by Sabrina Zionts
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting Mayyim Hayyim for the first time with Wellesley College Hillel. At the beginning of the education program, Leeza asked what we hoped to learn from the session. I shared that I was most interested in learning whether the ritual of mikveh immersion is, or can be, feminist.
As a women’s studies major at a women’s college, it should come as no surprise that I identify strongly as a feminist. And, as a Reform Jew with a very elementary Jewish education, it should come as no surprise that when I first learned about the mikveh ritual, I thought for sure that it was anti-feminist. Any ritual based on cleansing women of their “impurities” must be misogynistic, I thought. Nonetheless, when I learned that Hillel was visiting Mayyim Hayyim, I signed up right away. I had only heard about the mikveh ritual secondhand and decided it was time for me to learn about it myself.
As soon as I entered Mayyim Hayyim, I knew that it was a special place. The space exudes warmth, and I felt immediately welcome. Already, I felt more positively about the mikveh. As I learned about the ancient history of Jewish ritual immersion, I began to think that immersing in the mikveh might not be necessarily anti-feminist, after all. I learned that the English translation of the Hebrew word tamei, (often translated “impure”) might be unfairly negative, and that there are many reasons for which women–and men–visit the mikveh. Not only is this mikveh egalitarian, it is very much a feminist organization. As we embarked on our tour, I felt invigorated with this new knowledge and eager to dispel myths about the mikveh to my friends and family. By the end of the tour, I was ready to be Mayyim Hayyim’s official feminist ambassador. Already Jewish, I did not visit the mikveh to convert in the traditional sense, but I did undergo a sort of ideological conversion during my short time there.
Mayyim Hayyim represents to me everything that a feminist space should be. It is welcoming of and accessible to all people, regardless of gender, sexuality, disability, or financial status. In fact, it supports all of these identities and offers Immersion Ceremonies for people who have recently disclosed their sexuality, transitioned genders (final version, forthcoming), or experienced abortion or miscarriage. Mayyim Hayyim gives those who visit–women, especially–time away from society’s judgement and demands. It gives them time to themselves–time to be.
I entered Mayyim Hayyim as a curious skeptic and left as an enlightened proponent. As a future midwife, I will strongly support my Jewish patients who want to visit a mikveh during or after their pregnancy or in the event that they experience miscarriage. I will educate my peers about this beautiful practice and look forward to one day experiencing it myself.
Originally from Highland Park, IL, Sabrina Zionts is a senior at Wellesley College. She will be attending Yale School of Nursing in the Fall to become a Certified Nurse-Midwife and Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner. She is proud to be Jewish, feminist, and pro-mikveh.