There has become a new running joke in my life. Right now, my weekdays consist of work at a mikveh, a place with Hebrew on the walls and Jews in pools, and then driving to teach swim lessons at the JCC, a place with Hebrew on the walls and Jews in pools. Water and Judaism. I can’t avoid it.
The connections continue. One of my coworkers at the JCC teaches Hebrew school and annually brings her class to Mayyim Hayyim to visit and learn about the mikveh. Stay with me. There will be a point.
The other week I was talking with someone at the pool and told them I worked at a mikveh. He asked me to repeat myself three times as he had never heard of the word before. I then went into my typical secular descriptions of what a mikveh is. “A Jewish ritual bathhouse, a place Jews go for ritual immersions in water.” Since, as I have said before on this blog, I am not Jewish, when I am asked to talk about Jewish ritual, history, and religious experience, I feel like a cross between a false prophet and a snake oil salesman. I am trying to talk about something I have not directly experienced. In comes my co-worker, who is an active, practicing Jew, to save the day with legitimate expertise.
She described how that going to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim isn’t so much a religious experience, but a spiritual one. Often religious and spiritual are used interchangeably, but I understood the distinction she was making. Religion makes me think of organization, collection trays, men dressed in costumes, and some form of chanting.
For people in my age group, religion has become something of a dirty word. That may be because my generation is afraid of commitment or the fact that we think labels do not afford us enough flexibility. Regardless of my generation’s mentality, what is true is that the word religion is tied to something outside yourself that you let come in. You are not born with a knowledge of parve, Quran, or crucifixes. Religion is something that you learn. The word spiritual instantly makes something more personal. It is how something touches your very core. You move from history and teachings to expression and communication.
What I have come to realize is that immersion, like many rituals, is a form of art. Good art, art that is able to make you feel something, requires an audience to bring something to the medium. In immersion rituals, you come as you are, with all of your life experiences, all your strengths, all your weaknesses, and you take part in the song and dance of saying the prayers and moving in the water. You have reactions that range from openly weeping to an incredible sense of calm. True art requires you to bring something to the medium. In our case, the medium does not change. The water is kept the same, the prayers don’t change. The variable is always the individual.
Spiritual experience is something that comes from within yourself. Through the experience, you discover something inside yourself and react to it. You can give someone religion. You can tell a person to follow these rules and do these actions. But you cannot give a spiritual experience. It has to come from within. I may not be able to talk about being Jewish, but I can talk about the spirit. I can say that when people walk out of Mayyim Hayyim they have been affected in some way. I can say that I am happy that one of the places I work at serves as a real place for personal expression. The other place is fine, too, if you enjoy calisthenic exercise.
Walton Clark is Mayyim Hayyim’s office assistant and jack of all trades. He is a 2011 graduate cum laude of Tulane University as well as an alum of City Year Boston. 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.