September 11, 2003
My Mikvah Lady
The 21st victim of the heinous bus bombing in Jerusalem last month was Rachel Weitz, 70.
Her name probably flew by most of you. It almost flew by me, too, the first time I heard it on the 9 p.m. Saturday news. When I heard her name the second time that night, on the midnight news flash, I knew. My breath stopped as I ran to the phone book to check if there was any other Rachel Weitz in Jerusalem. There wasn't.
Rachel Weitz was my beloved mikvah lady, the woman who ran the ritual bath.
Rachel ran the private mikvah in Mattersdorf until several years ago. Almost all the women who used it, except for me and a few others, were ultra-Orthodox. Even after I moved to Efrat, 18 years ago, I would still return there if I happened to be in town too late to get home to the Efrat mikvah, or just because I liked seeing Rachel.
For the 27 years of my married life, I measured all the mikvah ladies I met by Rachel. It was unfair competition. Had Agnon known her, he would have written a story about her, like he did about Tehila. But, of course, he couldn't have known her like we, the women, did.
When I was a young bride, Rachel made me feel comfortable with this new activity that went along with the wedding ring. She always greeted me with a warm smile and a bit of friendly chatter. Each time I entered her pristine structure, tucked away behind a large Mattersdorf synagogue, I felt like I was parting a veil and entering a sanctum. No matter what insanity was going on in the world outside, it was always safe in Rachel's mikvah. There, I was home.
As time went on, our family grew, and I loved the experience of returning to Rachel's mikvah after giving birth, sharing with her the fact that a new child had been born to the tribe of Israel.
Most of the other women who came to Rachel's mikvah wore thick stockings and either wigs or hats that covered all their hair; some had black stretch snoods pulled over shaved heads, and women even came from the heart of Mea Shearim to use it. I arrived in flowing colored head scarves with my barefoot toes sticking out of my sandals. Rachel didn't care. She was as loving and caring toward me as she was toward the others, who were a much closer match for her mode of dress and lifestyle.
When I came occasionally after I had moved to Efrat, Rachel always expressed great concern for my safety. When I said goodbye, she would ask me if the road was safe and wished me best of health.
Over the years my scarves and flowered skirts were sometimes replaced by suits, heels and a fashionable hat or styled wig. But Rachel never changed. She remained an anchor of tradition in a shifting world.
Part of that tradition was what happened while the women waited their turn. The women in Rachel's mikvah all said Tehillim (psalms) while they waited. There was no small talk. They turned inward and prayed for the people of Israel -- and perhaps for their husbands and for their children. And if they had no children, perhaps they were praying for themselves.
Rachel had a custom from the old country that few mikvah ladies adhere to nowadays. As a woman emerged from the mikvah, while still on the last step, Rachel would grasp her wet hand, shake it warmly and give her a blessing for joy and good luck, as she helped her step up and out. And even though Rachel watched you dunk and say the blessing while in the water, once she had witnessed the act, she would hold the towel up to hide her own eyes from you as you emerged, offering you a final moment of modest dignity before you swathed yourself in terry cloth.
In the years of our marriage I've had occasion to travel, and to visit the luxurious mikvahs of London and of Beverly Hills. I've been to the beautiful establishments in Toronto, Cleveland and Queens. But even with their multicolored tiles, carpeting, piped-in music and collections of condiments and coffee for post-immersion pampering, none of those mikvahs were ever as soothing to me as Rachel's spartan one.
I feel that Rachel's blessings have accompanied me throughout my married life. She has been a role model to me of chesed, of kindness, of cheerfulness, of what it means to make another person always feel comfortable, special and welcome.
The last time I visited the Mattersdorf mikvah, more than a year ago, they told me that Rachel had retired. But I noticed that the spirit she had brought to the mikvah was still there. Well, I thought, some day I'll go and visit her at her home, just to say hello and tell her how much I appreciated her all those years. Someday I'll call her and tell her what's going on with my children.
After the Aug. 19 bombing, Rachel suffered for four days before she died. This knowledge is almost more than I can bear. This righteous woman -- who lovingly clasped the hands of thousands of women, lifting them up and out of the ritual bath, who then sent them forth from her sanctum to go home to their husbands, her blessings ringing in their ears, who should have spent her last years in comfort and joy, basking in the laughter and love of her children and grandchildren -- was slaughtered by the epitome of evil. This knowledge is hard for me to live with.
And so is the knowledge that I never found the time to tell her, "Thank you."
Toby Klein Greenwald is a journalist, a community theater writer and director ("Esther and the Secrets in the King's Court") and the editor-in-chief of www.WholeFamily.com. She lives in Efrat with her husband and children.