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.