by Sara Epstein
At 10 am, I arrived first at the mikveh Mayyim Hayyim in Newton. I rang the bell and was greeted warmly by Amy, my guide. She showed me around the building while we awaited the arrival of three friends who would be coming to witness my ritual cleansing immersion in the Living Waters of the ritual bath.
Beth, my cantor at Temple Shir Tikvah, and Maura, my old neighbor, soon joined us. Our guide explained that Mayyim Hayyim had opened about ten years ago as the brainchild of author Anita Diamant, who had wanted a place with fewer restrictions and more openness than existing mikvehs in the Boston area, for women and men to celebrate important life transitions. This 150 year old house had been converted with an addition to house the baths. The building was light and welcoming, the bath areas clean and sparkling in the winter sun. Orange brown tiles lined the bath area walls, designed to evoke the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the earth tones deliberately non-gender-specific.
It was 10:30 and no sign of my friend Ann. I decided to call her because I knew she would want to be here, so something must have happened, or she had forgotten. She picked up the phone and immediately realized she had forgotten. I let her know we would continue without her but that she was welcome to come, as the ritual would take awhile to complete.
Beth explained that she and Maura would sit outside the bathing area and listen quietly as I immersed myself in the bath. I began the ritual preparations, which included seven commandments that were thoughtfully printed out and laminated for mikveh participants. These included prayers for each step of preparation that helped add spiritual meaning as to why I was to clean my body, brush and floss my teeth, clean behind each fingernail and toenail (no need to trim them!), and wash my hair. I was encouraged to take my time, and I did, softly humming to myself. Finally, I wrapped myself in a clean sheet and entered the ritual bathing chamber.
The guide ushered me into the sun-filled room, where I hung the sheet on a hook and slowly stepped down the seven stairs into the water. At the bottom there was a large red handle I had been told to open to let in the “living waters” of the rainfall from an outside trough. I counted to three, allowing about a cup of the rainwater to join with the tap water of the bath, then closed the valve. I lowered myself under the water in the deep part of the tub, three times as the ritual directed.
I remembered why I had come: I was beginning a new stage of life, kids grown, marriage over, having recently come out as lesbian. I acknowledged the readiness I felt for entering this new life with all of my being. I asked for my life to be a blessing.
“Done,” I said to myself, starting to climb the stairs, but immediately felt the anti-climax of merely following the rules. I sank back into the water, noticing the unexpected buoyancy made me float on my back, arms outstretched, gazing at the many shapes and colors of the sun on the ceiling. “This is more like it,” I sighed silently, then slowly walked up the steps. There was a large white bathrobe waiting for me, so I put it on, then opened the doors of the sanctuary to my friends, inviting them in. Ann had arrived during my immersion, so she now joined us as we pulled chairs and guitar in to the warm chamber. Beth started singing familiar and spiritual songs, and we joined in, laughing, talking, singing for awhile, loving how unusual, quiet, and magical was this precious time together on an otherwise ordinary cold winter’s morning. Bless Mayyim Hayyim.
Sara Epstein is a psychotherapist and writer, mother of three mostly grown up children. She works in the Psychological Counseling Center at Brandeis University and in private practice in Waltham and Arlington, Massachusetts. She has published stories, essays, and poems. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.