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Can we talk about the mikvah?

Lifting the veil of silence on ritual immersion lets women understand this private and complicated experience

Before I married, almost 25 years ago, I went to “Kallah Classes” as many observant Jewish brides do. There I was instructed in the halachot (Jewish laws) of Taharat Hamishpacha, literally “family purity.” These laws require that a Jewish bride immerse in a mikvah (ritual bath) before her wedding, and that a Jewish husband and wife avoid physical intimacy during the wife’s monthly cycle and for seven days thereafter, until after the wife immerses. It was made very clear in these classes that the subject was one that was extremely private. For reasons of modesty, I wasn’t supposed to say or do anything that might let someone know what my “status” was vis-a-vis relations with my husband, and therefore I wasn’t supposed to let anyone know when I was going to the mikvah.

A few years ago, my friend, Penny Harow Thau, asked me to help her put together a collection of women’s humorous mikvah experiences. It was an idea that she had been mulling over for a long time after having some of her own mikvah follies. We put out a call through e-mails and social media asking women to share their funny or interesting mikvah stories, promising that we wouldn’t use names or identifying information in the stories.

When we told people what we were working on, the responses were mixed. Some asked why anyone would want to write a book of humor about the mikvah. Some were indignant that the mikvah was not a topic to be discussed, humorously or otherwise. But most often they said, “I don’t really have funny stories, but I certainly have bad stories.”

That wasn’t the kind of book we were trying to write. We wanted something entertaining and light, but it did make me realize how many women think of the mikvah in a negative way. Fortunately, many women did have amusing or inspirational mikvah stories to share. But what was most refreshing was that almost every time I told someone about the project, a long conversation would begin about our mikvah experiences. It really was wonderful to be able to talk to other women and share the stories that we had always kept to ourselves.

When our book, “There’s a Shark in the Mikvah!”, was published, I immediately received e-mails accusing us of Chilul Hashem, desecrating God’s name, by writing this book. It was clear that they hadn’t read the book, as we hadn’t yet sold a single copy. I was asked if I wasn’t worried about men reading the book. I was asked if I got permission from a Rabbi before writing the book. I was told that the mikvah is a spiritual and private place, and that one isn’t allowed to write about it. I responded by saying that we had written a respectful book, and that there is nothing wrong with women sharing their mikvah stories. Moreover, given the negative attitudes about the mikvah that we encountered, we felt that women must be able to share their positive mikvah experiences.

Now that the book is out, the reactions from women who have read the book have been great. Many have written me or told me in person how much they enjoyed the book and related to its stories. And, for a change, they are happy to talk about the mikvah. We should be able to talk about the mikvah with our daughters, too. It should be OK to share our stories with them, good and bad. We can tell them that going to the mikvah might not be a spiritual experience every time, or that getting ready to go to the mikvah and having to sneak out of the house while juggling dinner plans and carpools isn’t easy. All this secrecy about the mikvah is not necessarily a good thing. And we can talk about the mikvah while still maintaining our modesty.

I truly hope we have opened yet another door for women to share what they have been told they couldn’t.

There’s a Shark in the Mikvah!” is available on Amazon 

About the Author
Naava Pasternak Swirsky has a bachelor's degree in psychology and is a founder and co-owner of AlphaPatent Associates, Ltd, an intellectual property firm. She is the mother of four and currently lives in Beit Shemesh, Israel. She is a co-author of the book "There's a Shark in the Mikvah! : A light-hearted look at Jewish women's dunking experiences "
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