Picture a woman floating submersed in a warm bath, the water enveloping her like the womb and bringing her to a renewed state of spiritual purity. That is the experience of the mikvah, the ritual bath of natural water where for centuries Jewish women have immersed themselves after their menstrual cycles and after childbirth.
This month the Fine Arts Council of the University of Judaism (UJ) is exhibiting a collection of ethereal mikvah photographs that examines all facets of the mikvah experience. Titled "The Mikvah Project," the exhibit combines the work of photographer Janice Rubin and writer Leah Lax.
Rubin and Lax, who both live in Houston, interviewed women in five different U.S. cities and asked them for their personal stories of mikvah use. The stories, all told anonymously, range from tales of using icy mikvahs in the former Soviet Union with the threat of gulag looming over every dip to using the mikvah to feel renewed after a divorce or an abusive relationship.
"We didn't know that we were going to tap into this sort of grass-roots rebirth of mikvah outside of the Orthodox community," Lax said. "Ultimately, half of our subjects use mikvah according to Jewish law, and the other people have utilized mikvah into all kinds of personal and creative rituals."
With their aquatic grace, the photographs in "The Mikvah Project" manage to illustrate the mystical secrecy of this ancient mitzvah, and the uniqueness of the mikvah experience. Each subject in the exhibition put her own personal imprint on these bodies of pure water, and so in many ways, it seems, the ritual becomes a form of prayer -- an opportunity to connect to God using one's whole body.
"We didn't have a single interview without tears," Lax said. "At the end of every interview, I would say, 'Come with me now. Close your eyes, we are standing at the railing of the mikvah. Tell me what you are thinking."'
And the women would say, "It's just me and God," she said.
The Mikvah Project exhibition opens Oct. 26 at the Marjorie and Herman Platt and Borstein Galleries at the UJ, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. Call (310) 476-9777 or visit www.mikvahproject.com .