This post is part of a series of blog posts about niddah entitled Sacred Bodies, Sacred Time. Read more here – and submit your own post.
I was a Hebrew school geek. I went to our Conservative shul’s Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday program. In high school, I volunteered in the Hebrew school office. I went to Hebrew High School and to BBYO and had my bat mitzvah in Israel on a Beitar teen tour when I was 13. But I never heard the word Mikveh until the summer after my sophomore year of college. Although I went to a public university on the west coast, I was recruited for a 6 week experience called The Ivy League Torah Study Program. The participants, about 50 Jewish college students, were invited to a camp in the Catskills, the women’s camp a few miles away from the men’s. We learned Chumash (Bible), Halacha (Jewish law), and tanya (Hasidic mysticsm); davened (prayed) fervently, listened to tales of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, sang songs about Moshiach (the Messiah), ferbranged (drank schnapps) and melave malka’ed (drank schnapps late on Saturday nights). Though we wrestled for a while with the possibility of adopting a Torah lifestyle, only a few participants followed the staff back to Crown Heights at the end of the summer instead of going back to school. I think that for most of us, this culture was too different from our own backgrounds to feel like a good fit. In the end, most of us took the learning we’d acquired there and integrated it into a Judaism that we were already comfortable with.
We had some wonderful teachers there who brought texts alive and who showed us the beauty of Torah study. One of them, an older rebbetzin, taught a class called The Jewish Woman. It involved the usual discussions of the Jewish Home, the importance of Shabbat and Kashrut, and of course, the very Victorian-sounding Laws of Family Purity. Since none of the students were married or engaged, she didn’t go into a lot of detail about Hilchot Niddah (the laws of separation between spouses). But she made it clear that Halacha had something to say about marital sex. Basically, there was a time to, and a time not to. There was a system for keeping track of when to and when not to. And before it was time to, the wife immersed herself in a special pool of rainwater called the Mikveh. The message she unmistakably implied was that by living within this rhythm, a couple had better communication and hotter hoohoo.
It sounded good to me. I wasn’t sure about some of the other stuff I learned that summer, but I was definitely going to do the Mikveh when I got married. It sounded beautiful and special. It sounded simple, like something I’d have in common with my ancestors, both the shtetl-dwellers and the desert sojourners.
Fast forward ten years. I met my future husband in Jerusalem. We dated for three months and each of us was pretty sure that the other was marriage material. In a fairly vague discussion about our ideas of marriage, the topic of Niddah and Mikveh came up. We just agreed that it was something that was an important part of a Jewish marriage and that we were into it.
So we each went to the Mikveh before our wedding and I continued to go on a monthly cycle. My husband even immersed when we began to conceive before each pregnancy. We’ve now been married for almost 15 years. Observing the practice of Niddah marks a steady, comforting and important rhythm for our marriage. It definitely does for us what the Ivy League rebbetzin said it would. The brief reference we made to it when we first met can now be articulated like this: Just as days of the year are holy (Shabbat and Chagim) and then there is the rest of the time, and just as there is food that is kosher because of how it was produced and how/when it is eaten and food that is unkosher, so too can our sexuality be elevated to a holy level by being together during part of the month and by refraining during the other part. And just like observance of Shabbat and Kashrut varies greatly from Jewish home to Jewish home, so too can Mikveh and Niddah be practiced differently within each Jewish marriage.
But truth be told, the benefits that I derive from living in this rhythm are about more than marriage. I am affected a lot by hormones. For two weeks a month my mood is good, usually better than good, sometimes even golden. Then I have one week when things become difficult and I feel like I am swimming upstream. I drop things, I cry easily, I’m so hungry I could eat the paint off the walls. Then my period comes and I’m in a bleak fog for a few days, feeling like an ill-equipped visitor to planet Earth. It’s not until about a week later that I start to feel like my better self again. It has always been this way for me…I have learned some adaptive tricks, but the cycle persists.
Mikveh is the main way that I have found to cope with these feelings. Every month I start my Mikvah preparations sort of hungover from the negative part of my cycle. But when I come out, I am re-fortified. I feel connected to Hashem, to the Earth, to Bri’at Ha’olam, (the creation of the world), and to forces far greater than myself. This sense of connection propels me through the next few weeks of the cycle. Then it repeats itself. I hope that in another ten years I may reach an equilibrium, but then I won’t have this monthly immersion to look forward to.
Going to the Mikveh every month is a discipline, much like yoga or journaling. If you go to one yoga class or write one journal entry, you may really enjoy it but unless you commit to it as an ongoing practice, the depths of its benefits won’t be revealed to you. The meaning of Mikveh was not apparent the first time I went, or the tenth or the twentieth. As an embodied ritual, it has multiple dimensions and every time I immerse, I think….chadesh yamenu k’kedem….renew our days…bring us closer to each other and to You.
Naomi Malka has been the director of the Adas Israel Community Mikvah since 2006. Naomi trained as a Mikvah Guide at Mayyim Hayyim in 2008. She earned a masters in Jewish Music from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2000 and a BA in Sociology from UCLA in 1991. In spring 2010, Naomi served as the ritual consultant for DCJCC Theater J’s production of the Israeli play “Mikveh.” She is a frequent lecturer and writer on the subject of Mikveh. She is also the founder of Tevila b’Teva: immersion in nature, a program that introduces outdoor immersion to Jewish summer camps. As the director of the Adas Israel Community Mikvah, Naomi created “Bodies of Water,” a program for Jewish women and girls ages 10 and up to learn about Mikvah as a tool for positive body image, mindfulness and healthy decision making from a Jewish perspective.