In your grandmothers day, it was only Orthodox women who still went to the mikvah every month. Liberal Jewish women denounced the laws of taharat ha-mishpachah— family purity—as reactionary and sexist. But now, women from all over the Jewish spectrum seem to be reclaiming and reshaping the ancient rite that their mothers and grandmothers long ago abandoned. Reporter Debra Nussbaum Cohen in the New York Jewish Week recently described one non-Orthodox bride’s pre-nuptial visit to a mikvah, where three friends danced around her in a circle, showering her with candies. Other women are using the mikvah in even less traditional ways. Women associated with The Mikvah Project, a touring exhibit of photos and accompanying interviews now at the Spertus Museum in Chicago, for example, described a woman who went to the mikvah to celebrate coming out as a lesbian. Another used it as part of the healing process from childhood sexual abuse. That a recently-formed all-women’s klezmer band named itself Mikvah— “in tribute to the . . . place of monthly immersion marking the cycles of women’s lives, sexuality, and creativity”—proves that even the term is shedding its old patriarchal connotation.
But for all the New-Age feel of the mikvah movement, for some women, the old associations with impurity and misogyny remain. “I went before I got married, just as I was supposed to do,” said a young woman who has rejected the Orthodox world in which she grew up. “Then I started going regularly. It began to feel like something I was doing out of guilt. For my own sanity I had to stop. Maybe I’d like it if I could do it on my own terms, without those associations.”