Private, But Not Secret: Sharing Mikvah Stories

A few years ago, I had a conversion student whose six-year-old daughter was going to convert along with her. After many months of study and immersion in Jewish life, the two of them went to the mikvah to complete the process. When I asked my student how it went afterwards, she told me that she had been nervous that her daughter would blanch at the experience of going into the mikvah, naked in front a stranger. Instead, she said, her daughter had loved the experience. When she came out, her eyes were shining. “When I grow up,” she whispered, “I’m going to be a mikvah lady. Because they know all of the secrets.”

I am not sure what secrets this young girl had in mind. At six years old, the intricacies of taharat hamishpacha, not to mention intimate sexual relationships, menstruation and procreation, were surely beyond her. However, it is clear that the mikvah struck her as a place of great mystery and great intimacy. She saw a beauty in that space and wished, with a fervency often available only to young children, to be part of making and maintaining that space.

Over the past few days, there has been, unsurprisingly, much conversation about mikvah, boundaries, sex and power. I do not wish to comment on the accusations against Rabbi Freundel, which, if true, are nothing short of a horrific abuse of power and a tremendous Chillul Hashem. I also do not want to write about the aftermath of this scandal, other than to commend the board of Kesher Israel for acting swiftly and decisively to protect the women of their community, even when it meant putting themselves under a harsh and unwelcome spotlight. Instead, I want to reflect on a fascinating, and I would argue important, conversation growing out of this terrible story. Since the story broke, something brand new is happening. All of a sudden, the women around me are telling mikvah stories.

Until very recently, it seemed like almost nobody talked openly about mikvah. It was a mystery, whispered from mothers to daughters on the eves of their weddings, or from kallah teachers to young brides. While organizations like Mayyim Hayyim in Boston and ImmerseNYC in New York have made tremendous strides in opening up the conversation, the taboo still remained in too many communities. Because a woman’s immersion often coincides with her rekindling a sexual relationship with her partner after a period of separation, it was considered immodest to talk about going to the mikvah. However, this pursuit of discretion, perhaps inevitably, has led to a culture of secrecy. Women are afraid to tell their mikvah stories, afraid to break down those boundaries. That which might have become private has instead become secret, zealously protected in the name of modesty.

Surely, the line between secret and private is a hard one to toe. And yet, it is difficult to deny that there is a hunger to talk about mikvah. At the JOFA conference last year, a session about opening the conversation about mikvah led by Sarah Mulhern and Maharat Rori Picker Neiss was standing room only. Secure in the promise of anonymity, people texted in questions about their experiences ranging from the mundane to the profound. The relief in finally having an outlet was palpable to all who were in the room.

But these are new stories, the ones that I’ve been hearing over the last few days. And they are being told in a different way, in mixed company, in a way that respects privacy but rejects secrecy. Spontaneously, at a co-ed Yom Tov meal, a woman talks about the time that she was treated like a bride by the mikvah lady, despite having been married for ten years, because the mikvah lady felt that every immersion should be seen as a chance for a new beginning. Without prompting, at kiddush, two women of my mother’s generation take turns telling me stories about treating mikvah night as date night, about the times when the experience was so unpleasant and the wait so long that they just gave up and went home for the night. I have heard from a woman who finally decided she just could not go to the mikvah anymore and told her husband, it’s that or me. I have suddenly heard stories of the pain of the first immersion following a miscarriage, and of the sense of opportunity that came from immersing before the Yamim Noraim. Women are talking about receiving brachot, whether welcome or unwelcome, before immersing, or plunging into deep, dark bodies of water in the dead of night, hundreds of miles from the nearest mikvah, with only their husbands nearby. The sacred space of mikvah has been violated, and maybe we can never return to how it was before. But perhaps this rupture will give us the opportunity to break down other walls, ones that smothered the conversation about mikvah, rather than expanding it.

I recognize that I might be a strange advocate for having this conversation. As an unmarried woman born into the Jewish community, I have never immersed in the mikvah and have gone only once, to accompany a student who was completing her conversion to Judaism. For me, the mikvah is both familiar and alien, a part of my consciousness but distinct from my experience. But perhaps it is because of this distance that I feel so pulled towards having this conversation. I hope that when I get married one day, I will feel able to tell my own stories comfortably and without shame, to my friends who use the mikvah but also to those who don’t. I hope that for my children, the idea of mikvah isn’t gross or squirm-inducing, but instead, a normal part of the rhythm of our Jewish life, like keeping Shabbat or making brachot. I hope that we, as a community, can continue to tell of our experiences, both good and bad, not because we don’t respect the private, but because we want to do away with the secret.

At the end of the Book of Ruth, we are given a genealogy that ends with King David and, implicitly, Mashiach. Much has been made of this family tree, stemming from an illicit union between father-in-law and daughter-in-law, and the marriage of an Israelite with a Moabite woman. However, to me, it is telling how the list begins. Ele toldot Paretz—These are the generations of Peretz. Peretz, whose name will always evoke the breach of his own birth, but also the breach that led to Tamar conceiving a child by Yehuda. Who would have thought that Mashiach would come from such messiness, from such brokenness? That which has been broken can never become the same sort of whole it was before; that which has been breached cannot be put back to how it used to be. So instead, we get to decide what to do with what remains. Are we going to reestablish our code of silence, whispering in corners but always wondering? Or, since we must rebuild, can we not also use this as a moment to re-envision? Mikvah is now out in the open. We can decide to keep it there, not from a place of pain or violation, but from a place of strength and a deep desire to support one another. Perhaps we can create a community where we can trust one another enough to hold each other’s secrets.

About the Author
Rachel Rosenthal is a PhD candidate in Rabbinic Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a member of the faculty at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, where she teaches Talmud.
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