Jewish Journal


December 6, 2007

New kind of mikveh washes off ritual’s negative image


"I'm pretty much your classic disaffected Gen-X kind of gal. I have too many shoes, I work too hard, I'm cynical, I'm broke. So when it came time for me to immerse before my wedding, I figured I'd bring some friends, we'd hang out, I'd get wet, we'd go eat, and that would be the end of it."

That's hardly the end of it for "the bride," a character in "The Mikveh Monologues," a play about the experience of immersing in the Jewish ritual bath that will be performed Dec. 17 at the Wadsworth Theatre as a fundraiser for the establishment of a new, nondenominational mikveh in Los Angeles.

The bride, along with the bat mitzvah girl, the convert, the father and son and the recovering cancer patient, among others, all tell their stories on stage in a show that follows the format created by Eve Ensler for her play "The Vagina Monologues." But this time, instead of rhapsodizing about a once-shameful and hidden part of women's bodies, they enthuse about an experience little-known among most Jews today, save the very observant -- the mikveh.

For the last two centuries the ritual bath has been used most commonly by women for purification, so they can resume marital relations following their menstrual flow. A mikveh, which requires a body of natural water that often has been channeled into a man-made structure to serve a religious community, is also used by brides, for conversion rituals and, occasionally, by men before major holidays. But it is the association with women's menstrual cycle and the perceived antiquated laws of niddah (marital purity) that have given the mikveh a bad rap in modern times.

"For a lot of people, the mikveh's been associated with a lot of negatives -- the second-class status of women, the denigration of women's bodies," says the play's co-author, Anita Diamant. Premiering in 2005, the play was created as a means of fundraising for Mayyim Hayyim, a state-of-the-art nondenominational mikveh opened in 2004 in the largely Jewish community of Newton, Mass., near Boston. Diamant, best known as the author of "The Red Tent," founded that mikveh, which has spawned a movement for alternative ritual baths nationwide, including one that is planned to open in 2010 in Los Angeles.

Not to mention that many mikvehs, which are generally supported by small communities and private donations, tend to be small, dingy places with dank reception rooms and stern supervisors (known as "the mikveh lady") who oversee the correctness of the immersion and proclaim it kosher. In other words, the entire experience can be somewhat unpleasant -- especially for converts, for whom this is a mandatory part of their entry into Judaism.

In the last decade, however, the notion of what a mikveh might represent has begun to change. Along with many other ritual practices that involve strict rulings on women's participation -- such as reading from the Torah or the megillah -- many feminist-minded people have been rethinking how they might reclaim their practice in new ways. This includes a wide swath of non-Orthodox Jews who have begun to observe the laws of ritual purity and many others who are using immersion for non-traditional uses: to mark personal transitions, much like the myriad characters in "The Mikveh Monologues."

The play tells the stories of real-life people, some of the 3,800 who have immersed at Mayyim Hayyim.

With the renaissance of interest in the mikveh, it was only a matter of time before someone would want to rethink the physical structure of the bath itself. And like many revolutions, this one started with one dreamer: Diamant, whose best-selling novel about Jacob's daughter, Dina, popularized the genre of Jewish historical fiction.

While Diamant was writing her novel, she was also working on "Choosing a Jewish Life," a book about converting to Judaism. In the process, she went to the only mikveh in the Boston area open to non-Orthodox Jews -- and which was only available to them on Mondays from 9-11 a.m.

"It was not built to welcome people to Judaism," Diamant said. "I felt increasingly that we were not performing the warm welcome we owed people coming to Judaism."

She imagined a mikveh that would be warm and welcoming and open to the entire community for different uses.

"I want a mikveh. Not my own, personal mikveh in the backyard, but a community mikveh that I can call my own," Diamant wrote in "Living Waters," a column that was later reprinted in her book, "Pitching My Tent":

"I want a mikveh where converts will linger at the mirror, before and after the blessings of immersions that symbolically transform them from not-Jewish to Jewish. In my mikveh, there will be gracious room for song and blessings, for hugs and champagne, for gifts of books and candles. My mikveh will provide liberal time and space for savoring beginnings. Brides and grooms (gay and straight) will come, separately, in preparation for marriage. Setting aside the lists, and plans, and the rush, each will read a poem or a psalm ..."

She describes a holy place for use on holidays and celebrations, to mark sad times and transitions, where women could "find new ways to celebrate all the unheralded passages of their bodies as they see fit," and men could also make use of it. An educator would replace the mikveh lady, and tours would be given to b'nai mitzvah students and prospective converts and delegations from around the world. "

I want a mikveh that is as nourishing as the rain, inspiring as the ocean, sweet as childhood swims in the pond.... And when you surface, the one word on your wet lips is Ahh. Or perhaps Ahh-men."

The mikveh she describes was eventually realized in the Mayyim Hayyim facility she set in motion. To get it built, though, Diamant talked about her idea to anyone who would listen, and Barry Schrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, essentially told her, "You're going to have it to it yourself," Diamant recalled. "'The Red Tent' was becoming a phenomenon in 1999 to 2000, and suddenly everyone started to return my phone calls," said Diamant, who is now board president of Mayyim Hayyim.

She delivered her spiel to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in New York, and Aliza Kline joined Diamant, becoming the founding executive director of the project.

"Other people were having the same idea," Diamant said. "It was the moment that liberal Jews in America were coming into our own, and anything in Judaism belongs to us -- people today aren't intimidated by taking on something old that's been foreign."

Mayyim Hayyim, which translates to "Living Waters," is located in a renovated traditional wood-frame house in a residential neighborhood. It contains two mikveh pools connected by a transom, so that a couple can both immerse simultaneously. It has the ambiance of a high-end spa, with low and natural lighting, marble floors and tiles surrounding the small, deep pools, which can be entered by spiral steps. (Handicap access is also available.) An atrium, reception room and educational center are located in bright, naturally lit rooms with cherry walls.

"The beautiful architectural detail is part of our commitment to hiddur mitzvah," their Web site states, referring to the act of enhancing a positive commandment. In place of the "mikveh lady," Mayyim Hayyim is run by a committee of 60 "guides" -- local volunteers, each with particular expertise or focus, who are selected and undergo a seven-week training program using the group's curriculum, "Guide My Steps."

The educational center also hosts groups and artistic performances, such as "The Mikveh Monologues," and though it was also created to reinvent the ritual, some 75 percent of the immersions are traditional -- for conversions, brides and marital purity.

To date, some 20 cities and communities have made inquiries about replicating Mayyim Hayyim. The question is, can it work in Los Angeles?

Marca Gay, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Mikveh and Education Center (LACMEC), believes it will. After attending a conference at Mayyim Hayyim last year, she decided Los Angeles should have a community mikveh like Boston's.

"There is a need for the type of space that would be welcoming for all Jews, no matter where they are in the spectrum of Jewish observance," she said.

Gay should know. She first immersed in a mikveh in 1988 for her conversion to Judaism, and she found it a transformative experience: "I started to see it as something I could incorporate into my Jewish practice, not only in the traditional use."

Later, when she had to have an operation so she could carry a child, she decided to immerse in the mikveh.

"I felt that immersion in the mikveh would provide me with the embrace of the family of the women that I didn't have anymore, to provide me with a spiritual place to say my individual prayers -- I came up out of the mikveh feeling hopeful." She became pregnant on her first try, and her 12-year-old son is now studying for his bar mitzvah.

In April, Gay left Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) to co-found LACMEC with Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein (Goldstein is the secretary and George Caplan is president). Caplan and Goldstein are also both involved with the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic religious court founded in 2002 that has had financial ups and downs despite Caplan's funding of it, in memory of his wife, Sandra.

The question is, will Los Angeles support another pluralistic project, this one with an $18 million price tag?

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the American Jewish University, who was instrumental in bringing about the Rabbinical Assembly's (RA) nondenominational mikveh there in 1983, is not so sure. Even though the RA mikveh is "quite busy," he said, "What I don't know is what the demand for such a thing would be," although "there may well be room for a mikveh for the non-Orthodox community in a community of 550,000 Jews."

But the real question he has is whether such a project should be a number-one priority for the Jewish community's money.

"I frankly think if we really had a lot of money in the Jewish community, I would spend it on scholarships for day schools and camps and day care so that people don't have to worry about having more children," he said. "Frankly, I think that's much more important than another mikveh."

On the other hand, he said, he understands how fundraising works, and he believes it's a good project, if not a top priority.

The proposed new community mikveh would cost $18 million, Gay said, of which $7 million would be used to purchase land and the mikveh and $11 million for endowments. It would require a 7,500-square-foot site in West Los Angeles, and would include an education center and two mikvehs. She said she hopes it will begin operating by 2010.

"The hardest thing when I talk to the donor community is to explain that it's not your grandmother's mikveh," Goldstein said.

Which is why the production of "Mikveh Monologues," to be performed by professional actors, is crucial not only as a fundraiser, but also as an educational tool.

"Anyone who sees it will be carried into the mikveh vision," Goldstein said. "They'll never think of the mikveh in limited terms."

Like the Gen-X bride in the "Monologues," who despite her initial cynicism ("I suppose it was meaningful in some way, but mostly I felt like I was just getting really clean in a friend's tub"), ends up calling for her mother and bursting into tears.

"Then I went, and I dunked. I remember wanting to jump up and down in the water because the whole experience was just so cool. It was fun. I felt really light -- like I had to force myself under because I was so buoyant.

"And happy. And clear."

"The Mikveh Monologues: Stories and Songs From Mayyim Hayyim," will be performed at The Wadsworth Theatre Monday, Dec. 17, 8 p.m. For more information, call 323-683-0766 or visit http://www.richmarkent.com/shows/mikveh-monologues.php

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