I’ve always been drawn to water, especially fresh and moving water. Swimming in a fresh, clean lake with no motor boats allowed and no cars in sight or hearing range is my idea of heaven. Hiking is not my exercise of choice, unless it’s to a mountain lake or waterfall. I’m not generally a meditator, but I could sit for hours watching rivers wending their way and crashing against rock. When I’m near a river, I will scramble over rocks to be able to put my foot or hand into freezing cold water as it rushes over rock. There is something about feeling the water’s power against my body that I find both calming and thrilling.
The last time I had an important transition to mark—before my first-ever trip to Latin America—I brought a small group of friends to the ocean and we sang and chanted and talked. But that was in late May or June so sitting together on rocks overlooking the ocean seemed reasonable.
Unfortunately, I was born in early January and I live in the Northeast. So, when I was about to turn 60 and wanted to be near water, sitting near a river or lake or ocean hardly seemed doable. I arranged for friends to gather on my post birthday weekend in an indoor spot right near the ocean. But on the day of my birthday itself, when I planned to work, I wanted to do something meaningful alone to start my day.
I had been to Mayyim Hayyim several times and had very much liked both the physical space and the feeling of the place. In particular I had loved a movement workshop I took part in as part of a Spiritual Preparation for the High Holidays event a few years ago. Yet the idea of going to a mikveh to immerse—even one as welcoming and apparently progressive as Mayyim Hayyim—seemed far less than “my cup of tea.”
I have been a strong feminist since the 1970’s and I have considered mikveh use as one of the most archaic and regressive aspects of my tradition. As I understood it, the whole purpose of the mikveh’s existence was to make the impure, menstruating woman, pure again so that she wouldn’t, God forbid, pollute her husband during sex. I actually had no idea until about 10 years ago, that ritual immersions were also used and required by men or women who chose to convert to Judaism. But even once I learned that, I figured that the “core purpose” of the mikveh polluted the act of immersing for any reason.
However, as I was turning 60, I started reconsidering my earlier stance. In order to see if I could make peace with the idea of revisioning the mikveh, I read articles and blog posts by other feminists, talked to a number of staff and guests of Mayyim Hayyim, and went to visit. And this time around, I found the idea appealing, and the intellectual arguments against the “mikveh for progressive Jews” a lot less compelling than previously.
And so, I arranged for an early immersion, at 9:00 in the morning on my birthday, on a day when an intense snow storm was about to begin. I found the whole experience both nurturing and exhilarating. My need to rebel against oppressive traditions was obviated by the fact that there were almost no rules here—suggestions, but not rules. I could choose everything about how I used the ritual waters.
I don’t have room here to describe the whole experience, but suffice it to say that entering water for a spiritual purpose felt familiar and right to me. In fact I had been entering lakes and rivers with a similar kavanah for years. I must say that my favorite moment in the mikveh was when I let the fresh water in from outside—I put my hand in front of the spout and felt completely soothed by the movement of the cold water.
And so, in the end, the immersion ritual at Mayyim Hayyim felt true and right and MINE. Although I’d prefer to be able to immerse my body in wholly fresh water throughout the year, I found this particular mikveh to be a pretty good substitute in the winter months. Although I’m still not sure I entirely understand the reasons that a group of progressive Jews chose to reclaim the mikveh, I can say that I am glad that they created this space called Mayyim Hayyim. Although I would surely not visit just any Mikveh, I would unhesitatingly return to Mayyim Hayyim when I need a meaningful ritual to mark another transition or to help me heal from sickness or loss. As I’ve known most of my life and rediscovered here, water gives me access to wholeness and sureness and peace.
Alice is an active member of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, a wonderful Reconstructionist congregation in West Roxbury. She has been a lesbian-feminist since the 70’s and is currently married (even according to the federal government) and has one grown son and two grown (or almost grown) step-children. She has worked in the field of adult basic education for the past 30+ years.
In this photo, she swims at her favorite place, World Fellowship Center.