It’s four days before I get married, and here I am, I’m ringing the doorbell to the mikveh. As I wait for the woman to open the door, I think: what am I doing here?
I’ve never been to the mikveh before — not even the first time I got married, 10 years ago. I don’t remember why, but the last time around, it didn’t even occur to me.
A few days before my mikveh-doorbell-ringing, I’d sat in the kitchen, my head in my hands, going over my perilously long todo list. It was a week before the wedding. I had a month’s worth of things to do.
“So skip the mikveh!” my fiancé said supportively.
“I did last time,” I said. “And look what happened then.”
He pointed out that his first wife had gone to the mikveh, and that marriage had ended in divorce as well.
“The mikveh thing isn’t a guarantee of marital success,” he said. “I’m just saying, if it’s too much stress to fit it in, don’t do it.”
But here I am.
It’s not superstition that has brought me here, my comment notwithstanding. Nor is it a sudden reverence for the Jewish laws of purity. To a certain extent, it’s a fiction, the skeptic in me says; right? After all, I’ll never be able to purify myself completely. The proof of that is running around the kindergarten and first grade of the local elementary school.
In other words, I have two beautiful boys from my first marriage. They are a blessing. But I also have all the memories of what went so horribly wrong in that marriage. I have the emotional scars of fear, mistrust and self-doubt. And I find they’re hard to hide or to ignore.
Finally, the woman comes to the door and lets me in. She seems much younger than I am, head wrapped in a scarf. She smiles, and takes me down the hall to a small bathroom. She explains everything that I am to do. First, take a long bath. Exfoliate. Scrub off all the nail polish, the dead skin, the scabs. Comb the knots from my hair. Another long list. “It’ll take at least an hour,” she says.
“But I’m short,” I respond. “There’s not that much of me.”
She laughs. “Trust me,” she says. “It takes longer than you’d expect.”
Great, I think, as she leaves and I fill the tub. I undress and sink into the hot water.
Forty-five minutes later, and I find myself still at work. I’ve gotten the wedged-in dirt under my nails, filed off the calluses on my feet, Q-tipped both ears. But unbelievably, despite the not-so-vast 5’2″ expanse of myself, there’s still so much more to do.
Stupid red toenail polish, I think, as I scrub away with a cotton ball and nail polish remover, doing the work that is normally done for me at the pedicure place.
I’m tempted to give up and walk out. I don’t have time for this. But I stay and keep working. Out, damn spot!
Why am i here? The real reason is that this is the closest thing I can find to a ceremony that will separate my past life from the one I’m going to start in a few days.
The fact is, my married past makes me feel like less of a bride now. In certain ways, of course, this is not such a bad thing. This time around, I don’t care one bit about the flowers on the tables, or what color dresses my sisters and sisters-in-law wear. All I care about is the man who will be waiting for me under the chuppah — the beshert I never thought existed.
But brides normally have bachelorette parties, not Back to School Night. I’m not a virgin in any sense of the word. In fact, I’m the head kindergarten class mom. I am older. I hope I am wiser. I have been in dark places to which I will never return. By getting married for a second time, though, I am making a conscious decision, allowing love to trump fear, and the future to trump the past. The mikveh is my own private recognition of the liminal moment.
Simchat Torah will be a few days before my wedding. On Simchat Torah, the end of something runs into the beginning of something else. Things end and begin. Joy and sadness can intermingle. But happiness will triumph, if we let it.
An hour and 15 minutes after I’ve arrived, I’m naked in the mikveh. I submerge myself completely three times. I say the blessings.
I am finished. And now, I can begin.
Jordana Horn is a writer and lawyer at work on her first novel.