Going to mikveh can be intimidating: You go to a room, take your clothes off, and dunk in a giant public bath. Usually, the only other person in the room is the mikveh lady, who watches to make sure that your entire body is immersed in the water. However, the mikveh lady does more than that: As the mediator between you and the mikveh establishment, she has a big impact on your mikveh experience.
As someone who lives in Jerusalem, I generally go to mikvehs run by the Israeli Rabbinate — an organization I have profound religious and political disagreements with — because there aren’t many other options. I see the mikveh lady as a representative of the Rabbinate’s authority, which can make me resentful.
Once I got into a fight with a mikveh lady who tried to turn me away because of dandruff, and I’m still puzzled by the mikveh supervisor who asked whether I know that Jewish law says I need to abstain from sex during my period* (if I didn’t know, why would I be going to mikveh?!)
But I’ve also come to recognize that the mikveh ladies see themselves as helping me to fulfill an important Torah commandment, and that our dedication to Torah is something we have in common. I’ve come to appreciate the genuine joy in their voice when the pronounce my dunking process kosher, as well as the kind blessings that they offer me as I climb out of the mikveh waters. When I immersed for the first time after surgery, I was glad to see a familiar face who noticed that I’d been gone for a while. It was nice to think that there was a representative of the Orthodox establishment to whom my presence at the mikveh mattered.
I’ve come to see mikveh night as an opportunity to imitate “tzimtzum,” the act of Divine contraction through which God created the universe. If one sees the world’s creation as God’s making room for the Other, then by contracting to make room for God-as-Other we reciprocate God’s act of bringing us into being. On mikveh night, I “contract” my feminism so that I can make room for God by going to mikveh. In doing so, I make room for the Other — the mikveh-lady who comes from a different community. Mikveh immersion allows the resumption of the sexual-romantic relationship, which is about making room for the spouse-as-Other in order to (pro)create.**
By setting the tone of the mikveh visit, the mikveh lady plays a pretty important role in the mikveh night experience. Mikveh ladies are working at an often thankless job, and are underpaid to spend key evening hours apart from their families.
The Eden Center is recognizing the important role that mikvehs ladies play with its “10 Days of Thanks” campaign, which encourages women to write letters of thanks to local mikveh ladies. You can fill out the form online, and the Eden Center will deliver your message.
This incredible opportunity is not only a chance to practice the Jewish value of gratitude, but also, to practice true feminism, which involves recognizing the women who often remain invisible, including women whose social and religious choices differ from our own.
*and 7 days after
** A couple can create a new “world” — the family they build together — even if the family consists only of two members (i.e., the couple themselves) with no children.