Sheep bleating to the side, a small crescent moon above us, signals the fourth night of the month of Elul as it sinks into a darkening sky over our small campfire. A few people stuff the flames with papers and twigs. The wet wood is not motivated to burn but there is enough light so that we need not resort to smartphone flashlight apps. A box of kosher, gluten-free s’mores ingredients sit on a bench around the fire.
We were gathered not to eat the s’mores, though marshmallows were consumed, but to tell stories. And not just any campfire stories, but stories about water that was 40 se’ah from a natural source then mixed with other water that a Jew could immerse in to transform. Stories, about the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath in which immersion in the water can serve many different purposes. The mikveh can assist in completing healing after finishing rounds of chemo, or after a divorce, or overcoming abuse, or adapting a new Hebrew name after a gender transition. It can join a new convert to the community of the Jewish people in a formal ritual, literally changing one’s status in the act of entering a pool of mixed natural and drawn water, making a blessing and leaving. The mikveh can be used before marriage, or each month after a menstrual period. Some uses of the mikveh are more traditional than others, but the significance it can play in the lives of Jews explains why traditionally it is the first thing a community is supposed to build when founding itself. (Anyone interested can find more discussion of this in Igros Moshe Choshen Mishpat 1:42 a definitive work of halachic wisdom by the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.)
But some Jews want more from the mikveh, which is what has brought us all to the Pearlstone Conference Center in Reisterstown, Maryland, for the Rising Tide Open Waters Mikveh Network Summer Gathering. The gathering’s rationale according to organizers website is to “celebrate the diverse community of all those who embrace an open, inclusive, welcoming approach to ritual immersion as a way to mark life transitions.” It started in 2000, when author Anita Diamant of Red Tent fame, wrote an essay about why she wanted a mikveh. Her newfound fame from the success of her novel about the inner lives of Dina (Genesis 34) and other biblical women gave Diamant a platform to make her vision for mikveh a reality.
For Diamant, having an open mikveh is about “access.” She was dismayed to see Conservative Jewish converts lined up assembly line style all at once without personal time or space to reflect as they undergo the powerful, ritual moment that immersion for conversion should be. Diamant told Tablet in an interview in the dining hall of the Pearlstone Center that a “self-respecting community should offer better.” She believed there had to be a “thoughtful, meaningful” way to do mikveh that would jive with what it means to be “speaking Jewish in the 20th century.” So she wrote an essay with her vision and reasons her community needed a mikveh, and created a five-person board, which hired Aliza Klein as founding executive director in 2001 and opened in 2004 according to the history on the website. Boston-area Mayyim Hayyim has hosted more than 19,000 immersions since then, according to Carrie Bornstein, current executive director.
The gathering had 33 participants and workshops ranging from, “Bringing Mikveh Education to your community” to “Queer Mikveh Project Info,” along with a screening of a trailer about the project by artist and filmmaker Rebekah Erev.
About 14 of us were in a workshop on “Hidden Treasures: Telling Your Mikveh Story” with the storyteller Noa Baum where she instructed us in how to claim our space before starting to speak to a group. We practiced telling a story to one person, sitting knee to knee, then to two, before walking in front of the group and, keeping Baum’s wisdom in mind, trying to bring the audience along with us.
Around the campfire, the stories developed. The girl with acne and other cysts in her body found healing by becoming a Hebrew priestess and connecting to earth rituals and to mikveh. A man told of bathing naked in the Mediterranean with his stepson and how after the mikveh experience, the young man cut his long hair and matured. A college student who struggled with uncomfortable menstrual periods and had taken medication so as not to have a period was having periods again. The mikveh ritual is helping her rethink her relationship to menstruation and her body. A lesbian who had lived in Philly in the early 70’s told of her satisfaction at seeing the Hebrew letters for mikveh, mem-kuf-vov-heh, in the stone rubble on the ground near Rusty’s, a lesbian bar in Penn’s Landing, and her satisfaction that mikveh belonged there as a smashed relic of the patriarchy. These days she lives in Minneapolis where she and a friend do their ritual immersion in Lake Harriet on Fridays before Shabbat in the months when the weather makes it possible. When a female cop saw them and agreed not to arrest them if they left the water, they told her she was their mikveh lady.
When I was getting married I had decided, after going to a Jerusalem Rosh Hodesh group and hearing a variety of women talk about their experiences with mikveh that this was something I wanted to do. It offered a chance to connect with the ways Jewish women have lived Jewish lives throughout history, even if my own mother and probably my grandmothers (though I never asked them) had not been to one. When I asked my mother if she would go with me she refused in no uncertain terms telling me she thought the ritual said negative things about women’s bodies. So I took six friends with me, three married and three unmarried, to 78th Street, off Broadway. The mikveh was located incongruously above the Stand Up New York Comedy club and I recall being unsure how to enter. The mikveh lady, an older Hungarian woman with a large grey wig, was unsure what to do about the unusual situation of the “kallah [bride] with the entourage” but I immersed, and my friends threw candy when I came out.
What I did not know was that they were working on a parody song about my husband and I that made us both laugh hysterically when they sang it at our wedding the next day.
To me, a mikveh is about finding ways to embody connection, through the actual bodily ritual of immersion, but also, in a larger sense, connection with other Jewish women, with my spouse, and with an ineffable feeling of holiness that can be accessed only immersively.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.