I submerged. the warm water surrounded me in a velvety- smooth embrace and penetrated my skin, softening my clenched muscles. I had been braced for the icy cold swimming pool of my childhood, the one that made me shiver and cough and choke, chlorine burning in my nostrils. But, happily, this was more like a giant bathtub and I could remain under this water for as long as I could keep my nose pinched closed with the vise of my thumb and index finger.
Before today I had always kept my head safely above water, except for one disastrous underwater experience when I was a child. My mother, who had been hovering nearby, pulled the coughing and sputtering eight-year-old me out of the pool, away from the swimming teacher’s confident arms. The teacher protested, ”She will be fine. She was getting it . . . she just swallowed a little water.”
“A little water, humph!” My mother was indignant and her hands shook as she wrapped my sunburned body tightly in a rough towel. “The poor child almost drowned!” After that, she decreed that I would not have any more swimming lessons. But her decree was not without guilt and a lot of one-sided discussion with my father. I know the Torah commands that parents teach their children to swim, she told my father. But surely parents had to draw a line. After all, Esther had almost drowned and surely the Torah did not want parents to lose their children over this swimming thing. Yes, children who almost drowned were surely exempt from the rule, she reasoned. My father nodded silently.
My mother told the persistent swimming instructor “a harmless white lie” to get her to stop calling. The doctor had prohibited me from further lessons because of a breathing condition I had developed, she said.
Now that I was an adult, my mother fully expected me to manage in this pool, the mikveh (or ritual bath). According to her, I owed my very existence to the mikveh. I heard her tell the story many times about how her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage because she didn’t go. But then, Rabbi Seruya “reminded” her that the Torah requires married women to go to the mikveh each and every month. And he was right! As soon as she started going, she conceived. And I was a healthy baby. So, according to my mother, swimming in the mikveh was compulsory to prevent the death of a child — my child, yet un-conceived.
I came back to the surface and saw the mikveh lady standing above me, watching as the water purified every crevice of my body. I noticed her skin, withered and wrinkled, and wondered if she spent all of her spare time soaking in the pool. I imagined a smile spreading slowly on her face as she lowered her small body down the steps, knowing she had a full hour or maybe two before her next client. I imagined her floating weightlessly in the pool on her stomach, then on her back, her body in total harmony with the water. I saw her reluctantly returning to a vertical position and slowly getting out of the pool, her skin hanging down with the weight of the water.
The mikveh lady’s serious face peering at me pulled me out of my daydream as I saw she was motioning for me to go under again. I pinched my nose and submerged for the second time.
I had no intention of doing this every month of my married life as the Torah commands. In fact, at the moment, I was here under false pretenses, maybe even contaminating the water. You see, Jewish law instructs that a married woman or bride-to-be wait a full week after her period is completely gone before using the mikveh. An Orthodox bride plans her wedding around her menstrual cycle, selecting a date that will allow her to go to the mikveh on the night before the wedding. She will then visit the mikveh every month of her married life — except during pregnancy — until menopause. Each month she is forbidden to have sexual contact with her husband for a span of almost two weeks, from the time her period starts until she has purified herself in the ritual bath.
I had planned my wedding so that it would fall on winter break, not even attempting to time it to my cycle. I was in my third year of law school and my studies were my first priority. Besides, at this point, I was most definitely not an Orthodox woman.
So what was I doing here? I wasn’t sure. But I had come happily and without protest. I had observed even the tiniest rituals, removing every trace of make-up and nail polish, cutting my nails and carefully cleaning behind my ears. I had allowed the shriveled mikveh lady to make sure I had done a good job. She inspected my naked body, front and back, and peered up into my face before nodding her approval. I was clean, as far as she could see. Thankfully, she did not ask when I had stopped bleeding. Had I told her I had only stopped bleeding the day before, she would not have allowed me to enter the sacred water. And I did not want to tell any lies. Not any more. Over the last several years, since I had quietly rejected Orthodox Judaism, I had told too many.
After a late night at the law library my mother would ask, “What did you eat for dinner?”
“I got food from a vegetarian restaurant. A vegetable stir-fry and rice,” I would stammer.
She didn’t approve of me eating in non-kosher restaurants but she remained silent because at least it was only vegetables. She knew that I had strayed. I was in law school studying till all hours of the night while her friends’ daughters were at home, sleeping next to their husbands after tucking in their four or five children. I socialized with goyim, non-Jews, some of whom my mother suspected might even be gay. (Some were.) I went out without breakfast, preferring to pick up coffee and a bagel from a store that sold unkosher products. That was enough to bring her silent, steady disapproval. I couldn’t tell her that on late nights I usually ate chicken lo-mein from the Chinese restaurant on 12th Street and 6th Avenue; that I wondered what shrimp tasted like and was planning to try it as soon as I felt courageous enough; that it was dumb luck that I fell in love with a man who, though not Orthodox himself, was from an Orthodox family — it could have been anybody.
She never asked. And I did not tell. Where necessary, I would tell her “a harmless white lie.” It was a farce that we had constructed together — a lifesaving buoy to keep my mother from plunging into the depths of her fear. The only problem was that the “harmless white lies” that kept her afloat were starting to bubble up acid-like in my stomach.
I came to the surface and took a grateful gulp of air. The mikveh lady was standing closer, one hand on the metal rail at the edge of the pool. Her eyes were darting back and forth. For one impossible moment, I thought she knew. I looked down at the water — had I bloodied it? No. There was no pink tinge. The water was still sparkling clear, pure and welcoming.
She bent over to speak to me. “Blow out of your nose when you are under,” she said, her Yiddish accent thick. “You do not need to hold nose.”
I decided to try. I took a deep, hungry breath, my chest swelling out as though with pride. I mentally prepared myself to submerge for the final time and resolved to let my breath out under the water without letting water into my nose. The worst that could happen would be a little cough or sputter. I could do this as I could have years ago, if I had only managed to break free of my mother’s frightened grasp. I gathered my faith and submerged. I slowly let air out of my nose creating a dancing cluster of perfect spheres. Bubbles. Of course. I watched as they calmly made their way up to the surface.
Tomorrow I would move out of my parents’ Orthodox household and proceed to a life I would share with the man that I had chosen. A man who would support me as we coughed and sputtered our way through our merged lives, figuring out together how to embrace the depths of our Judaism without surrendering to fear.
I followed my bubbles to the surface and gulped hungrily at the air. The mikveh lady was sitting back with a satisfied look on her wrinkled face. She motioned for me to come out of the pool and held up a fluffy white towel for me to wrap myself in. I noticed her shining eyes for the first time. They were the color of the ocean.
Esther Moritz is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. The mother of Alexis, 17, and Jesse, 14, she embraces Reform Judaism, swims laps in the Texas heat, and only occasionally swallows water.