Jewish Journal

New kind of mikveh washes off ritual’s negative image

by Amy Klein

December 6, 2007 | 7:00 pm

"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.

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