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

Beth Tikvah Students Weigh In

by Wendy Gonsenhauser, Teacher at Beth Tikvah Synagogue of Westborough MA and her 5th and 6th Grade Students

Every year, Mayyim Hayyim’s Education Center sees over sixty programs for youth, (and another fifty for adults).  Students come from day schools and synagogues all over the Greater Boston Area, some travelling from as far as New Hampshire and Israel.  Wendy Gonsenhauser, a Jewish Educator at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough, MA, recently brought a group of 5th and 6th graders from her life cycle class.  After their visit, Wendy offered the students a chance to reflect on their time here by taking turns interviewing each other.

wendyWendy: The 5th and 6th graders at Beth Tikvah Synagogue were studying the Jewish life cycle.  This is a two-year curriculum through which the students learn about significant milestone events that are part of Jewish life.  The unit uses textbooks as a resource, and experiential, project-based learning is an important component.  Visiting Mayyim Hayyim is integral in understanding the role mikva’ot play in various life cycle events.  Prior to their trip, the students also learned about more traditional mikva’ot in order to better understand what Mayyim Hayyim offers.

Below is a transcription of the Beth Tikvah 5th and 6th graders’ interviews.

Interview #1: A Conversation Between Aaron, Adam, and Teddy

Q:         What is Mayyim Hayyim?

A:         Mayyim Hayyim is a mikveh, a Jewish place where people go when they are experiencing change.  It’s a Jewish ritual bath.

Q:         What do you do in a mikveh?

A:         You immerse yourself fully in the water and say a prayer.

Q:         Why can’t you put all tap water in a mikveh?

A:         A mikveh’s water must be part natural water.

Q:         Why would you go to a mikveh?

A:         You go to a mikveh when you are experiencing change or going through something big in your life.

Q:         What is there at Mayyim Hayyim?

A:         At Mayyim Hayyim there are four preparation rooms, two mikva’ot, impressive architecture, artwork, and a large table.

Interview #2: Rachel (R) and Jordan (J)

R:         What was the best part?

J:          Exploring Mayyim Hayyim.

J:          Would you ever want to go to a mikveh, and why?

R:         Yes, for my Bat Mitzvah.

J:          When you walked into the mikveh what was the first thing that came to mind, and why?

R:         Religion and holiness.

R:         How is the mikveh holy?

J:          It’s holy because holy things happen there, and they say prayers that make it holy.

J:          How can we make the mikveh more enjoyable?

R:         It was perfect.  I wouldn’t change anything.

The following three students answered two questions about their trip:

1) What was the most interesting part of your visit to Mayyim Hayyim?

2) What most surprised you about your visit to Mayyim Hayyim?


  1. The thing I found the most interesting at Mayyim Hayyim was that you can do whatever you want in the pool after you pick the colors for the water. I thought you had to be completely serious, but you can do flips and handstands.
  2. The thing that I was surprised about is that you have to take a shower before you go into the pool. I didn’t think that cleaning yourself mattered that much at a mikveh.


  1. I liked how you could choose a color for the water in the pool.
  2. I thought that having a kitchen at a mikveh was the most surprising thing.


  1. The thing I found most interesting was that you can take more time to get ready to go into the mikveh than the time when you are actually in it.
  2. The thing that surprised me the most is, if someone is converting to Judaism, they have to go in the mikveh when they are converting, and another person has to come in to make sure that their head went fully under the water.

beth tikvah students

If you are interested in learning more about scheduling an education program for youth or adults at Mayyim Hayyim, feel free to email us at, or visit our website for more information.

Wendy Gonsenhauser has been a Jewish educator for over 30 years, teaching subjects such T’fillah, Hebrew, Torah, Halacha (Jewish Law), Ethics, Life Cycle and Art.  Wendy’s experience teaching spans a variety of congregations in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Wendy lives in Northborough, MA, with her husband and two daughters.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reflections on Mikveh and Liberation

by Cara Rock-Singer

In Memory of Bonna Devorah Haberman z’’l, passed away June 16, 2015

Cara 2013-3 (1)On July 16, 2013, around thirty people gathered at Mayyim Hayyim for a Tisha b’Av program with Bonna Devorah Haberman z’’l  to reflect on the relevance of the historical Temple commemorations today. Tisha b’Av has come to hold layers of Jewish sadness and longing for a better future, a day for remembering not only the loss of the Jerusalem Temples but for commemorating layers of calamity, from the Biblical to the modern.

In 2013, as the announcement for the event explains, Haberman came to Mayyim Hayyim to “share her influential vision and theology based on twenty-four years of sacred service at the remnant of the miqdash (sanctuary or sacred place, The Kotel) to reflect on her most recent book, ‘Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink,’ and to chant piyyutim—liturgical poetry or songs of longing.”

For Haberman and the Women of The Wall who she had led since its inception in 1988, the Kotel has become a site of longing for liberation, for women’s freedom to pray aloud with the Torah in their chosen ceremonial garb. In her book Blood and Ink, Haberman describes the events of Rosh Chodesh Av (the beginning of the month of Av) in August 1989, which is the beginning of the mourning period that culminates on Tisha b’Av. She recounts physical force and violence, both by state security guards who forcibly removed the Women of the Wall, and the ultra-orthodox women who grabbed at their head coverings and prayer books while drenching them with water and dirt.

The dirty water hurled at the Women of the Wall was not the water of liberation so central to Haberman’s liberation theology, which was modeled after birth. Nor were these the waters of renewal and rebirth, the central substance and symbol of Mayyim Hayyim, the transformative waters that have the power to render each visitor to our mikveh as tahor, or ritually ready. These waters were tameh, unready, for the feminist activism that Haberman and the Women of the Wall were bringing forth into the world.

Haberman reiterated the Second Wave feminist motto in a 2014 sermon slam performance in Jerusalem that even the most personal, intimate acts can be political. As she writes in Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism,  “My interpretation of Exodus develops a divine birthing Mother narrative. This narrative re-conceives the miracles and wonders of divine redemption to affirm human activism. Liberation-as-birth reads the Exodus as an enactment of birth—combining material, spiritual, ethical, and political elements. Birth is more than a symbol of liberation; birth has the potential to create and breed a culture of liberation. A transition from enclosure to manifestation, each birth releases one being encompassed within the domain of another—from powerlessness and dependence into maturing connection.”

Likewise, mikveh immersion, which has often adopted the imagery of birth, can have a similar liberating power. Mayyim Hayyim’s mission is to put ritual in the hands of each person who immerses. In Bonna’s memory, and reflecting Mayyim Hayyim’s mission, I hope that emerging from the mikveh will continue to represent not only a means of individual renewal, but will also remind us that when we are able to explore ritual on our own terms, it can reinforce the possibility that the personal, private, and embodied have the power to transform the world.

Cara Rock-Singer is an intern at Mayyim Hayyim and a PhD Candidate in the Religion Department at Columbia University. She is currently writing a dissertation on Jewish women’s authority over their own bodies through ritual and medicine.



Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Judaica is Dying

by Sarah Resnick

sarah portrait 2Jenna Weissman Joselit’s recent column in The Forward “Why The Status of Judaica is Waning” wonders whether Judaica is now passé given that museums are turning away collections of intricately decorated menorahs and Kiddush cups, and invites readers to “re-engage with Judaica, if not on its own terms then as pieces of our past.”  I would propose a third option: let’s also broaden our understanding of what Judaica is, who it is for, and where it is found.

Our ritual objects are not just pieces of the past, or merely Judaica.  They serve as the foundation of culture and tradition, and a reminder of how Jews joined cultural conversations throughout history.  As Joselit explains, Judaica’s early roots came from the need to prove to the world that Jews could also make intricate and technically complicated works of art.  Today’s Jewish artists don’t need to prove their basic worth, and so have space to widen the conversation and create work that interprets Jewish ritual objects in fresh and surprising ways.

The world of Judaica is facing the same questions the broader Jewish community is wrestling with: how do we stay relevant in a world where people have many options for how to engage with ritual and religion, and are actively choosing whether Judaism will play a meaningful part in their lives?

These conversations are not just happening in museums and synagogues.  When I attended a recent art opening at Mayyim Hayyim, I was intrigued to learn that when it opened in 2004, it was the only mikveh in the country with an art gallery on site.  For me, walking through the front door of Mayyim Hayyim feels like an embrace, like you’re being offered a blessing written just for you.

In the current exhibit that went up around Passover, two artists, Christopher Watts and Elizabeth Cohen, explore new interpretations of vessels commonly used at a seder to depict the journey from G-clef-1slavery to freedom.  Cups, goblets, plates, and bowls line the walls of the gallery.  Most of the work is not something you would recognize as a traditional kiddush cup or seder plate, and certainly not something you would expect to find at a mikveh.  And yet on a snowy Boston night last winter, when the rest of the city stayed hunkered down in their homes, the Mayyim Hayyim gallery was packed with people who had turned out to hear the artists describe their explorations of ritual objects.  Mayyim Hayyim is redefining what contemporary Jewish art and ritual can look like, and people are hungering to participate and engage.

As an emerging Jewish artist, I hope to contribute to a conversation that invites everyone in, and that learns from and reacts to the world around us while drawing from our rich traditions and stories.  I am grateful that the Boston Jewish community has a resource like Mayyim Hayyim at our doorsteps, pushing us to re-imagine and re-engage with the Jewish rituals and objects that have sustained us for thousands of years.

If we judge our community’s interest in Judaica by whether museums are turning away elaborate menorahs, then it is a natural conclusion that the interest in Judaica is waning.  But let’s not get so caught up on what Jewish art used to look like that we miss what’s happening today.  The interest in menorahs displayed inside of glass cases may be declining, but the imagination of the Jewish artist is alive and thriving.

Visit Mayyim Hayyim’s gallery to view Vessels: Holiness in Hand before it closes, at the end of July. 

Sarah Resnick is the founder of Advah Designs, offering a collection of handcrafted Jewish prayer shawls and wedding canopies.  Join her in exploring contemporary and inclusive Jewish ritual objects here

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ritual on My Mind

by Rachel Eisen, Mayyim Hayyim Intern

Rachel pictureLately, I’ve been thinking a lot about ritual. And by “a lot,” I mean even more than usual for someone who is interning at an organization specifically devoted to ritual.

There’s no mystery as to why—three things happened recently to cause this. First, I met with one of my advisors about initial research for my master’s thesis that will explore Jewish ritual practice. Second, Mayyim Hayyim hosted a program about “Women and New Jewish Rituals.” Third, I finally finished reading Haviva Ner-David’s book, Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening.

My thesis advisor asked me to think about what differentiates ritual from behavior. Someone at the Mayyim Hayyim program asked the same question. Haviva Ner-David’s book explores what it means to intentionally and wholly engage with ritual practice.

How could I not be thinking about ritual?

In a new book on the topic, “Very Short Introductions: Ritual,” Professor of Religion, Barry Stephenson writes, “Ritual is first and foremost a doing…but alongside ritual enactment, people also step back to think, write, and read about ritual.” More than just an action, he says, “ritual is a way of thinking and knowing.”

At Mayyim Hayyim, that rings true. One of Mayyim Hayyim’s core values is hiddur mitzvah, beautifying a mitzvah. Hiddur mitzvah, along with all of Mayyim Hayyim’s Seven Principles, elevate mikveh from a behavior to a ritual. Why would you make a mitzvah—any mitzvah—beautiful if you weren’t engaged in thought about the action? Why would there be seven kavanot, intentions, to help you prepare to immerse, or a whole set of ceremonies, created to help you sanctify your immersion, if Mayyim Hayyim did not view immersion as “a way of thinking and knowing?”

When people practice this ritual, for whatever reason, in order to spiritually connect to Jewish life, mikveh becomes a way of thinking and knowing. When we make this ritual open and accessible to everyone, mikveh becomes a way of thinking and knowing. When people can learn about and explore this ritual as well as practice it, mikveh becomes a way of thinking and knowing. When there are people who spend their days thinking about how to make this ritual mean something to Jews of all backgrounds, and then spend more time turning those ideas into action, mikveh becomes a way of thinking and knowing.

At Mayyim Hayyim’s recent event, “Women and New Jewish Rituals,” Shulamit Reinharz, director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, said that a ritual is something that “sticks;” something sticks because other people need it. That’s clearly happened here at Mayyim Hayyim. And from my short time here, I already know that Mayyim Hayyim’s way of approaching mikveh is going to stick with me. I’m a long way off from actually beginning to write that master’s thesis that started me down this path of thinking so much about ritual. But I know that when I do, I’ll be keeping Mayyim Hayyim in mind when I set out to define just what it is that makes a ritual a ritual.

Rachel Eisen is an intern at Mayyim Hayyim and a graduate student in the Hornstein Program at Brandeis University. She is studying for a Master’s degree in Jewish Professional Leadership as well as a Master’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Mikveh at Night

Gail Elson, Mikveh Guidegailforblog

It’s often night time when I enter to guide at the mikveh. I turn on the lights, lower the shades, and enjoy the stillness for a brief time until the first woman arrives. Sometimes there’s only one; other evenings there are four to six immersions.

Most of the women I meet in the evening – and there are only women in the evening – come regularly for niddah. After not having relations with their partners during menstruation, and for some, a certain number of days after, women will come immerse in the mikveh, and afterwards, resume relations. Some are Orthodox, many are not. Some have so enjoyed their first immersion experience at Mayyim Hayyim, as brides or converts, that they’ve decided to assume the practice regularly. From time to time a woman who is visiting family or attending a local conference when it’s her time to immerse, is welcomed here as well. Some are same sex couples who immerse monthly.

After volunteering at the mikveh for eleven years, I’ve come to know many of the women whom I see often. I know the ones who require an extra towel, the ones who don’t want to be witnessed, others who want a witness when they dunk, but not when they enter or leave the pool area, and so on. I have respect and affection for the women who have assumed this monthly responsibility, and I enjoy catering to their needs.

During summer hours, the mikveh opens at 8:30 pm and those of us who serve at night, often don’t leave until the parking lot is empty. By the time we tend to the laundry, re-stock the prep rooms and turn off the lights, it’s often 10:30 or 11 o’clock.

Over thirty percent of the immersions at Mayyim Hayyim are for niddah. Serving the needs of women who come monthly is the prime function of many mikva’ot, and it is an important reason for the existence of Mayyim Hayyim, as well.

Gail Elson is a retired speech and language therapist. She also taught English as a Second Language. Her hobbies include walking, reading, and rowing. Gail has been a Mikveh Guide since she joined the first cohort of guides eleven years ago.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Space to Be

by Walt Clark, Office Manager

We finally made it! Summer is here and the garden at Mayyim Hayyim is in full bloom. It was a winter for the ages, with even some snow still remaining in Boston. We went from…10858569_10153106064394162_8455453825192311885_n


DSC_0127At Mayyim Hayyim, we try to maintain not only a welcoming space, but also one that is aesthetically beautiful. Because of this, I would like to offer a special thanks to all of the vendors and the grounds crew who help keep the outside looking the best it can be. I invite you to come, sit on our benches, and enjoy our green space. Our outdoor space is meant for the community just as much as our mikva’ot and education center. We hope you will come and enjoy it.




Walton Clark is Mayyim Hayyim’s Office Manager and jack of all trades.  He is a working keyboardist in Boston, playing Black American Music and leads the acid-funk outfit Roxo Gato as well as performing in a variety of groups. You can follow him on Twitter @walt_twitwalker and on Instagram @welaxer.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment