by Kelly Banker, Intern
I have always been captivated by water. It holds a certain mystical quality, a kind of knowing. Growing up, my family spent our summers living in a cottage on a lake in New Hampshire, so water has been a staple of my life from an early age. Lakes, streams, rivers, waterfalls and oceans hold tremendous meaning for me – they bring me into a meditative state.
It’s no surprise, then, that I was drawn to the mikveh immersion ritual in Judaism. My first exposure to mikveh was during the time I spent working at a Jewish farm. Each Friday afternoon when we finished our field work for the day, we would split off into mikveh groups based on gender identity. Each group would wander off to a different part of the nearby lake, set our intentions, and jump in together. Since at that time I had little knowledge of Jewish rituals, I thought that the mikveh was exclusively for pre-Shabbat immersions, and also that it was inherently communal by gender. The pure, unadulterated joy of those Friday afternoon mikveh experiences is almost unparalleled for me. The beauty of the vulnerability, the trust, the connection, and the visceral thrill of the cold water surrounded by the trees truly prepared me for Shabbat relaxation in a way that I have since been unable to match. All of that changed for me, however, when a trusted friend sexually violated me in that holy water.
When I first started Mayyim Hayyim’s Mikveh Guide training, Lisa explained the phrase ‘lo mekabel tumah’ (the mikveh does not become ritually impure) to us. The notion that the mikveh cannot hold impurity brought tears to my eyes. I immediately thought of the lake that was once holy for me, but had quickly become a site of fear, shame and guilt. My beautiful memories of laughing and singing and holding hands with my dear friends every week were replaced with my memory of shock, pain and numbness. After that incident, I refused to ritually immerse in that body of water and stayed away from it. I felt fear and anxiety around what the water might retain, and what memories and emotions it might trigger.
I returned to this lake about halfway through my Mikveh Guide training as a part of my healing process. I walked down to the lake alone, journal in one hand, and a cup of warm tea in the other. I knelt down by the dock, took a deep breath, blessed the beauty of the place, and gingerly lowered my hand into the water. I expected to feel waves of grief, anger, fear – something related to the trauma I experienced in this water – but instead, I felt only the soothing, gentle rhythm of the waves lapping against my trembling hand. I thought of how mikva’ot are ‘lo mekabel tumah’ and, for the first time, the weight of this statement sunk into my bones. This water could not hold the impurity of what this man did to me that summer evening. This water is holy, as is all mayyim hayyim (living water), and instead of holding onto the guilt, shame and fear I had felt, this body of water had released it back into the world. Perhaps the lingering ghost of the trauma was transformed into something new, something generative, or maybe even something holy by the loving embrace of this living, breathing water.
Immersing at Mayyim Hayyim each month has been and continues to be a profound blessing in my life, but I will say that it does not quite compare to the sheer, unbridled joy of jumping into that lake by the farm each week, a song in my heart and a poem on my lips. I hope to return to that lake for a mikveh immersion. I know that one day soon, I will be ready to be transformed, once again, by the sacred living waters.
Kelly Banker works as an intern at Mayyim Hayyim. She also works as a Jewish educator and as a resident organizer at Moishe Kavod House. Kelly recently earned her BA from Carleton College in Religion and Women’s Studies, and has worked as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence. Kelly is a doula, a farmer, and a certified yoga teacher. She loves feminist theory, movement, exploring the woods, poetry, and the moon.