Why Queer Mikveh?

by Rebekah Erev

In 2000, a group of radical queers in Olympia, Washington welcomed me into a chavurah (group of friends) of artists, musicians, and organizers. We had all experienced feeling excluded, living on the fringes, and shared a desire to welcome and acknowledge the beauty of the liminal space we occupied as queers. We collectively valued accessibility. As queer culture always does, we flipped social judgement of our gender and sexuality into comedy and lifted up the strange as divine. We did this in our questioning what it meant to be Jewish: you didn’t have to read Hebrew or know anything about Judaism to be welcomed into this group of people. Your gender could expand infinitely. You didn’t need allegiances to Israel. You could live in diaspora and make this land your home by honoring the indigenous people and using your ancestral rituals for healing the world around you.

We lived surrounded by water in Olympia. Like all the people who came before us, including the Squaxin, Nisqually, Puyallup, Chehalis, Suquamish, and Duwamish who were indigenous to that land, water became central to our lives. As Jews in diaspora, we lived in a place wherein we were uninvited visitors. By jumping into the Puget sound, impromptu, mikveh-style, before Shabbat and singing to the water, we said thank you to the place we made home.

These practices came to define my expectations of Judaism: queerness, accessibility, celebration of liminality, and reverence for the land as a living body with a history and future. It was a gift to come into adulthood with this kind of framework. When I encounter anything contrary, I know it can be different. This has defined my work to lift up and create accessible Jewish ritual and art for those who have been excluded.

Many formal mikvaot exist in synagogues. These spaces are segregated in their use by gender, in accordance with Jewish custom. If you are not a male or a female, if you are transitioning genders, if your sexuality isn’t accepted, if your body and spirit don’t conform to a binary gender norm, where do you go? Many queers are answering this question with our art and community. Adamah, Mayyim Hayyim, Immerse NYC and some synagogues also support finding satisfactory answers to these questions. The Queer Mikveh Project exists to document and support these investigations.

The Queer Mikveh Project began when I met Orev Katz, a Toronto-based artist during a Kohenet (Hebrew priestess training program) retreat. Katz was developing a project called MVH. The project was creating ceremonies in an art gallery space, using mikveh as inspiration for healing in the queer and trans community. As queer artists and kohanot, (plural for kohenet) we began to collaborate on the use of this powerful ritual. I started to learn about other queer Jewish artists using themes of mikveh and became inspired to document them.

I think queer Jews are interested in mikveh because of its transitional nature and the opportunity that it presents us. We are made of water. Our bodies physiologically change constantly. Our brains are always building new neurotransmitters, new ways of thinking and therefore, living. We look to this ritual to help us mark the changes in our world and bodies. In water we become buoyant; we float, time floats. We enter a time out of time, a place without definition. As queers we often feel that the space we occupy in this world is “in between.” It’s a precious space, a space that’s attractive and elusive in its liminality. Water has the power to hold that.

People have always acknowledged there is more to gender than a binary. The Talmud mentions over six different genders. I once heard a teacher Leticia Nieto say, “There are as many genders as there are people.” The hope of The Queer Mikveh Project is to lift up teachings like these, to be a collaborator in the transformation of a gender-liberated Judaism, and to use our rituals for healing the land upon which we are merely visitors.

Rebekah Erev is a queer, Jewish visual and conceptual artist as well as a Kohenet. Erev regularly creates and participates in the art of ritual, working with individuals, families, and couples to facilitate ceremony for life-cycle events. Erev self-published the Moon Angels/Malakh Halevanah Oracle Deck and is currently working on a documentary film about queer mikveh.

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#metoo

by Carrie Bornstein, Executive Director

The last time I wrote for this blog I was preparing to deliver a baby as a gestational surrogate, for a Jewish couple from London. So, yeah… that happened. On September 28, 2017 I delivered a 6 lb., 10 oz. baby girl – you can read the whole birth story here, if you like.

After the delivery I took a few weeks to recover. In the midst of reflecting on the powerful and empowering journey I took – one that, for me, was specifically linked to being a woman – I watched the #metoo movement unfold around me. It was a stark reminder of how, despite all of the progress our society has made with respect to women’s equality and the leadership we can take on, we still have so very far to go.

Watching it all gain momentum, of course it was clear that despite the varied personal experiences on the topic of harassment and sexual assault, just about every woman out there has some kind of story of connection. And of course, it’s no different in the Jewish community.

What is different, though, is our community’s capacity for using ritual to heal. Just like the #metoo stories, personal in nature though extraordinarily communal in their shared-telling, the mikveh offers a space for personal healing in the context of our wider community.

Mayyim Hayyim’s immersion ceremonies have become sacred texts to so many women and men over the past thirteen years. Their words give voice to the often unarticulated emotions of walking through the world. And just like any sacred text, the very same words can hold new meaning as time goes by.

“May I remember this moment of being held in safety, surrounded by living waters. May I be released from the pain of the past as I enter this new phase of my journey. May I know my own strength and trust my ability to care for myself.”

This, our immersion ceremony for healing from abuse, is here for all those who wish to use it. Whether here at Mayyim Hayyim, or elsewhere in the world, we’re happy to share it with you.

Carrie Bornstein is the Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim.

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Immersion, Integration, and Wholeness: Refuah Sh’leimah

by Esther Sadie Brandon

I am now a breast cancer survivor. In the summer of 2015, an immersion at Mayyim Hayyim was my medium to mark the transition from being in treatment to healing.
The words Refuah Sh’leimah can be interpreted as a prayer for wholeness. Integration is the neurological process of bringing together differentiated parts to create wholeness.

During the time of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, practicing mindfulness meditation and yoga offered me a container to lean into and, at times, a container to surrender to. There were many moments when constructive choices and decisions needed to be made, and I would feel overwhelmed, almost as if I was underwater and not quite able to reach the surface. Practicing restorative yoga and intentionally taking slow, deep breaths would begin to settle my mind and body, and the fears would begin to pass, giving me some space.

The day after my last radiation treatment, I immersed in the mikveh. We began the ritual by saying the Shehecheyanu prayer, which is written in the plural and literally means, “who has kept us alive,” suggesting that your joy is shared by a larger community. I noticed the plurality of the Hebrew as my circle of friends surrounded me with love and life. After my immersion, we prayed the Mi’sheberach: “May the One who blessed our ancestors…bless and heal Esther Sadie…” and brought into the circle our ancestors, our matriarchs and patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

After the embrace of the healing waters of the mikveh, I had a dream I saw Moses at the edge of the Red Sea. The waters were about to engulf him and the Israelites. I awoke with the thought—has my breast cancer lesion been my moment at the edge of the Red Sea?

What happened at the edge of the Red Sea? Rabbi Alan Lew z”l translates Exodus 14:13-15: “But Moses said to the people, ‘Don’t be afraid (al tira-u), collect yourselves, (hityatzvu), and see (uru) the salvation that Adonai (God) will make for you today… Adonai will fight for you and you will be still (tacharishun).’ Then Adonai said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to just get going (v’yisa-u).’”

Rabbi Lew developed a mindfulness approach to this verse with a five-step program: don’t panic, pull yourself together, see clearly, be still, and get going. I would sit quietly and breathe—in and out, and I could hear his words gently guiding me to be still, to feel the waves of fear—to not panic, to not act on my fear—to quiet the stories in my mind so I could more easily see my next step.

Immersion in the mikveh provided a sacred space and a sacred time for integration. The experience of being underwater felt soothing. L’dor v’dor (from generation to generation)—I felt held, perhaps by a connection somewhere in my bones to the energy of Sarah, of Rachel, of Leah, of Rebecca, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…and then in my dream, Miriam. After my immersion, I felt a new sense of healing—Refuah Sh’leimah—a complete healing, a coming home to myself with renewed wholeness.

Esther is a member of the Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue and the Temple Beth Zion Nishmat Hayyim meditation group. She has practiced mindfulness meditation and Iyengar yoga for the past 35 years. She completed the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, Jewish Mindfulness Teaching Training Program, and is a Mindfulness and Life Coach.

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Blessings

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

It was a hot, sunny day during Sukkot last month and I was in Jerusalem visiting my daughter. During our ten days together, we’d plan an adventure each day. One day we scoured the Muslim Quarter of the Old City for a 200 year old address-less pastry shop called Zalatimos. We wound our way up and down the crowded alleyways, asking shopkeeper after shopkeeper, “Where is Zalatimos?” until, tucked away in the stones, we spied a hole in the wall staffed by just one man making one hand-folded phyllo pastry at a time. They were scrumptious, and all the better for the adventure.

For our adventure on this hot day, we decided to go to the Kotel (Western Wall) for the Birkat HaCohanim, the Blessing of the Priests. The words, from Numbers 6:23-27, are familiar to many: “May the Lord bless you and keep you…” Our tradition teaches that Aaron and his sons blessed the Israelites with these three phrases. It is the oldest known Biblical text to have been found in hard copy; amulets with these verses written on them have been found dating from the First Temple Period, making them more than 2,500 years old — the words themselves are likely much older.

My desire to go to the Kotel for this gathering was simple curiosity. I’d heard there would be thousands of attendees, and I thought it would be an interesting site to watch. We walked through Jaffa Gate and joined the throngs of people hustling toward the Kotel. The police had created a one-way pedestrian route that sent us on a circumnavigation of the southern part of the Old City, skirting the edges of the Armenian and Jewish Quarters, up and down the hills along the city walls. As quickly as we walked, we were passed by people pushing strollers precariously, literally running by us, bumping up and down along the uneven stone roads. As always, the variety of garb and hats was fascinating, and we were grateful that our own choice of dress didn’t require a wig or head covering, stockings, and layers, as the sun bore down on us. Eventually we made our way through the metal detectors and started inching our way toward the Kotel until we couldn’t get any closer. Standing in the middle of the plaza, in a de facto women’s section, with thousands of worshipers, I looked up and around at the ancient cityscape and took in the scene – it was as dramatic as I’d imagined.

We prayed the remainder of the Musaf (additional) service and tried not to think about how hot we were and how woozy we were starting to feel. And then the blessing began. The hazzan (cantor), chanted the first word, and the huge crowd of tallit-covered kohanim filling the men’s section repeated it. “Yivarechecha!”, “Yivarechecha!”, “viyishmirecha!”, “viyishmirecha!”, “Adonai!”, “Adonai!”… Through all 15 words it continued, slowly, ceremonially, echoing off the ancient stones back to the thousands of us standing shoulder to shoulder in silent receptivity.

And it was at that moment that I no longer felt that I was there solely as an observer, out of a sense of curiosity about something distant or foreign to me. These were words I’d heard and prayed hundreds of times – these exact 15 words. I’d said them on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and over my children, year after year. I suddenly felt an emotional and deep connection to these familiar words and this ancient and tribal rite that was being played out in front of me – but now with me as a full participant. I actually felt blessed, and doubly so as the blessing was extended to my daughter as well, just as I had blessed her on several occasions. I didn’t care that the blessing-givers were only men, I didn’t care that I couldn’t even see them unless I stood on tippy toes, I didn’t care that I was parched and sweaty and jostled and my blistered feet hurt. This was a new experience for me that had been enacted identically (but for the amplification) for longer than I could even fathom. I felt connected to this simple ritual through history, and in that moment of blessing-ness right there.

It is this connectedness to history that many who come to Mayyim Hayyim describe – a way to do something that Jews have been doing, the same way (albeit now in the warm, sparkling water of our beautiful, sun-lit mikva’ot) for a very, very long time. I believe that there are those who have come to this ritual with that simple expectation of fulfilling a sense of curiosity; they approach it intellectually and as an observer. But I know that, much as I experienced at the Kotel that day, it is almost impossible to remain detached, once you are in the water, saying the same words as generations before have recited. The water is embracing, and the all-encompassing nature of it pulls us in to its power and allows us to look inward – not as a bystander, but as a full participant.

May we be blessed during this holiday time of gratitude, by the richness of our tradition, and the opportunity to be full participants in our lives.

From the Mayyim Hayyim Immersion Ceremony: “In gratitude I come today to celebrate the blessings in my life. I honor those who have helped me along the way and give thanks for their supportive presence. As I prepare to immerse in the waters of the mikveh, I appreciate the journey that has brought me to this moment.”

We invite you to mark your gratitude this Thanksgiving season and enjoy a solitary moment of reflection in the living waters of the mikveh. Schedule your visit here. 

Lisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim.

Posted in Jewish Community, Shabbat and Holidays | 2 Comments

Unpacking Niddah

by Rabbi Miriam-Simma Walfish

Niddah is the practice of abstaining from sexual intimacy around the time of menstruation.

When contemplating the rabbinic laws surrounding menstruation, it can be easy to wonder: Why is there a whole area of Jewish law devoted to the intricacies of determining the beginning and end of women’s menstrual cycles? At times, it’s natural to dismiss the discussions of male rabbis as irrelevant to the lived experiences of women. Worse, the discourse around niddah can sometimes be damaging, as the rabbis use this area of law to play out their own anxieties around sexuality, without stopping to acknowledge the real women affected by their musings.

If this is our expectation regarding rabbinic discussions of niddah, the eighth chapter of Tractate Niddah of the Babylonian Talmud (a collection of rabbinic law and commentary on the Torah) opens with a surprising teaching. It is attributed to Shmuel, the head of a prominent rabbinic academy in Babylonia.

Shmuel states: “If she checked the ground, sat on it, and then found blood on it, she is ritually pure (i.e. not considered to be menstruating) as it says, ‘in her flesh’ – until she feels it in her flesh (Leviticus 15:7).”

The biblical source for Shmuel’s teaching, Leviticus 15:19, reads: “A woman who is in a state of flowing, blood will be her flow in her flesh…” By all accounts, the biblical text here is describing some sort of objective reality – blood, a physical substance, comes out of someone’s body, rendering that person and others who encounter them, ritually impure.

In light of the clinical way the verse defines menstruation, Shmuel’s interpretation is radical. Rather than seeing the “flesh” of Leviticus as simply a receptacle for blood or as a physical substance, flesh becomes a site for the subjective experience of the menstruating woman. In order for the woman to become ritually impure, says Shmuel, she must feel the blood emerging. I call this statement radical because it makes a powerful statement about the locus of decision-making around niddah. In order for a woman to be in a state of niddah, she must say, “I felt that. I know that I am menstruating.”

Unfortunately, this statement attributed to Shmuel is something of a rogue voice in rabbinic discussions of niddah. In fact, the rest of the Talmudic discussion of this statement grapples with its radical implications, eventually reaching the absurd conclusion that a woman “felt it without her knowledge,” completely undermining the powerful subjectivity of Shmuel’s statement.

In many ways, I think that modern, western society is actually far more uncomfortable than rabbinic society discussing blood and menstruation. We are often socialized to think, whether consciously or subconsciously, that periods are gross and buying pads or tampons is embarrassing. And how would we even begin to go about discussing our periods with our partners? Why would we want to? The woman Shmuel is imagining is incredibly in tune with her own body. But our socialization can leave us feeling, at times, like the other imagined woman of the Talmudic discussion – alienated from our bodies, even paradoxically “feeling” our bodily sensations without our knowledge.

Engaging with rabbinic discussions around niddah is not an easy task. When we do so, we are confronted with multiple voices, some clashing with our modern sensibilities around gender. We also may feel the weight of Jewish legal tradition, which often removes subjectivity in its quest for an objective halachic (legal) “truth.” However, my hope is that when we come together with other women to explore these texts, without assuming that either the texts provide a simple framework for practice, or that they are archaic records of a patriarchal society, the encounter will transform both the text and ourselves.

Come join me at Mayyim Hayyim to continue the conversation! Beginning January 11, we will have a monthly Niddah Salon in which we will explore facets of these texts, unpacking them on their own terms, and using them as jumping-off points to explore the often uncharted territory of our own femininity. Open to any female-identified person of any sexual orientation or relationship status. Click here to learn more and register.

Rabbi Miriam-Simma Walfish is a doctoral student in Ancient Judaism at Harvard University. She studies gender in rabbinic literature and the editorial process of the Babylonian Talmud. A graduate of the Pardes Educators Program, she has taught Tanakh, Talmud, and Jewish Law in numerous settings including Hebrew College, Mechon Hadar, and the National Havurah Committee’s summer institute. She also co-runs Boston’s Teen Beit Midrash.

Posted in Education Programs, LGBTQ+, Marriage and Relationships, Niddah | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Something to Do

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

Often when I teach youth about mikveh, I talk about how a ritual can help us get from Point A to Point B. We start with the secular. For a few minutes, a group of middle school students and I will generate all kinds of transitional moments and the sometimes bizarre, sometimes ordinary, rituals that go with them: the baseball player that adjusts his gloves the same way before each pitch, or a chant before a group of actors walk on stage for their 8th grade musical.

We always talk about why we do these things. Last Sunday, I heard from a group of children:

“I would feel strange if I didn’t do it once.”
“It’s comforting.”
“Makes me feel like I’m ready.”
“It’s just what we do.”

On our way to understanding the often-mysterious ritual of mikveh and how it has been used to mark transitions of all kinds for thousands of years, there is some consensus about why we do most rituals. Whether silly and made-up, or a centuries’ old Jewish tradition, a ritual can help us navigate the many beginnings and endings that that make up a life.

I recently experienced a big ending: the end of my great-aunt’s life at the age of ninety. After several years of declining health, I had found myself (in partnership with my grandmother) in a caregiver role for someone I love very much. At her best, my Aunt Ria was ready to give a loving, high-pitched cackle, dream out loud in hopes I’ll someday have children, and support my life choices no matter what they were. At her worst, the hospital room and the rehab where she often found herself were places of torment. Disabled, poor, and an immigrant with little English, my aunt was very dependent on the good will of others. Her incredible kindness and warmth made people fall in love with her easily, but I would be lying if I said that was enough to secure decent treatment within chronically underfunded social welfare organizations.

As for me, at my best, I was patient with her, the doctors, hospice nurses, and caregivers. I understood that this slow-motion decline meant she would eventually be gone, and I should appreciate the time I had left with her. At my worst, I was unwilling to let her go, and completely terrified about what she was experiencing.

On a Tuesday night this last September, I met my husband, David, at the nursing home. The hospice nurse let me know that she was now in a more active stage of dying. She appeared to be unconscious. David and I sang her our favorite niggunim (wordless melodies), we told her we loved her, and let her know who was with her as family came in and out of the room.

After close to an hour, David said we should step out and eat our dinner. I told him I would meet him in a bit. As soon as he left, I felt as though I could not move. I was planted firmly by her side for ten minutes when suddenly, her breathing became heavy. I wasn’t sure, but I began to feel this moment was my aunt leaving. I panicked. There was no one in the room except me – no nurses, doctors, friends, or family. At first, I felt as though nothing had prepared me for this moment; I was flailing. As I grew accustomed to her breathing, I understood that perhaps this was what she wanted. Our favorite moments over the years were the ones where it was just the two of us chatting, holding hands, or drinking tea.

So I sat with her, held her hand, and again told her I loved her and that I was with her. Only, my words felt very small. I desperately wanted to say to her that “Soon Misha (her husband) will be with you,” but I didn’t know that. Then, without thinking at all, my heart reached for the shema (a prayer about God’s oneness that is a central component of morning and evening services). I began to sing a melody I’d never heard or sung before. I was so grateful to have it. My aunt’s face softened the more I sang. She began breathing with her whole body; she tried talking but couldn’t manage. The time between each breath stretched out and occasionally, she opened her eyes to look at me and cry. In that quiet room, all of the beeping of the nursing home disappeared. Just her labored breaths and my voice. And then, her breathing stopped.

My family at Ria’s 90th birthday in August.

Now it was very quiet. I don’t know how much time passed, but eventually David returned. We cried and hugged and then, we had a list of things to do. First, we did not touch her body for the proscribed 15 minutes. I gently closed her eyes, straightened her body, and covered her with her bedsheet. We looked for windows to open (they were locked); we poured out all the water in pitchers and glasses in the room, and then we covered the mirrors. I began reading tehillim (psalms) as we waited for the funeral home to take her body.

I didn’t stop to think, “Should I sing the shema?” It was just part of me. I didn’t ask myself, “Why am I straightening her limbs or pouring this water out?” I just did it. Although it’s never come up with my middle school students, it’s clear to me now that at least one part of what makes a ritual precious is that you can reach for it in the dark. I will always be grateful for that list of things to do as I began traveling the distance between my life with my aunt, and my life without her.

Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim.

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The Monthly Mitzvah

Originally posted in March 2017

by Anonymous

As a Jewish woman living a traditional halachic life (governed by Jewish law), I am often faced with questions from myself and others regarding my religious choices. One question that will likely always come up is that of the place of women in halachic Judaism. In modern-day Orthodoxy, the synagogue has become the focus of religious practice. The synagogue is a place where women are placed behind a mechitzah (separation) as men lead daily prayer services. The basic expectation is that members of the synagogue practice the laws of kashrut, Shabbat, and Taharat HaMishpachah (keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and ritual family purity). While kashrut and Shabbat are practiced equally among men and women in the community, I find it empowering that the onus of ensuring the correct practice of Taharat HaMishpachah lies solely with women.

When I began learning the laws of Taharat HaMishpachah before my wedding, I felt overwhelmed and vulnerable, as many brides do. One line from the Talmud left me feeling shaken more than any of the other teachings I received on this subject. In Tractate Niddah, page 66a, Rabbi Zeira is quoted saying that, “the daughters of Israel were stringent upon themselves” with regards to Taharat HaMishpachah. Why would they do this? Why would the Jewish women of that time be stringent with laws that caused them to lose the flexibility of their time with their husbands? There are many plausible answers: that they gained more control over their bodies in a time when it was lacking, that the tradition had always been to be stringent, or perhaps that they didn’t know any better.

I researched and considered many answers to my question, but today I no longer care what motivated these dedicated women to make that choice. Instead I find myself inspired by their commitment. In a world where Jewish women are rarely deferred to as experts in halacha, Taharat HaMishpachah is a tool they use to exercise their halachic knowledge and responsibility. It is a mitzvah given to women, the responsibility of which is placed on women, the power of which is imbued onto women, and the sanctity of which is guarded by women.

Jewish women have been practicing this tradition for thousands of years. Tapping into the spiritual strength of the generations of women who came before me, immersing in the mikveh connects me to a lineage of individuals fiercely dedicated to Jewish life and law. The mikveh provides a unique opportunity for me, together with all Jewish women, to collectively empower ourselves through halachic responsibility to a core tenant of Jewish observance.

Join us for a monthly Niddah* Salon at Mayyim Hayyim beginning January 11. You’ll enjoy facilitated conversations about how niddah impacts your experience of femininity, sexuality, and connection to Jewish tradition.

Open to female-identified people of any sexual orientation and relationship status.

*the practice of abstaining from sexual intimacy around the time of menstruation

One of Mayyim Hayyim’s Seven Principles is tzniut (modesty), dictating that we respect the privacy, modesty, and confidentiality of those who come to immerse. In alignment with this value, today’s guest writer has asked to remain anonymous.

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