Working the Mikveh
We take turns: Yehudis, Miriam, Lillian and I. The mikveh is behind Miriam’s house so she gets to staff it three nights a week; the rest of us take the other three and then rotate for Shabbes. In theory, no one wants to work the mikveh on Shabbes because it’s better to be home greeting the Shabbes queen, making our homes into a little paradise. We’ll set our tables with linen and flowers and then put paradise on our freshly bathed bodies with clean dresses and shiny shoes. And then later, after all the food and talk, pass the kugel and who wants tea, after all the singing and table banging, then it’s time for paradise between our sheets.
The more kids you have, the less like paradise. Four baths by sunset, four changes of clothes, four picky eaters, four bedtimes, and four chances you’ll be too tired for a hot and holy Friday night fuck. I wasn’t born into this religious ethic of guarding one’s tongue, but Rebbitzen Lazar says, “don’t sever who you are, Ruth,” so this is how I talk, even now with all this sanctity. I’m working on it, though. I’m evolving.
I like working the mikveh on Shabbes. It’s good to get away from the kids and have some quiet before dinner. In the stillness the mikveh looks less like a small tiled pool and more like a pond of sweet rainwater gathered together simply to make a person ritually pure. This is how it goes: menstruation equals dead egg, dead egg equals impurity, no more sex, count the days, visit the mikveh, soak off the world, stand before the attendant, dip once, say a blessing, dip twice more, and poof! Instant purity, body and soul. What better foreplay could there be?
I don’t love immersing: the water is kind of scuzzy —but I enjoy watching each of my mikveh sisters take the plunge. When she is fully immersed, the splash of water turns to stillness and in that moment, her fingers loosen, lips part, and eyes open to all that holiness. When she’s down deep, the surface of the water barely shimmers and I know she is in a womb-like embrace, no place untouched.
My mikveh sisters talk to me. After all, when someone is standing before you, dropping her towel for your inspecting eyes, she’ll tell you anything. And that’s how I know things, secrets I shouldn’t even talk about because as Rebbetzin Lazar says, my tongue is my evil impulse. I’m working on it; I really am.
Here’s what I know.
Batya cancels a lot because she can’t wait. The law says count all the days of your menstruation, then check your underwear to make sure there are no more leaks, and then count seven more days till immersion. It’s the rabbinic way, so we do it, no questions asked. Batya makes an appointment every month and then calls the answering machine and in a little sing-song voice, says, “I spotted.” Now the other attendants don’t know this but I saw: Batya has a tattoo on the inside of her thigh. You would think she had a wayward past like me, but she’s frum from birth. For her, there was no summer adventure with a married man, no college years wearing sheer Indian broomstick skirts with nothing on underneath. Batya was a buttoned-up Young Israel girl from Queens who spent her teenage years in long sleeved blouses with angel collars, learning Rashi and collecting kugel recipes. Her tattoo is very pretty; a small blue butterfly.
When Batya comes to shul she wears the biggest hats: that’s how everyone knows her. Wide brims, white on black, feathers, a little black veil. She and her husband are big donors; this is not a secret. But here is what I know. Batya works for a man named Liam who owns a silk flower shop and she is in love with him. First, it was for his kindness, she said, because he let her take off for all the Jewish holidays. But then it was more. I once spied them on the BART, sitting side by side, knees touching, pinkies intertwined, her cheeks flushed. They got off the train in downtown Oakland and disappeared into a crowd. And now, when I watch Batya immerse three times, I wonder who she dips for, where her purity lives. I wonder about her often. Rebbitzen Lazar says curiosity is healthy, but to judge is only for God, so I just stay curious.
Now Chani is another story. Her heart is so pure that I think she must have a fresh bar of Ivory soap floating calmly through her frail, pale body. She spends her whole week doing mitzvos and preparing for Shabbes. Monday she reads for a blind girl at the library, Tuesday she works at a soup kitchen, Wednesday she cleans her mother’s house, Thursday she holds sick babies at the hospital, and Friday she wakes at dawn to iron her husband’s clothes, change the sheets, bake challah, clean a chicken, and frost a sponge cake that reaches to heaven. Just before she gets herself ready for Shabbes, she inspects lettuce leaves on a slide tray, looking for the one single insect that could render a salad as trayf as a lobster bisque.
But Chani has been married for 10 years, and she weeps every time she gets her period. She thinks she’s not good enough to bear a child, not evolved enough. I tell her God is not judging her, but she thinks she is being punished because she and her husband touched before their wedding. “We really touched,” she told me. “His fingers were inside me and I had my first orgasm. Surely this is my punishment. God heard my pleasure and made a decision.”
“No way,” I said. “Sin and punishment don’t apply to sex. Not for us.”
“You know what your problem is, Ruth? You were modern before you were religious and you have no idea how I think. Surely I am being punished.”
Chani immerses so beautifully; she was born for this kind of holiness. First she dips once and I declare her immersion kosher. She mutters a blessing and catches her breath. Two more dips. Kosher. Kosher. Then I turn my back to give her some privacy as she dips seven more times for all of God’s kabbalistic emanations, and for the completion of the world. “My Ivory girl,” I whisper to myself when she comes out, always averting my glance. With her pure face wet with mikveh drops, she goes back to the changing room, pulls on her tights, blouse, long skirt, beret, and wedding ring, and walks out to her husband’s waiting car. Chani lives only two blocks from the mikveh, but her husband doesn’t want her outside by herself in such a vulnerable state of purity.
Our mikveh is not some scummy Old World ritual bath like you’d find in Brooklyn or Jerusalem. This is California after all; our mikveh is in a heated log cabin set back in the woods. The buzzer on the door doesn’t always work, so the mikveh sisters know that they can let themselves in and wander into the waiting room. It’s a hippie mikveh in a hippie sort of town where mikveh attendants are women who listen to the Grateful Dead and bake vegan meatloaf. Many of us don’t have such devout pasts, but you’d never know from looking at us now. Even the changing room checklist Lillian wrote is not your traditional litany.
Women: Bathe and soak, use a pumice stone to smooth your heels. Take a few minutes to do a breast exam. Know your body. Be sure to remove your nail polish, cut your nails, floss and brush. Use the cotton balls for earring holes and belly buttons. When you are ready, take a deep breath and relax. Find your kavanah. Remember, mikveh sisters, this is your time. Yours alone.
Believe me, this is not how it reads out there in the mainstream.
I’m not into hocus pocus. Some people say that if a great rabbi visits your town and immerses in your mikveh, the first woman to dip after him will absorb extra blessings and everything she prays for will come true. Every last wish. A certain Rabbi Yehuda immersed in Safed one morning, and the first woman who plunged that night had been infertile for 12 years and poof! Twins. Reb Yankelovich immersed in Cleveland on a Friday morning and the woman who immersed soon after learned that her orange-sized malignancy shrunk down to an olive, then a pea, then nothing. Clean as a newborn.
But I know myself. If I were the first one in, I would be down there in the tub with open eyes, wondering about the body that went in before mine. And thinking about some great rabbi’s body is where I draw the line. But for others it’s a different story. They want to open themselves to some kind of promise, closeness to God. And who am I to judge? Anything is possible. Sick bodies can be healed; empty wombs can be filled with hope and gestation. So when Rebbitzen Lazar left a message that Reb Gershon of Milwaukee, a direct descendent of Rabbi Loew of Prague, was coming through town on the second of Tammuz, I knew what to do. I called Miriam who called Lillian who called Yehudis and we all agreed: Chani.
“You’ll be the first one in after nightfall,” I told her “The second of Tammuz, in the dark.”
“There must be someone needier than I,” said Chani. “Yehudis knows someone with breast cancer, Lillian’s little boy has that attention deficit problem—these women need help more than I do.”
“You need a child,” I said. “Your goodness has to be passed down.”
Men immerse in daylight; they can frolic with each other in the mikveh water and enjoy pool parties before Shabbes. But women are commanded to immerse alone, and because no one should know the details of our intimate lives we go after dark, and only after dark. Lillian says it’s romantic for her to sneak off to a cabin in the woods where she can peel off her clothes and go for a meaningful dip. “It gets me in the mood,” she says.
About me, there is no secret. The mikveh doesn’t arouse. I immerse because that’s what the Torah says, right there on the parchment. No place is hidden from Jewish law, from the space between my teeth to the food in my cabinet; from the fibers on my jacket to the hair I keep covered. Three fingers of hair are permitted to stick out of my beret, so I have some tendrils of bangs. The rest of my hair is a secret only my husband knows. Call it another prop on the stage show of life, but everything matters.
“When you inspect them for loose hairs,” asked Lillian, “don’t you wonder about their sex lives?”
“Of course I do. We all do.”
“But when does your wondering turn to judgment?”
“Only someone not born into this world would ask such a question.”
“Well, what about Batya?” asked Lillian. “Don’t you judge her?”
“No,” I said, “even though we both know about Liam.”
Lillian paused. “Do you think she comes to the mikveh when she has her period?”
“What? Just to trayf up the water?”
“God forbid, but anything is possible.”
“She cancels all the time. Look, with two men to fuck—”
“I’m working on it. I really am.”
“You could use to dunk after the rabbi.”
“No,” I said. “It’s all about separation and purity. We don’t dunk for speech.”
After nightfall on the second of Tammuz, I unlocked the door to the mikveh and turned on the lights. There was a note from Rebbitzen Lazar, saying Reb Gershon had immersed that morning and the water was in a special state of holiness. I went to the mikveh pool and leaned down, pulling my hand through the water. It was clear as fresh rain, no dirt, no hairs. I looked at my watch: Chani would come for her plunge in 15 minutes. Everything was ready: I only had to guard the expectant water. I could go down myself, I thought. Four children, a husband, my wayward tongue: life is a narrow bridge and it couldn’t hurt. But hocus pocus or not, I would be searching the depths for the old flakes of skin off Gershon’s body. The water belonged to Chani. Blessings were ripe for her immersion, suspended in the water like holy molecules waiting to purify every strand of her hair, surface of tooth, eardrum, armpit, cuticle. I thought about her body and got goose bumps.
I sat down in the waiting area and listened to the quiet, my eyes opening and closing in the soft light. A parade of women passed before me, first my friends from the past, then my religious friends. They passed in two different lines; no one looked at anyone on the other line. I watched my children as babies crawl along the floor between the lines of women, and then I saw them: Chani’s babies, two little twin girls, pale like their mother. Chani picked them up and laid them in two wicker baskets the color of flax. She held one basket in each hand and walked in her line, perfectly balanced.
I woke to a loud splash and ran to the mikveh. The water was momentarily still but a sheath of black hair moved through the depths and a set of limbs fluttered like a jellyfish. The swimmer stayed down there for at least a minute and then popped up, gasping for air.
“I had to come. I couldn’t wait,” mumbled a dripping wet woman. “It’s a bad time, isn’t it?”
I flicked on the light. Batya stood in the water with tears streaming down her face. “I don’t know whether I’m coming or going,” she mumbled. “My life is such an entanglement.”
She stumbled out of the mikveh and brushed past me to the changing room. I waited for her to dress and go. From the window I watched her open a car door, and her eyes were puffy from crying.
The water was cloudy and stagnant, like an old abandoned swimming pool. I used a fishing net to scoop out strands of Batya’s hair. There was a small scab floating on the surface and I scooped that out too. The pull of the net brought a small wave to the surface and I watched my reflection shimmer in the murky water. It was almost the end of the twentieth century, on the west coast of America. The second of Tammuz was also a day in the month of July. It was a hot summer and I was wearing a black wool beret on my head. Not so long ago I would have looked at someone like me and there would have been no recognition. I had become a woman whose hair was buried under a shapeless hat, who was standing silently at the edge of a pool that had something to do with holiness, with paradise, with love.
Chani was ready. I inspected her in the changing room where her wedding ring was nestled on top of her beret; dental floss and cotton balls lay in the garbage pail. Her nails were freshly trimmed, her skin faintly pink from having scrubbed off the dirt of ordinary living. I pulled a loose hair off her back and she shuddered.
“I feel different this time,” she said. “Hopeful. Thank you, Ruth. My prayers will fly on the wings of your goodness.”
Chani stepped down into the mikveh and sighed. “It’s living water,” she said. “Something happened here, I can feel it.” She put her arms out in front of her, plunged deeply, and came up for air. “Kosher,” I said, and Chani muttered the blessing. She dipped twice more for obligation. Kosher. Kosher. Then I turned my back on her as she dipped seven more times for God’s emanations, for the completion of the unfinished world. And then it was very quiet, so quiet that I could hear the sound of my own breath as it received the air. I closed my eyes and felt my body surrounded by water, as if I were immersed also. After what felt like an eternity, I slowly turned to face the mikveh. Chani was floating in the center, poised like a lily pod, her face blushing and radiant.
Amy Gottlieb’s short stories and essays have appeared in Forward, Midstream, Puerto del Sol, Country Living, and elsewhere. She is at work on a novel.