by Leah Robbins, Administrative and Marketing Assistant
International Women’s Day is on the horizon (March 8), and this year, like every year, I am reminded of the enormity of the weight of the world carried on the backs of women. I am reminded that women are made responsible for creating history and carrying history. I realize that’s a vague statement with a variety of implications. So what do I mean by this?
Let’s zoom in on a particular group of women at a particular time in history: Jewish women in a climate of violent antisemitism (You might be thinking…aren’t we always in such a climate?).
Jewish women have been dipping in the mikveh in order to observe Taharat Hamishpacha (The Laws of Family Purity) for centuries. Love it or leave it, this ritual has played a central role in our survival as a people. Of course, we could spiral into complex debates about the biblical language of purity and our relationships to these practices, but for the purposes of this post, I want to redirect our attention to the hidden heroism of the Jewish women who have carried out this mitzvah. The unbridled courage and ferociousness with which Jewish women have insisted on observing this sacred commandment, even in the face of inconceivable obstacles, continues to baffle me. To be clear, my intention is not to equate womanhood with the ability to menstruate and observe the Laws of Family Purity, but rather to couple womanhood with a seemingly supernatural ability to persevere.
For example, during the Third Reich, the Nazis used the total destruction of mikva’ot as a targeted effort to crush Jewish practice and undermine the sanctity of this ritual so central to our tradition. Yet even in the face of genocidal violence, Jewish women risked their lives to help build, sustain, and immerse in secret mikva’ot in the ghettos. In Russia, women were forced to heat up water with pots and carry them down individually to hidden rooms in secret. In other cases, Jewish women would risk their lives to sneak out of the ghettos to immerse in rivers in nearby towns. Others living in unthinkably cold climates like Siberia would carve holes into icy lakes in order to fulfill this sacred mitzvah. The written testimonies of their steadfastness are plentiful,* and I’ve no doubt there are hundreds more untold tales of Jewish women’s bravery lost in history.
It is on the heels of their courage, their tenacity, their sacrifice, that a place like Mayyim Hayyim is possible. In breathing new life into ritual immersion for all Jews, the women who fought tooth-and-nail to create and sustain our sacred space at Mayyim Hayyim have honored the legacy of our ancestors.
As I set my intentions for this special day and begin to think of ways I want to honor the women around me, I want to sincerely thank the warrior women of the Mayyim Hayyim staff. Their resistance to ritual barriers, their selfless commitment to the survival of this ritual treasure, and their unabashed chutzpah is not unlike that of our foremothers, and for that, we should be proud!
(*You can read more mikveh testimonies in Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology edited by Rivkah Slonim.)