been published at The Rumpus, The Modern Language Review, and many other places. She can be found on Twitter @tsmendola.

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