by The Viking Jewess
My several years-long experience observing the Jewish tradition of a married woman’s monthly immersion in the mikveh, ended abruptly and awkwardly. It didn’t end because I had reached menopause, which would have been the natural conclusion of the ritual, but because of something more complicated: I found myself in the middle of a delicate quandary or sheyla, involving my menstrual cycle, a rabbi and his kindly wife. That turned out to be a few too many people for me. What happened was likely a small trauma, if a trauma can be measured in size; one I have yet to recover from, which is too bad, because not only do I find this ancient custom to be meaningful and one that added something special – not easy, but worthwhile – to my life and marriage, I also genuinely liked both the rabbi and the rebbitzen, his wife.
It goes back to when I’m in my mid-thirties, living in Connecticut, and we have three young sons, all born within four years. Life is busy but life is good. I’m a stay-at-home mom with a not quite completed PhD in French Literature. The time I might have used for research and writing about mighty philosophical and literary queries is instead invested in a full-time Jewish family life teeming with the Jewish traditions I, as a convert, have come to love and cherish. Engaging with a Jewish lifestyle roots my existence through my choice in actions, and helps me see my small life in a perspective and relationship to all the Jewish people who have come before me, and to all those who are to follow. I have come to incarnate a merger of two epic empires: that of the yiddishe mama and the balabusta (homemaker), as I deftly managed full throttle yiddishkeit as C.E.O of the Lichtenstein Household, LLC. All this is to say it gave me a sense of heightened Jewishness by embracing it all, lock, stock and mikveh. Instead of counting the pages of dissertation chapters I could write, I am now counting days of the month.
In Jewish tradition there’s a lot of counting, which at times can feel obsessive. We especially count our blessings, but never our children. Counting souls is believed to invite the trouble of the ayin harah or the evil eye. My period is over, and I am counting the seven days with no bleeding or spotting required before I can go for my immersion, to finally get to be intimate with my husband again. I feel the urge to be with him, and when I’m showering I close my eyes and imagine his hands running over my body and how good it will be to once more affirm the natural symbiosis of our physical relationship. Lips, hands, breasts, legs, hips and genitals tightly connected; our breath close and our union affirmed. Two more days and I will call the mikveh lady, a gentle and elderly woman who serves as the shomeret (mikveh attendant), and make my appointment. After sunset on the seventh day, I will make sure my hubby will be home with the kids as I scurry off in the dark to the small house on Main Street where the ritual bath with its small pool of gathered natural waters will symbolically render me “kosher” again, for marital relations. I will emerge like a bride on her wedding night, or like the Sabbath queen, blessed and eager to bringing kedusha or holiness into the mundane. In more earthly terms, re-discovering the comforts and beauty of our physical relationship after almost two weeks of abstinence will simply feel really good. A royal tumble awaits me, and the mere anticipation makes my insides jittery.
But wait a minute! Later that day I notice a small brown spec, the size of a lentil, in my panties. Oh shit, say it isn’t so. I’m spotting. I check myself internally with the thin, delicate cotton cloths provided by the mikveh attendant, to see if maybe it was just a fluke. But there is more. Oy. Oy is right. I call up the mikveh lady to ask her advice. She tells me to call the wife of the supervising rabbi, who will act as an intermediary so as to ensure discretion, to ask him what I should do. I am told that in order for him to make the appropriate recommendation, he needs to see the spots. I am asked to place the “evidence” in a zip lock bag in an envelope and drop it off after dark in their mailbox at their residence. I know this rabbi and his lovely wife. Their kids are in the same school as my kids. They have dedicated their lives to helping Jews observe Jewish traditions, and they both do it with grace, kindness and wisdom.
On the phone, I listen to his wife giving me instructions as I sit in a wing back chair near the window in the den of our house, away from the children and their going-ons, and what I experience feels so surreal that it seems the chair is hovering in the air. With me in it. Outside the window, the birds flutter soundlessly in the overgrown rhododendron bushes. I see their small yellow beaks open as they chirp eagerly – angrily? – at each other, negotiating who will have a turn next at the bird-feeder stuck to the window with a suction cup. But I hear nothing. My fingers feel prickly and numb and there’s a buzzing sound in my ears. To be a bird right now. How liberating. My cheeks and neck flash hot and warm and I am cold sweating. I sit slumped in the red velvet hand-me-down chair, holding the phone against my pounding ear, imagining the rabbi examining up close the spots on my underpants, while hearing somewhere in the distance the rabbi’s wife explaining as gently as possibly his ruling that I will have to start counting the seven clean days from the beginning again. It is, I can honestly say, the most surreal out-of-body experience I have ever had. To put it bluntly, it was the day the rabbi had to check my undies that I decided – in a moment of feeling utterly flummoxed and humiliated – that I would no longer continue to observe the laws of family purity.
It has now been about fifteen years since that unfortunate experience. I have since divorced and lost the two most important men in my life, my husband and my father. But thankfully, I have also embarked on new beginnings, and now share a deeply spiritual and meaningful Jewish life with a new partner. I know in my heart that I am not done with the mikveh. As life goes on, I have learned that time heals many, if not most wounds, and I have thought about immersing again to mark the changes in my life. Perhaps I may even be making an appointment again one day as a kallah, a bride.
Nina B. Lichtenstein, aka the Viking Jewess, is a mother, writer, teacher and blogger who is almost done raising her three Jewish Viking sons Thor, Balder and Odin in West Hartford, CT. The piece above is adapted from her forthcoming memoir Tribal Matters: Diaries of a Viking Jewess. When not cheering at her sons’ ball games or hosting Shabbat dinners, she dreams of moving to Maine once the boys fly the nest.