"You're shaking," said Sarah Levin, who for nearly 20 years has been a "mikvah lady," ensuring immersions are kosher. "Let me turn the heat up."
That is when the woman started to cry. She had been pregnant with twins, she told Levin, and had lost one of the babies.
When she emerged from the mikvah, the ritual bath, Levin says the woman was smiling, no longer shaking.
"If you are aware and connected and conscious, you can come out a different person," says Levin. "You can go into a chlorinated pool in which case you come out of a chlorinated pool, or you can go into a mikvah knowing that you are attaching yourself to real Godliness, that your soul is getting a recharge," Levin says.
Judaism has long recognized the transformative powers of the mikvah waters. A women descends in a state of tumah, of ritual impurity, and emerges tehorah, pure. A convert descends a gentile, and emerges a Jew.
Today, more and more women are internalizing that power, finding personal and spiritual satisfaction in the mikvah's mysterious depths.
Even in liberal communities, women -- and men -- are reclaiming a ritual once deemed archaic, for a long time used solely for conversions. Now, some Conservative women use the mikvah monthly, and men and women from every denomination are using the mikvah as a source of healing or to mark experiences that are life-changing.
In the Orthodox community, where adherence to laws of family purity has always been of fundamental importance and considered a Divine prescription for a healthy relationship, mikvah use is up exponentially from just two decades ago.
In Los Angeles, the increase in observance of laws of family purity has been coupled with tremendous growth in the traditional population, due to a combination of immigration (especially from Iran), migration from the East Coast, and a vast ba'al t'shuvah movement of people who become Orthodox.
Local mikvahs have had to expand to accommodate. The Teichman mikvah at Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood underwent renovation and expansion a few years ago. Mikvat Esther on Pico is now in the final stages of a $500,000 expansion to accommodate a jump from 70 women a month using the mikvah when it was built 25 years ago, to 900 women a month today.
The mikvah has always been essential to observant family life. The immersion marks the end of the period of the niddah, which consists of the days of menstruation and seven days after, during which time a couple suspends their physical relationship.
While outsiders tend to have difficulty understanding the laws of family purity in a liberated, modern world, those who have built marriages around the system extol the divine wisdom of monthly rebirth and renewal.
Couples of all ages describe mikvah night as a much anticipated event, almost like a mini-honeymoon every month.
"Our rabbis understood these things about the human condition long ago," says Ruhama Muskin, who teaches brides the laws of taharat hamishpachah or family purity. "You take for granted that which you always have. As difficult as the time of separation is, it is well worth the wait."
It also gives couples a chance to work on the emotional and intellectual aspect of their relationship without automatically resorting to physical intimacy, she adds.
Rebecca Mizrachi (not her real name), who has been using the mikvah since she got married 20 years ago, says it has been good not only for her marriage, but for her understanding of Judaism's imperative to make oneself holy.
"This ritual brings holiness into an activity that even the lowest form of life on Earth participates in," she says.
Taking the time out for mikvah also does something for the woman herself.
"This is a time when it's almost like you have an appointment with God," Levin explains. "It is a time when you come and connect and do cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. How are you doing, not only with your husband, which is of course very important, but with yourself? How can I do better? How am I doing with the promises that I make to myself? How am I doing in my relationship with God?"
This introspection process is helped along by the requirement for a woman to be thoroughly cleansed before she enters the mikvah. She soaks in a bath for at least one half-hour and meticulously cleans each part of her body, from her fingernails to the bottom of her feet. This preparation time can afford a busy working mother the only relaxation she will see all month, and so many women have come to value mikvah night as something akin to a spa experience.
At the newly renovated mikvah on Pico, Elizabeth Steinlauf and Rina Isenberg, who oversaw the project and fundraising, kept that in mind when they sat down with interior designer Audry Adler. They chose subtle tones of ecru, mauve and olive, with textured beige tiles and a muted leafy wall paper. Each of the 12 dressing rooms is stocked with plush towels and every toiletry a woman might need, from nail files to saline solution -- along with a card for a domestic abuse hotline and a breast examination card.
Steinlauf says the sense that a woman's whole being is pampered -- along with greater education and awareness -- may be part of the reason women who were ambivalent are now willing to stick with the regiment.
"It makes a difference to have a beautiful mikvah," says Steinlauf, who was involved in founding the mikvah 25 years ago. "Girls come as callahs [brides] and see it's a nice place, not the dingy hole in the ground they imagined."
About 30 percent of the women who use the Pico mikvah are Persian, and another large percentage are Sephardic.
The men's mikvah, which has about 200 users weekly and about 1,000 before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, was also refurbished. Steinlauf is tapping the community to raise the final $40,000 needed to complete the project.
Many women who use Mikvat Esther are not Orthodox, and about ten women use the mikvah at the University of Judaism -- built in 1981 for conversions -- for a monthly immersion.
Rabbi Naomi Levy, who is Conservative, says liberal women have reclaimed the mitzvah partially because of its beautification, both on the aesthetic level and in the meaning attributed to it.
"It's not being addressed in terms of 'you've got the cooties,' and it's not being viewed in terms of the taboo of ritual impurity," she says. "Rather it's understood in terms of the beauty of a woman's bodily cycle, the miracle of the body to be able to rejuvenate itself and go through a life and death cycle on a monthly basis."
The association with death -- the uterine lining shedding being an indication that an opportunity to create life was lost that month -- is the basis for the mikvah. In halacha, one who comes into contact with death is required to immerse in mayim chaim, literally living waters, natural bodies of water.
The indoor mikvahs of today meet that requirement by mixing chlorinated tap water with rain water, usually collected in a pool that is connected by pipe to the mikvah. Levy says that she encourages people to use actual mayim chaim -- the ocean, or a lake (if one can find a place and time that ensures privacy and modesty).
She says that is especially effective for people who are using the mikvah to mark a transformative period in their lives, as many in the Jewish Renewal movement do.
"I encourage people to take a mikvah if they are trying to get over something, to start fresh, whether its something horrific like a rape, or simply wanting to open a new chapter in their lives," Levy says.
Some women use mikvah time to pray for children, or for personal healing. Others go in the final weeks of pregnancy, for an easy delivery. In Sephardic and Persian families, a bride's first tevilah, immersion, is celebrated by all the women in the family, who escort the bride to the mikvah with music and food.
For women who use the mikvah monthly, the celebration may be more internal and muted, but the sense of awe is just as great.
"I am somehow being transformed. It's a new start, a fresh start," says Mizrachi. "There is just something that happens when you go in and come out of that water."
9548 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 550-4511
Santa Monica, (310) 829-3613
University of Judaism's
Pacific Southwest Regional Mikvah,
15600 Mullholland Dr., Bel Air, (310) 471-4061
Mikvas Sara U'Baila,
360 N. La Brea, (323) 939-4297
Teichman Mikvah at Shaarey Zedek,
12800 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 760-4567
Abraham Dayan Mikvah at Chabad of Tarzana,
18181 Burbank Blvd., Tarzana, (818) 758-3836
Sherman Oaks Chabad (men only),
14960 Ventura Blvd., (818) 789-0850
Chabad of Long Beach,