Our Bodies, Our Mikveh

by DeDe Jacobs-Komisar, Development Manager

DeDe_Jacobs-Komisar_pic_1_This week marks my first Mayyim Hayyim “work-iversary.” When I started as Development Manager in July of 2014, the very first thing I did was observe an educational program with high school students from Genesis, a Brandeis University Jewish studies summer program for teens from all over the world. It was my first chance to see Mikveh and Education Director Lisa Berman in action, and was an unforgettable introduction to what Mayyim Hayyim is all about.

First, Lisa asked the group of about 20 teens to tell her what came to mind when she said “mikveh.” Word associations rang out: “ritual bath,” “Jewish,” “cleansing,” “purity,” “conversion,” “niddah,” and many more. Together, Lisa and the students shaped a working definition of mikveh: a ritual bath that provides spiritual cleansing, used by Jews and those becoming Jewish. Then, the group got a tour of the mikveh itself, where they were asked to write down what they noticed about its design and makeup. The teens remarked on the beauty and serenity of the space, water-themed design elements, the evident care given to privacy, and most of all, small touches that subtly emphasized one’s ownership of their own immersion experience. Following the tour, the students were offered the option to immerse, which about two-thirds of them elected to do – a group including “spiritual” types as well as jocks with popped collars and girls in One Direction t-shirts. More from the group would end up returning that Friday afternoon to immerse before Shabbat.

Two hours into my tenure at Mayyim Hayyim and I was utterly blown away. These teens were as comfortable at the mikveh as they would have been at camp. They seemed perfectly at home asking questions, immersing, and casually discussing the intricacies of mikveh practice while waiting for their friends to finish immersing. Even if it was their first time at a mikveh, it was clear that they accepted their Mayyim Hayyim visit as a perfectly normal, natural part of their Jewish lives.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with my own first visit to a mikveh when I was 13. I was attending an all-girls’ Orthodox summer camp in upstate New York, and on an overnight trip to NYC we were treated to a tour of a Brooklyn mikveh (obviously a major tourist attraction).  The building was beautiful, with handcrafted mosaics in each mikveh room and ornate fixtures and plush bathrobes in each prep room. The woman giving the tour spoke matter-of-factly about how married women immersed after niddah before “having relations” with their husbands. Our mothers adhered to the niddah practice, so we were all familiar with it. It was a foregone conclusion that we would all immerse at a mikveh too – but not that day. Not until we were married ourselves. We didn’t even think to ask to immerse that day. Mikveh was very clearly for one thing only, and didn’t yet apply to us.

I was taken to a mikveh twice more as a teenager, with the girls at my Orthodox high school (only the girls, never the boys), by my female Jewish studies teachers. Each time we went, they spoke about the beauty of the ritual, the spiritual intensity of immersing before reuniting with one’s husband after separating during niddah. This was as close as my “Modern” Orthodox school ever came to educating us about sex (because everyone knows that if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t happen!). We were taught that the laws of taharat hamishpacha, Jewish family purity, were of the utmost holiness; that there was pretty much nothing holier we could do as Jewish women. Somehow, immersing in the mikveh was key to the entire mystery of our future married intimacy.

It was thus with great anticipation that I immersed on my wedding night a few years later. After spending an hour meticulously preparing, I shyly followed the mikveh lady into the room and removed my robe when instructed, so that she could check my back for stray hairs, as well as my fingers and toenails for any errant dirt. Then she said “You’re all set,” and held the robe up in front of her eyes so that she couldn’t see my body as I stepped into the water. I dunked once, then, covering my breasts as instructed, said the blessing, then dunked two more times. Then I got out. It was over so quickly and I had been so nervous that I had forgotten to have any kavanah, intention. I had forgotten that this was supposed to be the spiritual apex of my life as a Jewish woman. “It’s okay,” I thought, “You’ll get better at this.”

The truth is, I didn’t get better at it. Immersing every month was an exercise in ambivalence at best, disempowerment at worst. I found spirituality as a Jewish woman, but never in the mikveh. This was the case for ten years of my otherwise very happy marriage, until I immersed for the first time at Mayyim Hayyim, which transformed my entire conception of what the ritual could mean for me.

Now, each time I immerse I’m consciously deepening my relationship with God through my body. I feel weightless and held. Immersing for niddah and before holidays, I have felt renewed. Most of all, I have felt at home. Each month I am calling out to God from a place that is my own. Somehow this is only more true when I think about how I’m sharing this holy place with so many others who immerse here.

A year has gone by since my first day here, and it’s Genesis time again. A whole new group of teens has come to Mayyim Hayyim, once again excited and assured in their experience of mikveh. I look at them and think about how different things could have been for me, and for all of my Orthodox female (and male) friends, if we were granted ownership of mikveh from a young age.

If I had a chance to immerse, to develop a relationship with this ritual as a teenager or younger, I may have immersed before holidays, at my bat mitzvah, before going to Israel for the first time, and at many other transition points. I like to think that I would have immersed before my wedding night with joy instead of fear. I would have called out to God from our shared place. I would not have put pressure on that moment as the spiritual end-all of my Jewish womanhood, because I would have had been developing that moment for years. It would have been natural, normal, the next level of a relationship with a mitzvah I knew well. It would not have diluted the intimacy I would share with my husband, because I would have known that the key to our intimacy is not the immersion, but the marriage that surrounds it.

I can’t go back to my 13-year-old self, but I can thank God that Mayyim Hayyim is here for all teenage selves in 2015.

DeDe Jacobs-Komisar is Development Manager at Mayyim Hayyim. She is also editing an anthology of spiritual coming-of-age stories. If you have one to share, she would love to hear from you. You can send submissions to djkomisar@gmail.com. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Are You Asking The Right Questions?

by Caroline Potter

caroline potterEarlier this month, I attended a conference called “Students are Not Asking Questions,” organized by the Cambridge-based, Right Question Institute (RQI). Chiefly a professional development conference for educators, it aimed to address the steep decline in question-asking as children mature and advance in school.

So, why do children stop asking questions?  In part, traditional pedagogy and standardized tests convince teachers and students that education means you “know the right answer.”  Which child is the best, the smartest, the most successful? Why, Little Sally, who has the most right answers! Beyond teachers and tests, the simple binary of right and wrong delivers a delectable dose of praise and confidence when a student comes out on the right side.  What is the capital of France? Paris! Which mammal lays eggs?  A platypus!  (You are so smart, Sally!)

Sally’s right answers have merit, but research reveals endless benefits for students who know more than right answers —  students who follow their natural curiosity, exploring, observing, and questioning who, what, why, when, where, how, and what happens if I do this?

Some years ago, RQI developed a “Question Formulation Technique” that continues to mesmerize me.  Its steps include: producing as many questions as possible, categorizing them, prioritizing them, determining a course of action to approach one or several, then finally reflecting on the process, what it brought to the surface, and how.  I encourage you to learn more about this process by visiting their site and checking out their publications.

As a high school English teacher, I can already see specific ways to adopt the Question Formulation Technique next year.  As this week’s blog writer though, I would like to model how powerful the Question Formulation Technique’s first step alone can be: Produce as many questions as possible in response to your established Question Focus.

My Question Focus for this exercise?  Mikveh (of course!)

And a brief splash of questions to start:

1). Can mikveh be for everyone?

2). What happens when a mikveh decides it will be for everyone?

3). What happens when an ancient ritual is redefined?

4). Why do people immerse today?

5). Why don’t people immerse today?

6). Can the waters heal?

7). How could the waters heal?

8). Can the waters transform?

9). How could the waters transform?

10). What does it feel like to become a Jew?

11). How has the Jewish community changed since Mayyim Hayyim opened in its doors 2004?

12). Why do we need Mayyim Hayyim?

Asking questions is much more powerful than knowing the right answer ever could be. Questions let us explore, observe, dwell in uncertainty.  They bring us into dialogue with others.  They lead us to research.  They lead us to wonder. They lead us to discover even more beautiful questions.

I invite you to ponder my own list of questions.  I invite you to ask your own — all you need is a topic, image, idea, or belief that has meaning for you.

Caroline Potter is a high school teacher in Boston and a member of Temple Sinai in Brookline.  For the last three summers she has been volunteering at Mayyim Hayyim, where she asks many questions.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Spiritual Courage

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

I love Fridays in the summer. The anticipation of a lisa bio picweekend filled with family, beach, sun, swimming, cousins, and a book — when every meal is al fresco, including Shabbat dinner lit only by candlelight and, by dessert, moonlight.

At Mayyim Hayyim, Friday afternoons in July are marked by the beautiful hubbub of groups of campers and summer high school program participants arriving to explore and immerse in our mikva’ot (plural of mikveh).

This is not a “jump in the lake before Friday night dinner” kind of immersion experience. Students take time before arriving to review our Seven Kavanot for Mikveh Preparation. They read, “Hineni, here I am. Take a minute and think about the transition mikveh will help you mark today.” And, “B’tzelem Elohim — I am made in the image of God. Each person enters the mikveh as naked as the day of his or her birth. Without rank or status. Simply a human being. Gloriously a human being.” They slow down and consider this action they are embarking on with kavanah, with full intention. They take that minute. They think about what it might truly mean to be b’tzelem Elohim.

diving-crater-lake-oregon-3782483177Our role is to build a framework at the start of the experience so each participant has an appreciation for the history and tradition of this ritual. We share how it is usually performed and make the nuts and bolts of it clear, (where are the towels? what number do I call when I’m ready?). Most importantly, we metaphorically take our hands off the steering wheel and allow each person to own this ritual – start to finish.

Afterwards we offer them the option of writing their thoughts in our guest book. They write:

“Spiritual courage.” “Pure in God’s eyes.” “I got exactly what I needed.” “Coupling me with God, alone.” “I am blessed to be Jewish.”

To all those working with Jewish teens, please, do not ever underestimate the potential for these young adults to connect with spirituality, to comfortably use God language, to dive into an unknown ritual and come out with deep and profound meaning, to use ritual as a door to dramatic change — in an hour.

Read on, in their words:

“Today was my first time being immersed in a mikveh. 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.”  –Matt

“I loved how open to interpretation it was. I got exactly what I needed.”  –Sam

“If this past year was a test of my faith, I regretfully admit that I failed. This year I lost faith, myself, and people dear to me. This year was something that I never thought I would survive. Yet, here I am. I have not felt so pure nor had such clarity as I do right now.” –Daniela

“Of late I have taken it upon myself to take more time for Jewish ritual, and get better in touch with my Jewish identity. The experience just gave me a break. I could appreciate the silence, and take in the setting. Even with all of the experiences I have had in my community, this one, coupling me with God, alone, provided one of the greatest connections.”  –Spencer

“Thank you for this experience. Coming out is hard to do as Modern Orthodox, and this experience gave me some spiritual courage.”  –O.

“This experience was much different than I had imagined – I hadn’t realized how spiritual it is and how emotional it would get. I prayed for my mom who has breast cancer and am so thankful and blessed for this opportunity.”  –Simone

“Thank you for giving me the courage to start my coming out process. I am blessed to be Jewish.”  –L.

“I take a few awkward steps down the stairs, the stone as naked as my own body. This is meant to be spiritual and I close my eyes. In and out. In and out of the waters.” –O.

We learn so much from these young people about the possibility, the potential for the profound impact of this ritual of immersion. They are our teachers.

Lisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim, ensuring that all immersions are facilitated with dignity, respect and modesty, and supervising the Paula Brody & Family Education Center.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Transmikveh

by A. Fox

a.foxIn my parents’ home back in St. Paul, Minnesota, I used to tiptoe into the bathroom late at night, lock the door behind me, put a towel in the door’s crack and turn off the lights.

I knew how many steps it took to reach the faucet. How many inches to lift my hand for the shower knob. Slithering to the floor, I’d count the seconds until the tub filled to the sound of the falling water.

I remember the cold floor tiles against my back. I remember the bright ghost light from minutes prior behind my eyelids. The moving water offered me a moment of internal quiet. I relished the enclosure of the bathroom: a vessel for calm.

It was there I could strip my body bare. I would pull the lint from between my toes after 12 hours in wool socks. I would bite my fingernails short. And I’d submerge in the darkness. One. Two. Three times. And finally, exhale. This was my daily ritual.

I didn’t realize how Jewish all this was until my visit to Mayyim Hayyim for an educational program as a part of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute internship. As a person who grew up in a Conservative Jewish synagogue, one might have thought I’d have drawn this parallel earlier.

When I stepped through the door of Mayyim Hayyim, away from the sound of the trickling rainwater running along the base of the building, the word niddah (monthly immersion) slithered through my brain. My heart sank. Genderrrr, I thought to myself…how could I forget? The mikveh is yet another place that cements gender divisions.

As a trans/gender non-conforming Ashkenazi Jew, I’m accustomed to this sinking feeling in the Jewish spaces I navigate. So much of the Ashkenazi Jewishness I experienced growing up was predicated upon gender duality, after all. The effect is not a welcoming one.

Once I was actually inside Mayyim Hayyim I was immediately struck by the remarkable effect of entering a Jewish institution that was explicitly designed for accessibility and pluralistic practice. To my surprise, the sinking feeling gradually went away. I looked around and I didn’t see explicitly gendered decorations. In our introductions we were prompted for our names and pronouns, and Leeza showed us Immersion Ceremonies for coming out, publicly celebrating one’s gender/s rather than the gender assigned at birth, and rituals for before surgery. When we learned about the process of immersion itself, we enacted a pretend coming out ritual and I cried. I was able to imagine myself centered—not merely tolerated–in a collective Jewish space in a powerful way.

Mayyim Hayyim reminded me that I don’t need the blanket of the darkness or a locked bathroom in the middle of the night to find renewal through water. And though I haven’t yet “officially” immersed in the mikveh, I’m looking forward to doing so with a mikveh guide and the lights turned on.

A. Fox is a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a summer intern at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, they are compiling a zine on LGBTQIA+ reclamation of the mikveh. Please send questions and submissions to afox1@ucsc.edu.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Facebook Responsa

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

leeza

Religious pluralism is a fairly new idea. Even in the most well-intentioned pluralistic spaces we are still learning how to honor seemingly contradictory religious needs. Part of cultivating that respect means having an honest conversation that welcomes differing points of view.

That is just the first step. For example, what happens when you have 10 friends who want to pray together, 4 of which want a mechitza, a barrier separating men and women, 6 don’t, and everyone want to make a minyan? What starts off as a neutral religious need can easily lead to feelings of being left out or disrespected. Another prevalent challenge is when we push up against halacha, the Jewish legal tradition. It has been over 1600 years since we’ve had one centralized authoritative legal body, the Sanhendrin, but that hasn’t stopped individuals and communities from claiming there is a right and wrong way to live Jewishly. In a world that increasingly provides opportunities for cross-pollination and pluralism, what do we do with these competing beliefs and temperaments?

Recently, after seeing a comment from one of our readers on the content of a recent Mayyim Hayyim blog post, I decided that I wanted to use it as an opportunity to explore the highly contentious topic of Jewish law.

The blog post we shared was from woman discussing a difficult experience she had while practicing niddah, monthly immersion. You can read it in full here, but the short of it is that as a result of the humiliation she felt while following a halachic process, she decided to abandon the practice of immersing monthly.

The comment we saw in the response was as follows:

I take offense with Mayyim Hayyim posting stories like this- stories that stand in direct contradiction to our tradition and laws as Jews. I first used Mayyim Hayyim for my conversion, and I have continued to be a supporter of this mikveh. However, I feel like articles that disregard the halachot (laws) regarding immersions (I think I remember an article about a woman wanting to keep her hair braided in the mikveh), or articles like this, where someone explains why they decided to stop observing the laws of family purity is highly offensive. You’re a mikveh for heaven’s sake! Shall we have the kosher grocery store posting articles on its Facebook page about shoppers who decided to go out and buy ham? I don’t want to read about Nina’s experience of deciding that she’s going to abandon observance of the laws of family purity on the mikveh’s Facebook page…”

We responded: “Thanks for your comments on this thought-provoking piece. This gets to the heart of one of our seven principles – ahavat yisrael – where we as an organization honor and cherish the differences among us, and provide a space for Jews to practice the ritual of immersion (or not) according to their interpretation and understanding. Which raises yet another question: is it the obligation of a community-based Jewish organization to uphold or even mandate the adherence to Jewish law for all?”

Our response gives context for the way we value each individual’s right to decide how to live Jewishly. Still, one element of the blog comment has continued to nag at me. The part that cites “our tradition and laws as Jews.”  The phrase seems to imply that the rulings of traditional Orthodox Judaism are an unquestionable norm and therefore binding on all of us

Beyond the fact that Mayyim Hayyim is a non-denominational mikveh, there is also an historical reality that we have hundreds of recorded precedents for contradicting previously held halachic opinions. It seems to me a fundamental part of our endurance as a religion. From the time when the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the tannaim, the rabbis of the mishna (our redacted oral tradition) established how our religion would evolve without a central location for so many of our day to day ritual needs —to this very day when each movement within Judaism issues teshuvot (responsa literature addressing new halachic questions and re-evaluating old practices).

The practice in question here, niddah, and related purity laws in general, have undergone so many changes over the last two thousand years that an Israelite woman, a medieval woman, and a contemporary Orthodox woman would have three vastly different ideas of the ‘correct’ way to practice. To give another example, the term ‘family purity’ is a 19th century invention. It came on the scene at a time when niddah was fading out of practice, and colludes with superstition that adhering to these laws avoids unwanted deformities in children.

The brilliance of our tradition of interpretation is that it declares that all of these teachings were given to Moshe at Sinai. This doesn’t change the fact that without the contributions of an evolving morality, the many diaspora experiences of our ancestors, and our love of debate, we would not have the overwhelming diversity of legal sources that we have today. Even with our diversity of sources to turn to, many voices have been historically shut out of the conversation. Can we truly refer to halachot as normative or representative of a majority opinion, if that majority has excluded the voices of women, Jews of color, GLBTQ Jews, Jews with physical and mental differences, and those who have recently chosen Judaism?

In the same way the internet has radically democratized information, Mayyim Hayyim’s blog gives a platform to the experience of those engaged in daily Jewish practice and thought. Today, responsa literature is being created outside the walls of institutions, on blogs, in books, on Facebook and beyond. Who knows, perhaps the threat of an unstable internet will one day cause some dedicated individuals to redact our internet commentary into physical form, much the way our oral tradition was committed to writing during civil unrest in 200 CE.

Mayyim Hayyim is a Jewish organization that is deeply embedded in our traditions and laws, and at the same time, committed to including the voices of those communities who have been pushed out of this tradition. Our organization thrives on the knowledge that these things we call ‘our traditions’ — lighting candles, saying Kiddush, immersing in a mikveh before Yom Kippur —are actually religious innovations, repeated for so many centuries that to us they look calcified and unchanging. Perhaps that is why our oldest legal text after the Torah, the mishna, literally means repetition, and comes from the word shanah, or year. Back then, when a student heard a new teaching they repeated it until it was committed to memory. Halacha, the path, was embodied by each person who carried the teachings with them wherever they went.

May it be that way for us: year after year, we’ll share more voices, more stories of halachic discovery, and new ways to experience ritual. The boundaries of what we know will stretch and give, and as they do, our sense of what is possible will grow, as it has since our Torah was given to Moshe at Sinai.

Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She loves the challenge of religious pluralism.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Reflections from a Flotation Tank

by Shira M. Cohen-Goldberg

Shira bio picThe internal dialogue goes like this: I have to go to the mikveh. Do I really have to go this month? When can I go this week? Do I really have to go? I have between 3-4 on Thursday, but my meeting gets out at 2:30, which doesn’t leave me travel time, but gets me to daycare pick-up on time at the other end. This is so exhausting! I am exhausted. Maybe I can wait until next week?

And so, after having children, when it comes to finding that time for rejuvenation, potential relaxation, and, let’s be honest, ritual purity at the mikveh, it is a confounding puzzle of logistics, exhausting to the brain and the heart, and always, always a feat of time, space and magic, fueled by self-pity chocolate. The extraordinary joy, anticipation, and intensity of mikveh-going and the night following it have been replaced by detailed and lengthy rituals for morning time, bedtime, and in-between, keeping my children clean (ish) and fed (mostly), coordinating responsibilities and schedules with my husband and caregivers, and checking my clothing for spit-up. The crumbs of energy that are left go to my husband and my job.

And when it comes to myself, sometimes I can steal an hour. Finding calm in this whirlwind leads me to choose activities that require zero to little effort. A massage wins over a yoga class; early evening sleep wins over a coffee date with a friend. I admit that, in moments of weakness, I crave the option of doing as little as possible.

On a recent Sunday, after a particularly harrowing few weeks, my husband gave me the gift of “flotation therapy,” which claims to give your brain down time, reduce anxiety, improve sleep and even help you cultivate creativity. One hour of unencumbered time to treat my body and mind sounded terrific so I leaped at the opportunity.

There are some obvious parallels between floating and immersing in the mikveh. The preparation for both is careful. Something interesting, rewarding or emotionally consolidating awaits you as you emerge. And then there is the immersion, or non-immersion in the case of floating, in a pool of special water.

As I prepared for my “float,” I showered, placed salves on my cuts, put ear plugs in my ears, and entered slowly. The water flows through a body-length shallow tank that is salt-saturated and warm. Once in, my body would float on the surface the way it would in the Dead Sea. It would be peaceful and calm and enable me to relax and nurture myself. Music would pipe in slowly when my time was up. I would shower, shampoo, wash the salt out of my eyes and ears, and re-enter the world as a calmer, more integrated, creative and soulful human.

homor simpson in a float tankIt didn’t happen that way, though. It was scary and anonymous. The tank was too dark, the water too cool. I should have been having deep thoughts, feelings and revelations and instead I wished I could see a clock so that I could count down the minutes I had left. And when I emerged, why-oh-why did I feel so empty?

But then there’s the mikveh: When I immerse my body, I immerse my heart and soul as well. I emerge with peace, with hope, and often a little sparkle of life that I find deep inside of me, especially at times when I most need to find it. At the end of a recent visit, I was told, “you’re glowing.”

“Why, thank you. I actually feel like a person again!”

They are both pools of water, this is true. So, what is the difference?

The difference is my tradition. Women in my tradition do this, and have done it for a really long time. Women who struggle, women who strive, women who love their children and partners.

The difference is my connection with God. I used to feel that I could talk directly to God, and now I have a lot of interference. When the world feels horribly unfair and I cry because life is so hard for so many, I wonder if God also takes vacations. But I always find God at the mikveh.

After the mikveh, the world looks just a bit better and God is just a bit more present. My children’s eyes curve into half-moons as they smile at each other, our little immediate family island feels safe, sacred and uninterrupted. I revel in my daughter’s giggle and my son’s clever utterance. I take a breath and feel complete. My husband and I exchange gentle, relieved looks across the table at the end of another day.

Shira M. Cohen-Goldberg is a long-time member of the Cambridge-Somerville Jewish community. She works as a literacy specialist at an educational non-profit focused on organizational change. She spends most of her time working and rearing her 3-year-old son, Hallel, and infant daughter, Ya’ara, in partnership with her husband, Ari.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Orange is the New Black but Mikveh is the New Orange

by Leah Wittenberg, Mayyim Hayyim Intern 

“There was a mikfa on oitnb!”

leah wittenbergThis was the slightly confusing text I received from one of my friends who is not Jewish, but knows I am interning at a mikveh, Mayyim Hayyim, this summer. She is also in tune with Judaism due to all the Friday nights she has spent at Tufts Hillel with me over the past few years.

It took me a couple minutes to fully decode her mysterious text; I had to inquire as to what “oitnb” meant.  If you are like me and have no idea what she was talking about, “oitnb” is referring to Orange is the New Black, arguably the most popular Netflix original series, which centers on the lives of inmates in a women’s prison.

orange is the new black

Credit: Netflix

Spoiler alert: If you have not yet finished the third season, the scene that I am going to touch on appears in the season finale, but I will try not to give too much away.

The scene to which my friend was referring, and the scene everyone seems to be talking about, revolves around a mikveh immersion.  This prompted me to do some research, because it’s not very often that a mikveh makes an appearance on a TV show, and a popular one at that.

In fact, the last time a mikveh was shown being used on television was 2012 when Oprah Winfrey toured a mikveh in Brooklyn, focusing on a Chasidic community and the practice of monthly immersion, or, niddah. Before that, it was 2003 when we watched Charlotte York convert in the sixth season of Sex and the City.

Let’s face it—mikveh is simply not that publicized on television today.

That is, until the season finale of Orange is the New Black.  The now famous mikveh scene occurs when one of the characters converts to Judaism.  The dilemma is that even though the inmate, Cindy, has studied, shown a desire to become a part of the Jewish people, and even had a beit din (Rabbinic Court that presides over Jewish legal issues), there is noticeably no mikveh readily available in prison.

However everything changes in the final scene when all of the inmates manage to escape through a hole in the fence to a lake near the prison.  The scene portrays Cindy immersing in the naturally occurring body of water quite beautifully, and we even hear the entirety of the shehechiyanu and a joyful mazal tov.

So what does this mean for the real world of mikveh?

The fact that this wildly popular television series ended the current season with a mikveh immersion should not be taken for granted.  Mikveh is a ritual that is perplexing and private to most.  But after its two minutes of airtime on Netflix, I wonder if “immerse in a mikveh” will make it on many more to-do lists, next to “start a gluten-free lifestyle” and “go to yoga class.”

While mikveh may be a popular topic of discussion in some circles right now, to me, this sacred ritual is much more than a a trend.

While I greatly desire more people to learn that immersing in a mikveh is not just something women do, I also know that mikveh exists for more than just the conversions we saw on Sex and the City and Orange is the New Black. Certainly, these aspects are important uses of mikveh, but mikveh is a multi-faceted ritual and its use has been reinvigorated and expanded by many creative and ritually-engaged Jews, Mayyim Hayyim, and other community mikva’ot already popping up all over the United States.

In no way am I attempting to demean the significance of the ritual being used as part of the Netflix series—I think this is a step in the right direction.  It already has gotten many of my friends talking about mikveh who in any other circumstance could not care less.

I do, however, think that we should take this triumph with a grain of (kosher) salt.  Mikveh may be a popular topic right now, but how do we keep the momentum in the future?  Cindy’s mikveh experience is a great jumping off point, and who knows—maybe in the next few weeks we’ll have visitors to Mayyim Hayyim who saw the episode and had their interests piqued.

Leah Wittenberg is an intern at Mayyim Hayyim as part of the JVS Emerging Jewish Leaders Internship in memory of M. Bradley Jacobs.  She is originally from the suburbs of Chicago and is a rising senior at Tufts University double majoring in Judaic Studies and Spanish.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment