Anything Else but the War

by Sheila Handlerhandler

It’s Thursday evening and I’m lying in my bathtub, preparing myself for the mikveh. In the background, the radio is playing, announcing the missile strikes, as they hit; down South, in Ashkelon, Yavne and Be’er Sheva; in the center of our country, in Tel Aviv, Petach Tikva and Kfar Saba;  up North near Herzilia, Naharya and Haifa.  Just like my monthly mikveh preparations, these announcements have become the norm.

Only my youngest child is home.  He is downstairs, listening to music and playing a video game on his computer. The other three are out, serving their country.  My two sons are in the regular army and so they have given up their cell phones, preparing to enter Gaza.  My daughter has been called into the reserves. Yesterday, she should have been attending her graduation from Shenkar College (in Jewelry Design). Instead, she was guarding our borders and protecting us from infiltrations. And, this, too, has become the norm.

This afternoon, I spoke to my sister, Sherri, who phoned from Massachusetts, to ask how we were doing. We spoke and laughed about our children and shared some news and a few funny stories.  Enjoying the moment, she spent some time helping me solve a word puzzle from the morning paper.  Everything is fine, I tell her. And it is, because this has become the norm.

Even now, as I gather up my things and head down the hill of my town, toward the mikveh, it occurs to me that I have performed this act hundreds of times.  Every month, I spend an evening, just like today, pampering myself in preparation for the mikveh.  And, every month, I walk down this same path, nodding at neighbors and listening to the evening sounds of my town.

I can hear some children laughing outside the youth center and from somewhere I hear a single car driving into the town.  But, except for the calls to prayer that are coming from the Arab town on the next hill, all is quiet, which, again, is normal, here.

Inside the mikveh, I greet my friend, tonight’s mikveh lady, before heading in to rinse myself off for the mikveh. She has four sons, and like mine, they are all without cell phones and out of our reach. So, while I say the prayer and cleanse myself in the mikveh, we talk about work and getting together and anything else, but the war.  And, this, too, has become the norm.

Sheila Handler is a college instructor at Beit Berl College and at Open University.  She has lived in Israel since 1989 with her husband Chaim and children Lirone, Noam (and his wife Gitit), Donny and Yoel, in Yakir, a town in the center of Israel. Sheila’s sister, Sherri, is Administrative and Finance Director at Mayyim Hayyim.

 

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Mikveh → Tikvah

by Carrie Bornstein

CBTapestryThe world feels like an ugly place right now.

We can’t escape the reality – all throughout the internet, on the news, on the radio, in conversations with friends – that our world is a highly imperfect place.

We are in the lowest time of our liturgical year too. These weeks between the 17th of the month of Tammuz and the 9th of the month of Av symbolize all that is wrong in our world now, and the way it has been for so many years in our history.

Posting on Facebook or blogging about anything else these days feels like walking around with blinders on. And yet, I hesitate to share my thoughts publicly, particularly about Israel, because I fear that sharing any opinions only drives us farther apart.

So I look for the things that give me hope. That make me feel like we will turn these situations around. And I thank God for summer. The light… the air… it somehow seems just a bit easier to deal with than it would be during the dark days of winter.

Every year at this time, students from the Genesis and BIMA programs at Brandeis visit Mayyim Hayyim to discover a pluralistic institution in action, to contemplate their own spirituality, and to appreciate the possibilities of the Jewish community.

No matter what is going on in the world, their visits give me hope for our future. The root of the Hebrew word mikveh – kuf, vav, hey – is the same as the root of tikvah – hope. I continue to find hope in the people who find meaning here; reading their words and remembering that these are 16- and 17-year old boys and girls – makes me believe that it’s all going to be okay.

“Today was my first time being immersed in a mikveh. I had learned about them in Sunday School but I had never experienced one. As I was preparing, I felt nervous, trembling at the face of God. When I immersed though, time seemed to stop, and I felt closer to God than I felt before. For the three times I was under, all my worries seemed to float away. I felt natural, pure in God’s eyes.”

“I had a very meditative experience in the mikveh. The warm water nourished my skin and warmed my heart. I only heard the sound of my thoughts. It was incredibly serene.”

“I had never gone into a mikveh before. It was a unique experience that will stay with me a lifetime. The reading I chose about coming out was meaningful and brought to the surface something in my heart. I have been out for almost a year today. It was uplifting and freeing to cleanse myself and to have a time to symbolize and bring forth answers to myself and God that I am me – I am b’tzelem Elohim – made in the image of God. Thank you, Mayyim Hayyim. There is a piece of my heart here.”

“Being submerged in the mikveh made me feel God. I do not quite know what that means at this point in my life, but I know that I felt something powerful during my time here.”

It’s all going to be okay.

 

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director. She lives in Sharon with her husband, Jamie, their three young children, Eliana, Dovi, and Jonah, and three young chickens.

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Creating Traditions

by Rene Katersky, Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh Guiderene

Judaism is filled with beautiful traditions and rituals. Indeed, our lives and the lives of our families are made fuller and richer by the traditions that we establish. In so doing, we honor special moments and make them holy.

I find it heartwarming to know that some of our guests at Mayyim Hayyim  have included a visit to the mikveh… our mikveh… as part of their family traditions. In a few weeks, I will have the honor of being present again as mikveh guide for a couple coming to mark their anniversary celebration. One of the partners immersed here for conversion and they have included Mayyim Hayyim in their annual celebration for several years, traveling from out of town to spend time with us.

I will welcome them back, give them their space to be present for each other as they immerse, and, at their request, take a picture of them standing in front of the mikveh, as I have done several times.  This is very much a ritual moment for them, and a truly meaningful one for me as well.  How wonderful that they have chosen to include Mayyim Hayyim as they celebrate each other. What a blessing!

Rene Katersky lives in Scituate, MA with her husband Ed. She is a proud mikveh guide and educator at Mayyim Hayyim and serves as an Ambassador with Reform Jewish Outreach Boston, both of which feed her soul.

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Escaping the Bubble

by Walton Clark, Office AssistantWalt

Often times, I see and hear about people getting caught in the proverbial bubble, having this feeling of being stuck where they are. Life is just the same series of actions, over and over again; the feeling that what happens today is not any different from the next day. The feeling of being caught. How do you escape the bubble?

Last week a good buddy of mine returned from a trip to Southeast Asia. I would categorize him as a social butterfly. He is a man who has traveled frequently and is the type of person who will find the best and most interesting parts of any city he is in. He is an explorer and a fellow musician. He had originally gone on this trip to see family he had not seen in a very long time. The trip became a spiritual experience as he was able to travel from China through Vietnam, seeing the land of his ancestors and getting in touch with his family’s culture. He told me about some of the wild experiences he had, from joining the bandstand in a bar in Shanghai to running away from an angry mob down the Ho Chi Minh Trail after refusing to be ripped off.

Hearing him regale me with stories of his exploits, I am fascinated by the breadth of experience and somewhat envious of his ability to travel. I wouldn’t say I have put down roots in Boston, but I have created a life that is dependent by the work I do here. Working at Mayyim Hayyim in Newton as an office assistant does not offer many opportunities to travel the world. That is just the nature of the postion. But I am still exploring.

As a non-Jew working at a mikveh, I am constantly pushing the boundaries of what I know as I am literally surrounded by a different culture. I may be working on a project and from the lobby I will suddenly hear a chorus of people chanting in Hebrew. Frequently Yiddish phrases will be thrown around and people will have to stop and turn to me to translate. I recognize it is not the same degree of culture shock like being a westerner walking through the Forbidden City, but everyday I am surrounded by a different culture and world than my own. I am uniquely a resident visitor in this building.

What I have come to realize is that the bubble, like everything else, is first and foremost a perspective. Changing your geography is a fantastic way to bring a freshness to your life, but if you can’t change what you physically see everyday, change your mind’s eye.

Walton Clark is Mayyim Hayyim’s office assistant and jack of all trades.  He is a working musician in Boston, playing keyboard and writing songs in a variety of groups. You can follow him on Twitter @walt_twitwalker and on Instagram @welaxer.

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Mourning at the Mikveh

by RachelRWainer

I ate a slice of pizza on Yom Kippur this year. I have not told anyone that. Well, of course my husband knows because he came into the kitchen and saw me sitting on our red linoleum floor eating the cold slice of pizza I found in the fridge. He did not judge me, and I hope you won’t either.

I will tell you why I ate pizza this year on Yom Kippur; my 31-year-old brother is dying. What does that have to do with pizza on Yom Kippur? Weeks of sleeping on the floor of the ICU waiting room can change your perspective on a lot of things–including the High Holy Days. Or at least it did for me. The idea of reciting the Unetanah Tokef prayer was paralyzing. Imagine me standing there with the congregation reciting these words while my brother was hooked up to a ventilator a few miles away:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,

Who shall live and who shall die,

Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.

The thought of losing my brother in the upcoming year made Yom Kippur the most meaningful and meaningless day all at the same time. Some people find comfort in the rituals and prayers and poems during times of trial and tribulation. I always felt that was true for me too. Not this time. This was too big and too real and I did not want to go through the motions and pretend I was praying for salvation. Stand up, sit down, stand up, bow, sit down. Instead, I walked home and ate a slice of pizza. I just did not care about Yom Kippur.

Back up a few days. I was not looking forward to the holidays at all. Having always found solace in my visits to the mikveh, I decided to immerse during the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I prayed and prayed that I would find meaning in this immersion. The afternoon before my visit I felt empty inside. There was no excitement or anticipation like in years prior. I felt like Judaism was failing me when I needed it most.

Despite these fears I went to the mikveh that night. Filled with dread I clipped, scrubbed, shaved, shampooed, and combed. Still nothing came to me. I stepped out of the tub and looked at myself in the full-length mirror on the back of the door. The year had changed me. My belly was still round from the baby it had carried and my eyes were tired from sleepless nights nursing him. The intense sadness I felt for my brother showed on every inch of my face. I sighed heavily and felt sorry for myself.

I buzzed for the mikveh attendant.

It came to me standing at the top of the stairs–my prayer, if you want to call it that. It was deeper than sadness. I suddenly felt a sense of mourning. Not for my brother, but for my life before all of this. Before cancer and chemo, IVs, pet scans, operating tables, and doctors. I cried as I realized my blissful childhood was officially coming to an end. I felt as though I would immerse in the mikveh and with three quick dunks leave behind a life I would no longer know. I sobbed. I let the warm water come over my head once, twice, three times. I quickly stepped out of the ritual pool, put on my clothes, and left the building. It felt good. I felt like I had said goodbye.

A few days later I was on the floor eating pizza. That was seven months ago. My brother is still with us, though we do not know for how long. He is dying. We all are. It took months for my period to return after my pregnancy, but my cycles are regular again. I still cry as I prepare each month to wash away the sadness. But now, when I emerge, I feel alive.

Since writing this piece, Rachel’s brother succumbed to his battle with cancer and passed away peacefully on April 19, 2014.

Rachel lives in northern NJ with her husband Seth and 1-year-old son Theodore. She was first introduced to mikveh through her conversion at Adas Israel in Washington, DC, where she also became an adult bat mitvah. Rachel is active in her Conservative congregation and a member of a community mikveh in West Orange, NJ. 

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Saying Goodbye

by Jody Comins, Development and Events Coordinatorjody talia blog photo

When my older daughter was born fifteen years ago, I went to my supervisor and asked if I could work 4 days a week to have time with my baby. A year later, I cut my hours back to “mom’s hours” and she said to me, “It’s wonderful to spend time with her while she’s a baby. That’s for you. When she’s a teenager, you’ll want to be there for her.” She was right. I now have two daughters, who are 12 and 15 who need me in very different ways than when they were babies and toddlers. Sometimes it’s just a ride, but sometimes it’s a lot more and I want to be there for those moments because they’ll be gone in the blink of an eye.

And so it’s time for me to say goodbye to my professional role at Mayyim Hayyim. Actually it’s more like saying L’hitraot, which means “see you later” in Hebrew, because I know I’ll be back. Back to visit, back for immersions when life’s transitions invite me in and back for a Beneath the Surface class with my pre-Bat Mitzvah daughter in November.

I love working at Mayyim Hayyim. From the moment I walk through the garden in the morning until I shut down my computer to head home, I am challenged by my work; planning and designing events, talking with Board members, volunteers and mikveh guides, writing or working on the website, and having interesting conversations and discussions with my colleagues. In the last two years I have had the pleasure of managing four large benefit events honoring some terrific people and raising money for a place I believe in. I also worked on a number of smaller events- art gallery opening receptions, open houses, our birthday party and intimate conversations with Anita Diamant for various groups including two discussions on Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In.

After a lot of introspection this year, I decided I want to “lean in” to my family and say no to some opportunities that come my way. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been working part-time while volunteering in the community and taking care of my family and trying to do it all well. Where will I go? What will I be doing? When I told both my kids that I was leaving Mayyim Hayyim, they said, “You should do your own events.” (Although the younger one asked me to wait until I finish planning her Bat Mitzvah next May). They are both away at camp for the summer and I’m going to do a lot of thinking about how I want to spend my time and what the next chapter of my life will look like. I’m sure some kind of event and conference planning will be part of that picture.

I’m going to miss working here. But I know that I’ll stay connected to the place, to the people and to the community of Mayyim Hayyim. I won’t go far.

L’hitraot, See you later…

Jody Comins is the outgoing Development and Events Coordinator at Mayyim Hayyim. She plans to spend the rest of the summer sitting on a beach daydreaming.

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Longing for a Mikveh Guide

Alanna Cooper 1 Hi Res RGBby Alanna Cooper

I generally don’t speak much about mikveh. An intimate aspect of life, practiced in almost total privacy, the topic doesn’t lend itself to much conversation.  Now, on occasion of Mayyim Hayyim’ tenth anniversary celebration, I’ll open up, using the opportunity to reflect on why I miss it so much since I moved from Boston last summer.

I begin with an incident that unfolded a few days after my husband and I – then newlyweds – returned home from a long travel-adventure.  My thick hair was set in rows of beautiful braids, each one tied at the end with three plastic beads that clinked gently when I moved.  I was about to part with them because it was time for my monthly immersion in the mikveh.

Two women had spent hours creating that hair-do for me one muggy night shortly before we left Bangkok to return home.  Their fingers were nimble, and they worked quickly, but multi-tasking took its toll.  Between braids they were also tending to their other stand; a pastry cart, where they fried crepe-like treats for a steady-stream of backpacker tourists.

“I don’t want to take them out,” I complained to my husband back at home.  I loved the braids almost as much as the memories of our travel woven into them.  “So don’t,” he responded.

But I didn’t have a choice.  Right? I knew the rules – the halachah:  Anything that prevents full contact with the mikveh water is a hatzizah – a barrier that invalidates the immersion; dirt on the skin, hanging cuticles, contact lenses, knots in the hair.   A mass of colorful beads dangling from scores of braids. . . Those could not go into the water.

Still, Moshe raised his shoulders as though to say, “If you don’t want to take them out, then why would you?”  Years later, I recall my troubling response.  “The Mikveh Lady won’t let me.”

Later that evening I immersed my smooth hair, and when I emerged the Mikveh Lady pronounced, “Kasher.” To this day, I am not sure why I removed the braids.  Was it because I had consciously decided to observe the halachah?  Or was it on account of the Mikveh Lady?

Until I began to frequent Mayyim Hayyim, I re-visited this same sort of dilemma each time I went to the mikveh.  Some Mikveh Ladies are demanding (taking my hands to inspect my nails without asking), while some are kind, gently asking whether I might like their help to ensure that I am hatzizah-free.  Regardless, the very nature of our fleeting-relationship is a hierarchical one because the Mikveh Lady has the authority to let me in, or not.  She holds the key to permit or deny access to this most private religious act.  What would I have done about my braids if I had not had to consider the gatekeeper?  I can never know.  That is disconcerting.

I – and I alone – had chosen to immerse that night.  Yet, the very nature of the Mikveh Lady’s position removes women’s agency in decisions about how, in what way, and with what sort of attention to detail.  So after our immersions we are left to wonder:  Was this intimate mitzvah mine?  Or hers?

That question does not present itself at Mayyim Hayyim, where there are no Mikveh Ladies.  There are only guides.  Each guide makes it clear – through her body language and through her words – that the mitzvah does not belong to her.  Her purpose is assist with the woman’s immersion (or not) in whatever way she herself chooses.

It has been almost a year since I’ve moved.  Now, hundreds of miles away from Mayyim Hayyim, I struggle with the sense that someone (no matter how kind she is) holds the authority to let me into the mikveh here (or not).  I usually don’t tell people this when they ask me what I miss about Boston, but since I’m being frank about intimate matters:  What I long for here is a guide.

Alanna E. Cooper, Ph.D., cultural anthropologist and adult educator, is the Director of Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University’s Siegal Lifelong Learning Program. She became interested in women’s lifecycle rituals while conducting field research in Central Asia, and has written about them in her book, Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism. See her recently-published article in Lilith Magazine about how she re-casted upsherin, the traditional boy’s coming-of-todderhood ceremony, for her three girls. http://lilith.org/articles/a-little-girls-first-haircut

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