My best mikveh experience took place on a balmy night in Jerusalem. Israel’s Supreme Court had recently ruled that women were allowed to immerse alone without an attendant. I mumbled my request for this, and was ushered to a room with its own mikveh pool inside. The room was far from luxurious, with dated tiles and exposed pipework. But there was something warm and comforting about it. I remember colourful glass in the windows, and fluffy mismatched towels.
We were trying for our second baby, and after the years of waiting and fertility treatment for our first child, were at the point of starting IVF for baby number two. This mikveh visit represented so much more to me than its regular halachic use, marking the end of my period (known as a time of “niddah”). It represented acceptance that we were heading for more doctors and needles and anxiety. It represented accepting my body and its seeming limitations. It represented welcoming a point in my life where an old self was left behind and a new self taken forward.
I took my time in the water, appreciating the fact that no attendant was watching or waiting, and that there was no pressure to do the dips and say the bracha quickly. So I lingered. Each dip represented something new – my past, this moment, my future story.
On the way out, I thanked the attendants and mentioned my upcoming IVF. “May you blossom like the shkeidia (almond tree)” said one of the ladies. It was Tu b’Shvat, the festival of trees. I walked home glowing, savouring the sight of growing figs and scent of bougainvillea on Jerusalem’s streets.
Several years later, I’m proud to be part of a cross-denominational team in the UK working to create a new mikveh for London. One which gives a warm welcome to all who cross its doors. One which is fully kosher and welcomes traditional as well as newer uses. One which allows immersions alone, and invites immersions to mark any new chapter in a person’s life – a bar or bat mitzvah, wedding, closure of a therapeutic process, gender transition, fertility journey, moving beyond illness, bereavement or divorce. In many ways it is a return to an older concept of mikveh, which has remnants in today’s practice to visit the mikveh before Yom Kippur – in which the water represents shedding an old self and turning a new page.
The Wellspring project launches this week, appropriately on Blue Monday, 18th January. And after a rough year, we’re in need of all the wellbeing we can get.
The name “Wellspring” plays with watery word associations, but also with the role water can have in wellbeing, revival and new possibilities.
Water is no stranger to this week’s sedra, Vaera, where we see the River Nile turned to blood in the first of the ten plagues. Ideas of revival and new possibilities are also present – in this sedra, the Israelite slaves in Egypt receive a first glimmer of hope that they will see their own revival and freedom from enslavement.
Water and blood – two recurring substances in Judaism. The Nile’s bountiful water in this sedra represents life, and blood represents death. With the plague of blood, the fish in the Nile died, doubly contaminating the water. The commentator Rashi notes that the River Nile was worshiped by Egyptians of the time. So the sight of the Egyptian deity – and Egypt’s source of life and hydration – transformed to a substance connoting impurity and death would have been a chilling omen and a sign of the power of the God of the Israelites to upturn reality.
We know how the story ends – the painful freeing of the Israelite slaves, and the drowning of Egyptian soldiers in the Reed Sea, through which the Israelites walk to freedom. In this context, the opening image of water turning to blood feels simultaneously fitting and ominous.
So water in the Exodus story viscerally marks both possibilities and endings, both birth and death. A bit like a mikveh.
Here’s an exercise I sometimes do with Batmitzvah students. Make a list of all the ways in which water comes up in Judaism – it could be in the Torah, ritual or custom. The list looks something like this:
The creation of the world from water
Dividing the waters above from the waters below
The creation of sea creatures
The description of different rivers meeting in the Garden of Eden
Hagar and Ishmael almost dying of thirst
Many meetings and new relationships beginning at wells
Rebecca and then Jacob watering camels / flocks
Moses in a basket in the Nile
Water turned to blood
The splitting of the sea
Miriam’s mythical well in the desert
Washing before receiving the Torah
Thirsting for water in the desert
Moses striking the rock
Water used in lots of tabernacle and Temple practices
Washing / mikveh water for purifying various impurities
The Israelites crossing the Jordan
Jonah crossing the sea and being thirsty at the end of the book
Handwashing – in the morning, before eating bread, upon leaving a graveyard
The bracha on drinking water
The bracha on going to the toilet
The prayer for rain
Salt water at the Seder
Water is deeply resonant in Judaism. Salt water at the Seder conjures up Egyptian tears. A seasonal prayer for rain reminds us of our origins in a land which relies deeply on rain. Water has the power to conjure memories, transform and heal. Mikveh presents a beautiful answer to the many needs for healing in our lives.
This is not just limited to Judaism, and washing or immersing rituals are found across religions (baptism, for example, evolved from mikveh). The anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote: “Breaking up all forms, doing away with the past, water possesses this power of purifying, of regenerating, of giving new birth”. Mikveh is our Jewish answer to this ancient power, and it is time we embraced it even more.
The Wellspring project has arrived. And while it might be some time before we’ll be able to meet and mingle at the launch party of a new UK mikveh building, coming together online to mark Blue Monday and launch the Wellspring is the perfect place to start. Join the Wellspring launch here: www.tinyurl.com/wellspringlaunch