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Returning to the Mikveh, Revisiting Trauma

Three decades after I had first immersed myself in the mikveh, I returned.

My first time there was a joyous rite of passage: A bride-to-be, accompanied by my mother, my fiance’s mother, sisters and grandmothers. In keeping with our family’s minhag (custom), when I crossed the threshold of the mikveh room, robed, they held out before me, expectantly, an ornate mirror, a lit candle and sweet nogle, the rosewater-flavoredcandies for simchas (joyous occasions). I remember looking at everyone smiling, catching my own gaze reflected in the mirror, feeling radiant. It felt like a culmination of years of collective prayers to get me married, intact. 

A first-born, first-generation American daughter of hardworking, earnest immigrants who provided me every opportunity they could afford, my high marks in school, college graduation, professional degree and an impressive job offer did not offset what I had internalized: the imperative to marry. 

After being courted by some real duds, I was relieved that I was engaged to a man I actually loved, who professed to love me, too––albeit, still, in an arranged marriage.  Grateful to have the generations of our families, immigrants from Iran who had left behind lives, child marriages, kitchens where some women gave birth, and experiences of the public baths (hamam oomoomi), we were all now here together! In New York! To affirm and sanctify a forthcoming marriage–mine!

Though my periods had been quite regular since the age of eleven, my visits to mikveh after the wedding were not. My husband did not expect it, and I felt ambivalent about it, so we observed taharat hamishpachah (the laws of “family purity”) in our own way at home. The preparation to go to mikveh, which includes removing all jewelry and nail polish, as well as being stark naked before a complete stranger while standing in a pool of rainwater, sometimes seemed like a barrier, too. Frankly, the pressure of feeling one had to perform, to have sex after the mikveh, was actually the opposite of a turn-on for my husband and me. 

Nevertheless, I returned to the same mikveh sporadically several times. I went after the births of our children, and a couple times more when I felt depleted and tried to re-set spiritually. I took a friend on the night she finally got her get (writ of divorce), and went with another friend who struggled with infertility. She asked me to dunk just before she did. This last felt very fraught, since  I worried that she would blame me if her superstition did not result in a healthy pregnancy, but would also blame me had I declined to go with her. Truthfully, I prefer occasional spa retreats to waiting in line at the mikveh, discomfited by awkward silences and weird small talk, only to a hear stern but well-meaning stranger proclaim: “Kosher.” 

Even with all my ambivalence, somehow, choosing to go to the mikveh this last time felt like something I had to do for myself, alone. This time I wanted to be laid bare. This time, I wanted to be sympathetic to just me. I needed to sanctify the changes in my body, to offer gratitude for the miracles of good health and creation which allowed me to bear children with my husband by my side. What a miracle that this body was a vessel to grown children!   

Wistfully, I also needed to give myself permission to mourn my sexual being. A virgin when I married, my body was not really much of a sexual object other than in fantasy. My strict, sheltered upbringing meant an internalized expectation of chastity to preserve family virtue and honor.  Pretty uptight, I admit I sometimes wonder about my paths not taken, whether rebellious, promiscuous, or otherwise. 

Going to the mikveh this last time was something I had to do alone.

Painfully, from time to time I also wonder, about the impact of my having been molested by two older boys, who digitally penetrated me when I was five or six years old. Even now, I wonder:  Have I ever recovered from that  little girl’s violation? I still remember the room, the floor, myself splayed out, and the unarticulated thought that if we were playing doctor, how come I did not get to play? How come only I was hurting? That little girl got up from the bathroom floor after the boys unlocked the door and left. She opened the door and went out to a houseful of dozens of people celebrating a Shabbat dinner. No one was punished. No one apologized. No one came to her aid. Even after I told my parents, who were very young immigrants horrified that the perpetrators were children of people they knew, nothing happened. 

It has taken me decades to connect the betrayals of that experience to the aftermath. I still tense up before sex and feel tense and inhibited even now. I was little, I was sheltered, and obedient; I was violated. On some subliminal level, each visit to the mikveh after my naive first bridal visit reminded me to wonder about notions of purity: Why was I violated? Was I even a virgin until marriage? Was I pure? Who decides?

I decided that this immersion would be different. I attended alone, knowing it would likely be my last ritual cleansing until the chevra kadisha (burial society) rites of death.  Like my mother before me, I entered menopause early, and my years of menstruation are over. My temper and hormones may fluctuate like waves, but the mikveh waters are still. In the strictest sense, my husband and I are no longer bound to notions of taharah; I suppose I am finally pure every day, and we can have middle-aged sex with abandon! I am fond of telling myself “I can wear white any time I like!”

The mikveh lady made a point of asking if it was my first time. Apparently she has “regulars,” and could not help noticing that I was not one of them. Certainly, she was right. When I answered her somewhat intrusive questions about why I came, and she learned I no longer menstruate, she said I did not need to read the blessing on the wall, that I didn’t have to have removed my polish and jewelry to do a mere segulah (prayer for protection, remedy). I stood my naked ground to ask, so what can I read, then? She handed me a laminated card with sweet prayers for menopausal women before and after immersion. As I read them in Hebrew and English, I also noticed handwritten notes posted to a wall. Prayers for babies. Prayers for shidduchs (matches). I realized then, again, how blessed I have been, albeit with ambivalence.

There is a wonderful expression in Farsi which came to me just then: “Khoda bebakhsheh.” It translates, rather poorly, to “God should grant blessings freely, without exacting a price.” I turned from the wall of names, descending one step at a time into the still, warm well of water, praying to return with my own daughter as a bride-to-be, and her siblings, our family and loved ones, with that simple prayer on our lips.