A Violation of the Mikveh and The Story of A Conversion

Will Deutsch, Notes from the Tribe

Will Deutsch, Notes from the Tribe

Few places are more private, spiritually critical, inspiring and, as Rabbi Danya Rutenberg writes, comforting, than the mikveh.  Her piece on the unspeakable desecration of that space by Washington Rabbi Barry Freundel, who allegedly used hidden cameras to spy on women while they were there, brought me to tears even though I became observant when I was older and the  mikveh less central than it was for all my younger sisters, who taught me to keep kosher and light candles and honor Shabbat.  For them it is all so much worse, a kind of collective rape.  Rutenberg writes:

I don’t know what percent of the water in the mikveh is actually made up of women’s tears, but I suspect it’s a lot. The mikveh is meant to hold vulnerability. The fact that one is naked when immersing is not just a literal fact — the symbolism of it penetrates every single pore, every inch of the self that goes under the living waters. It is, for a lot of women, a unique place for a certain kind of stopping, a certain kind of reflection, a certain kind of engaging with the present moment and with God. Not everyone has the same experience, obviously, but the ritual of mikveh opens up a space that can be exquisitely intimate and deeply personal.

Six years ago, I wrote about one young woman’s mikveh experience; I’m republishing a version of it here as an example of just what has been violated.

We had a party Saturday.  Ice cream cake, fruit, songs and verses.  It wasn’t exactly a birthday party, but kind of.  It’s very tough to convert to Orthodox Judaism. Rabbis ask you over and over if you’re serious.  You have to study.  You have to read out loud in Hebrew.  You have to answer questions to a board of 3 (male) rabbis.  Then, you have to immerse yourself in a  mikveh. It’s the culmination of several years of study and soul-searching.

So we had a party to celebrate a young woman who had navigated the process and, just this past week, emerged from the waters  – Jewish.  As she spoke to the assembled women she told us not just about her own journey, but, in a way, about our own.  Unable to begin without tears, she decided first to read the passage that seemed to her to describe where she’d been – and where she’s landed.  (Another convert friend of mine told me she’s clung to the same verses; they have particular meaning to those who choose to become Jewish, to  ”go where we go.”)  Standing at one end of the table and surrounded by many of the women of our congregation gathered in her honor, she began to read from the Book of Ruth.

Mother-in-law Naomi is trying to convince her widowed daughter-in-law Ruth to go back to her own nation and not suffer with her.

But Ruth answers “Don’t ask me to leave you!  Let me go with you.  Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live.  Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.  Wherever you die, I will die, and that is where I will be buried.  May the LORD’s worst punishment come upon me if I let anything but death separate me from you!”

The story represents much of what she feels about her new life.  Her choice: to immerse in the mikveh as one person and emerge as another, committed to the very demanding requirements of conversion and to join the tribe that I was born into and, for much of my life, lived within – accepting my identity as a Jew but very little else.

In many ways, I have made the same choices she did.  Compared to the way I live now, the Judaism I knew then was an  identity easily moved aside when inconvenient.  Now, after four years of increasingly observant life, my identity is so tangled with my Judaism that there’s no way to pretend it isn’t there, isn’t affecting all I see and every choice I make.  They call it “the yoke of heaven” — acceptance of the rules handed down so long ago.  It looks so weird from the outside, so whether you’re my young friend choosing to become a Jew, or me, choosing to actually live like one, you’re somewhat set apart by your decisions.  Keep kosher – you can’t eat in most restaurants or even at your old friends’ homes.  Observe the Sabbath, you can’t go see Great Big Sea or Bruce Springsteen or to a good friend’s 40th birthday party because they’re on a Friday night.  Honor the holidays and you may antagonize clients and risk losing business.  And sometimes, friends, and even family, look askance, withdraw or just shake their heads.

Even so, what my friend has chosen — what my husband and I have chosen — what the community of friends we love has chosen – is a life rife with meaning and commitment, with tangible goals to be better, more honorable, more committed beings with an informing value system and sense of purpose. After a lifetime that was pretty successful and often seemed glamorous and highly visible, this is a choice of which I am very proud.  Different from before, but at least as demanding intellectually, ethically and emotionally as any other stop on my life’s journey.  In many ways, it has allowed me to rediscover the person I used to think I was, and liked – as a writer, a thinker, a wife and mother and friend.    I am grateful that I have found it, and so very glad that this generous and articulate young woman reminded me, through the moving and exquisite reflections on her own choice, just why I made mine.


Lost: a Rapper from 8 Mile and some Men, Women and Children from Austin

eminem Remember 8 Mile, the sad story of a neglected trailer park teen from Detroit – supposedly pretty  close to the story of its creator, rapper Eminem?

I kept thinking about it as I watched Men, Women and Children, the profoundly moving story of a different kind of alienation at least partially enabled by the Internet.  Nobody’s mom was an abusive alcoholic, but one mom fled her family so completely teens library mwcthat she blocked her son Tim from her Facebook account,  one sold slightly risqué images of her cheerleader daughter online and yet another intercepted and read every online communication to and from her daughter Brandy and tracked her movements with a tracker on her phone;  Brandy was so stifled that she created a secret online identity just to get away once in a while.

It’s a beautiful film, a survey of young people so much on their own ; life online allows so much distance from parents and any love or wisdom they might offer.  And even though they make mistakes beyond the web, the same technology seems to have trapped their parents, too.

Reitman chooses to move beyond individual dramas, however, and take us beyond his own observations as he closes the film with Carl Sagan’s  Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space - with a hopeful description that connects us all to one another: enemy or friend, alive or dead, present or past, online or off:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.


Do We Americans Still Have It? Do We Care? #MicroblogMonday

Apocalypse-road-sign-resizedI’ve spent most of my life thinking about disasters and potential apocalypses and injustice and misery: I’m a journalist, or at least I was, so I don’t get discouraged easily.  So far the world, or at least our country, has always seemed to right itself in the nick of time.  I seriously wonder if we can still do it though.  We all know why:

A bitterly divided country


Institutional injustice

The terrifying assault on women’s rights and well-being, here and elsewhere

The decline of our public schools

Climate change

The rise of fundamentalism

The coarsening of our culture

The cost of a college education




Anti-Vaxx-ers (seriously)

Add your own here____________________

Beneath those individual issues lies the biggest threat: what appears to be the larger change in our values.  As I watched The Roosevelts and, strangely enough, re-watched The King’s Speech, I wondered (not for the first time) where those sorts of world leaders (FDR, a president with political skills, toughness, vision and an understanding both of where the country was and where he needed to take it, Teddy Roosevelt who took on income inequality through trust busting and began what became the environmental movement (and yes he also started a couple of wars… or a reluctant King George IV, who not only held Britain together and committed under horrible circumstances but also led by example) are today, whether they could be elected or heeded —  whether they would even be willing to try.  Even more, I wondered if our country would accept them; whether we are still capable of selflessness or a sense of duty or a thoughtful response to a call to sacrifice.  I hope so.




Being a Grandmother, a Mother, a Daughter, and Sad


These two are both dads now.

These two are both dads now.

Once a year I pay special honor to my parents.  In a  service on Yom Kippur called Yizkor, I say a prayer to their memory and pledge to do something to remember them:  to donate charity for their sake.

This year, even more than usual, I wept as I prayed, and afterward. I have three grandsons now, one of whom shares my father’s name, and my parents don’t know it.  They aren’t here to enjoy these lovely boys, or to help me handle the issues that emerge when one’s children have children.

Our boys and their wives are stunning parents (and wonderful to us) and our grandsons are, of course, perfect; that’s not the issue.  It is, rather, that I know now some of what they must have felt and I would be so grateful if I could tell them what I have learned about their own grace as grandparents, and ask them for advice on the moments that grab the heart, or maybe even, as in every family, for a moment, break it.

Justice on Television: Way Before Good Wives and Even West Wings!

The Defenders East Side West side posterMovies stay with us; they’re great historic documents, but television is intimate, and when it’s good, television is us.

My own early understanding of injustice and race and poverty and social change came from television.  For example:

There are plenty of others but this is #microblogmonday so I’m about done: consider though the WWI episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs, and Route 66.

* The Museum of Broadcast Communications called it “perhaps the most socially conscious series the medium has ever seen”, a show”singularly resonant with New Frontier liberalism.”

When the Children Become the Parents: After You…

ancestors other1Two new grandsons have joined our first (born almost three years ago); one is 6 days old, the other just over two weeks.  They are beautiful and delicious; watching our sons with them is breathtaking.

With the birth of that first little boy, we became grandparents; he brought us a new identity. Just after the birth of the second of the three, though, the rabbi took us beyond that.  With the birth of their children, our children have become ancestors, taking their places, as we had done, in the thousands of years of Jewish history.

I’ve written before about the special meaning of our “Biblical” lineage , especially since we can’t trace our personal ones very far back, but I’m saying something else here: look forward as well as back.  There’s something compelling about the concept of one’s children becoming ancestors – something wonderful and profound.

GONE GIRL – I Wish She’d Kept Going

dorothy parker gone girlOK so I was all set to do some real work this morning.  I was.  Then I saw this in my friend Katherine Stone’s Facebook feed:

Gonegirl katherine

Katherine is a remarkable person whose fierce advocacy for women with post partum mood and anxiety disorders is legendary.  I listen to her.

The problem is, I really really hate Gone Girl.  Really.

First of all I figured out the ending near the beginning.  Secondly, the ending was kind of lifted from SPOILER ALERT: Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent.  Third, I’m betting the movie, soon to be released, is really good, which will just get more people saying nice things about the book.  David Fincher.  Ben Affleck.  Neil Patrick Harris.  What could go wrong?  I read they changed the ending, too.  In principal, that usually bothers me but in this case I’m really curious to see if the change makes the story more palatable.

I am far from the only person with negative feelings toward this novel.  The sample in Katherine’s feed includes comments like these:

Rachel Kaffenberger Great writing but the characters just pissed me off. I hated that book. Awful, horrible people are in that book.

Jen Neeld Bradshaw Ha! I read it two weeks ago and I still have some rage.

Asha Dornfest That book freaked me out.

Deb Rox I threw the book. You can guess which scene.

Kit Kelly I hated it.

And my own two personal favorites:

Susan Petcher I feel like “Books that Make You Hate Humanity” needs to be a new FB meme.

Doug French I wanted the last sentence of the book to be, “And then they all piled into a Greyhound Bus and drove into a volcano.”

I’m with Doug.  There were also some positive comments but these are the ones I agree with and there are already enough good comments out there in the ether and it’s my blog so….

Even so, it is true that the book evoked a ton of comments and a lot of emotion.  I guess there’s some skill required for that to happen but if that’s true, she’s squandered it.  Allegedly her other work is better but that’s no excuse – especially for a public which seems to be gaga for this one.

Right now I am reading California, a dystopian, almost too real story of a dark American future.  It’s probably only on the radar screen because Stephen Colbert used it as an example of books by young first-time authors who are most hurt by the Amazon-Hachette battle.  Since then it too has gotten a lot of attention so one makes me think of the other.

California doesn’t have as many stars on goodreads.  For me though, it’s so very much more exciting and provocative.  Her characters are more than horrible stereotypes, and it’s Edan Lepucki’s first published novel which is exciting.

This is not a contest between California and Gone Girl or between Stephen Colbert and Ben Affleck.  At least not to me.  I just didn’t want to be this mean about a book without including one that has my attention, is unpredictable, and includes some decent, interesting people.

Don’t we love that books can get us all riled up like this?  Far more fun that terrorists and the NFL!

And for a treat, here’s the Colbert Report after LePucki’s book made the New York Times Best Seller List:

OH and #boycottNFLsponsors.



The NFL, Women and Spartacus

SpartacusNobody can stop talking about the NFL.  Me neither.  Yesterday I wrote about the complicity of broadcast networks and sponsors  (who by the way paid my salary for more than 25 years) in this issue of women’s and children’s safety.  I’ve never seen so many tone-deaf people in my life.  Even CoverGirl can’t seem to get it right.

But today, on Microblog Monday, I have another question.  What do we do about this world of modern gladiators in a game that damages their brains until many of them are never able to think clearly again?  How do we protect them from the impact of the conditioning and brutality that is part of their work?  And what is the difference between NFL owners and those who sent Rome’s ancient, doomed fighters into the Coliseum?

Women Are 45% of NFL TV Audience. FORTY-FIVE!! Time to Take On the Networks

Photo by Coemgenus via Wikimedia

Photo by Coemgenus via Wikimedia

We need to do something (HINT: #boycottNFLsponsors)

Why is it so hard to affect the NFL and its disgraceful responses to abusive players?  After all, women are 45% of the NFL fan base.  It makes sense to care what we think.

Sadly, there’s that other thing. To see what we’re up against, follow the money.

Team owners make money from tickets and souvenirs but even more from TV contracts and the networks who pay for them.  It’s all nicely divided up.  In the 2011 9-year NFL-broadcast contract, CBS gets American Football Conference games – and is asking $500,000 for thirty second spots, according to Forbes, Fox carries the National Football Conference and NBC broadcasts Sunday night in prime time – with ads going for $628,000/30-second spot. Each network gets an exclusive crack at three of the nine Super Bowls and all the revenue that comes with it. (Bloomberg News)

Here’s what Forbes said this time a year ago, “Live appointment television—already extremely important—will only grow in significance in coming years, as television programming and audiences continue to fragment. On TV, the NFL is king.”

This morning (9/15/14) Joe Scarborough, never one for impulse control, lashed out at NYT columnist Alan Schwarz for his mention of the failure of broadcasters to acknowledge their own complicity in the shameful collaboration among the NFL, sponsors and the networks who charge them for their ads.

It’s like the story of the nail and the horse and the war*:  Sponsors pay the networks, networks pay the NFL, the NFL divides the revenue among the teams and the owners combine these huge paydays with their ticket sales.

Listen to the Wall Street Journal describe the most recent TV rights auction:

The auction was a sign of the NFL’s huge leverage over television networks, which are increasingly looking to the NFL to help fortify them against the rise of online video services, the stagnation of pay TV and other threats. “It’s almost like the networks are afraid to say no to the NFL,” says one senior TV executive involved in the bidding process for Thursday night games.

So.  If the NFL is king and everyone, especially the TV networks who profit from ad revenue, ratings and football programming in general, are enablers then we have to make it scarier to continue than to take a stand.  That means finding, and boycotting, NFL sponsors and letting the network brass know what we’re doing.  (I boycotted Greece for years during the Junta years.  Then an Amnesty International leader told me “If they don’t know why you’re not coming, it doesn’t do any good.   You need to write to them and tell them why you’re not there.“)

That’s the other part of it.  We need to be noisy and bold and brassy and (forgive me Ms. Sandburg) bossy about this – holler like hell in support of our sisters and put our money where our mouths are.  Nobody needs any of the stuff that advertise on NFL games and there are alternatives for all of them anyway.

Women’s bodies should not be paying for the bad business planning of television networks; if they won’t take a stand with the NFL, let them find another way to make their money!


UPDATE: See this Jezebel story on CoverGirl, too.

Microsoft  @Microsoft (big deal w/NFL to use ONLY Surface Tablets and other MS technology on the sidelines

Gatorade  @gatorade                 Bud Light  @budlight

Visa  @visa                                  Verizon @verizon

Papa John’s  @PapaJohns           FedEx  @FedEx

Marriott  @Marriott                    Pepsi  @pepsi

General Motors  @GM                Campbell’s Soup  @CampbellSoupCo

#boycottNFLsponsors  Please add more in comments!


*For Want of a Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the message was lost.

For want of a message the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.   

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.



NOTE: This is another 2008 virtual baby shower post – to Julie Westerbeck Marsh when her first son appeared.

OK so I grew up with sisters.  And I went to a women’s college.  And most of my life I’ve worked in offices with more women than men (amazing, no?)  So, when I was pregnant I was terrified at the idea of having boys.  They were so strange — so noisy — I just had no idea what was coming.  Except that what was coming was Josh. And then Dan.  And it turned out that — hang on sisters – boys are a blast, great company, luuuhhhv their moms and — boys are easier!  I know this because I’ve watched my friends raising daughters and the tensions are fierce.  Girls and their mothers — boys and their dads.  Not easy.

But let’s get back to basics.  Little boys run around a lot and make noise.  They jump off things.  They ride the dog around and fall off and hit their heads and need stitches.  They, later, seem to be trying to kill each other much of the time.  And before I go any further – let me tell you that there’s an old shrink saying that therapists never believe that babies are born with personalities until they have their second child.  This is also true with many women regarding gender differences – it hits you once they show up.  My kids are feminists and very good to the women in their lives as far as I can tell – but they are men and they were boys and that is not like being a girl.  Nope.

I have great memories from when they were little – stomping around singing Free to Be and Da Doo Ron Ron Ron and The Garden Song and Abiyoyo, skiing down black diamond slopes and going to Yankee Stadium to see Billy Joel and Carnegie Hall to see Pete Seeger and Madison Square Garden to see Sesame Street on Ice and being dragged to an infinite number of Police Academy and other disgusting movies.

And I lived in alien space much of the time.  Some of our hit toys (ie things I would NEVER have had in my house if there were not these strange male creatures inhabiting the premises — and pre-video game age of course):
One of those Radio Shack electronics build-your-own thingy kits that make bells ring and bulbs light up if you hook them up correctly.
Anything aviationary
Anything Star Wars
Anything GI Joe
Weird wrestling stuff (boy did I fight that one!)
Folk music (that’s my fault though)
Baseball cards  (and proudly, I did NOT throw them out)
Stuffed animals

No  Mary Poppins books (I tried) but I did get to read all The Great Brain and Ralph S Mouse and Timothy Goes to School and a gazillion baseball player bios.

There’s serious stuff to having sons, of course.  We have to be sure, no matter how much we love hanging around with them, that they get enough alone time with their dads or some other male figure.  And wave bravely as they off together on a Sunday (also your day off after all) without you.  We have to accept and celebrate the guy stuff.

Just like girls, but differently, we have to let them know we think they can take care of themselves – enable independence at each landmark, if we think they can handle it, even when we really want to help.  It’s so easy, with a boy, to want to remain more connected than is useful for them as they grow.  At certain points they may pull back for a while, when they need to untangle.  We have to let them and respect the struggle

With regard to respect for women – I am deeply impressed with my sons’ perspectives.  I hope that being honest and respecting their developing attitudes, helped.  I never threw a Playboy out of our house but I made it very clear how I felt about them in the (brief) period they were around.  Anything like that, of which I (or my husband) disapproved, had to come out of their allowance.  They had to put their money on the line – and I think that helped more than locking it all out of the house and pretending they weren’t interested.  It also helped us understand where their heads were.  Although that is easier for boys because they are, honestly, more straightforward.

Of course none of what I write here applies to all boys.  Much of it may apply to plenty of girls.  But it was my experience and in a kind of stream of consciousness baby shower kind of way it’s what rose to the top.   The bottom line though, is that even though it’s scary if you’ve lived in a world of women, as I had, they are just wonderful.  Most of all, because I know Julie, from reading your blog for so long, you  would be a great mother to any child with whom you were blessed, this kid is in for a great life.   And where advice is concerned, I say take it only as far as your gifted mother gut takes you.  Where the two collide, trust yourself.  Girl, boy or android, that way your little one will always be in the right hands.