Though demure in their dress, the women of the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles were not as modest with their checkbooks during an "Evening of Auction and Ambiance," a Nov. 2 fundraiser for the maintenance of Mikvah Esther located on Pico Boulevard. Assembled on the tennis court of a sprawling Beverly Hills estate, nearly 200 women bid on donated auction items as diverse as home-delivered challah (valued at "priceless") and Botox treatment (valued at $800).
"The laws of family purity are the basic foundation for the Jewish family home," said Liz Steinlauf, a Mikvah Society founding member whose father, a Holocaust survivor, began a movement toward building a community mikvah in the 1950s.
The warm apple crumble helped sweeten appetites for bidding, while conversation oscillated from family updates to the election ("I'm from Iran -- I know a snake when I see one," a woman who declined to be named, said of Barack Obama).
The enthusiastic bidding was a tribute to the seriousness with which Jewish women regard the mikvah ritual, one of the three cornerstone mitzvot (along with lighting Shabbat candles and separating challah) commanded specifically of Jewish women.
"A man uses the mikvah by custom. We use the mikvah by commandment," said Miriam Fishman, who sits on the education committee of the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles.
The Jewish laws of niddah ("to be separated") prohibit sexual relations between husband and wife from the onset of a woman's menstruation until seven days after its end. Although the ritual is required only of married women, its observance impacts the whole family, Fishman explained.
"The entire family benefits from the purity of relations between a woman and her husband -- from the children who are born from those relations and from the discipline and respect established between husband and wife -- a family is one neshama," she said.
Mikvah Esther was established in 1973 out of a geographic need for a community mikvah in the Pico-Robertson area. Until then, the only local mikvah was located on Fairfax, which made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to attend on Shabbat. When the Pico mikvah opened its doors 35 years ago, 80 women visited monthly; today, after $500,000 in recent renovations, almost 1,000 women spend their mikvah night on Pico Boulevard each month. At $26 a visit, the mikvah is open every night of the year except Tisha B'Av and Yom Kippur, when Jewish law prohibits marital relations.
Since the renovations, which modernized the mikvah and made it more like a spa, the cost of upkeep has increased.
"Mikvahs should be beautiful," said Sandi Reiss, a former Mikvah Society of Los Angeles president. "A woman should look forward to going without dread."
Which is why part of the renovation included luxurious additions, like 12 private dressing rooms.
As much as these women enjoy the act of going to the mikvah, it represents more than just a ritual bath. Observing the family purity laws enriches their marital relationships.
"For two weeks of the month, if you have a fight, you literally can't 'kiss and make up,'" Fishman said. "You can't sweep your problems under the rug with passion -- you have to talk."
But be not fooled -- it is also about the art of sexual attraction. Apparently, the Torah knows the secret to keeping things hot.
"The Torah views sexual attraction as beautiful and desirable and frequent," Fishman said about sexual indulgence within a holy context. The practice of restraining from sex every month "keeps you sensitive to holding hands."
For more information about the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, call (310) 550-4511.
Iranian Jews Raise $1 Million for Israeli Agricultural School
Friends of Alliance Israélite in Southern California, a newly formed nonprofit, drew 350 Iranian Jews to the Beverly Hills home of Jacqueline and Isaac Moradi on Oct. 19. The evening raised funds for Mikveh Israel, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) agricultural school located on a tract of land southeast of Tel Aviv.
Between 1898 and 1979, the AIU provided secular and Jewish education to Jews living throughout Iran, an effort that indirectly resulted in Iranian Jews gaining wealth and leaving their ghettos. Gity Barkhordar, one of the event's organizers, said ticket sales and fundraising efforts at the event together raised $1 million for Mikveh Israel, which will fund renovation projects.
The Friends of Alliance Israélite in Southern California was co-founded by members of the affluent Merage family, who like other Iranian American Jews have been enthusiastic about returning the generosity the AIU showed their community more than 100 years ago.
"There is one simple question: What would have happened to me if my father had not gotten a chance to get at an education at the Alliance?" said David Merage, the event's co-chair. "I wish I could go back to the founders of Alliance and say thank you."
During the past several years the Merage family has been active in various Jewish philanthropic groups in the United States and in Israel's Negev region.
Also at hand was French Jewish philanthropist Hubert Leven, whose great-grandfather, Narcisse, along with six other French Jews, helped establish AIU schools throughout Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East for Sephardic Jews. In addition to the Jewish Journal's columnist David Suissa speaking at the gathering, a video message of support was also played from Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.
-- Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer
Left to right: Pari Rahban, Katherine Merage and David Merage. Photo by Karmel Melamed