If there’s one mitzvah in Jewish life that swirls with misconceptions, it’s ritual immersion, otherwise known as The Mikvah. The canard is that mikvahs are dirty and that menstruating women are viewed as somehow dirty, but neither of those things matter to the Jewish women committed to this ancient, secret ritual (if this one doesn’t sound pagan, I don’t know what does) that is anathema to everyone who is educated in biology and/or hygiene. True, some 21st-century folks enjoy incorporating the mikvah into modern, meaningful rites of passage–whatever floats their boats — but not as a G-d-ordained means to sanctify the marriage relationship. No how, no way.
Because mikvah touches on everything private in Jewish life — mainly, intimacy — you have to look pretty hard to find firsthand accounts of what mikvah observance means in a marriage. You can imagine the different ways women say the same things about feelings of rebirth and enjoying a honeymoon every month. But real mikvah experiences are only shared exclusively between husband and wife. Good for marriages, bad for myth perpetuation. We’ve heard about our immigrant ancestors abandoning Shabbos to earn a living when they came to America; why don’t we know any details surrounding their giving up on the mitzvah known as taharat hamishpacha, family purity? One of the first factoids I learned about Jewish law was that a community’s funds must be used to build a mikvah first and a synagogue second. When did the mikvah to go under?
A recent article in our Pittsburgh newspaper celebrated the retirement of the community’s 92-year-old “mikvah lady,” Mrs. Malka Markovic. The first time I met her, 29 years ago, she wasn’t yet the “mikvah lady” and I had never been to the mikvah. My husband and I had become observant while expecting our third child, so I didn’t have to contend with this ancient, secret part of the package. Instead, I met Mrs. Markovic when she catered our son Izzy’s bris. (I had never seen such a large pan of anything before seeing her legendary pumpkin kugel that day; I later learned the secret was her own homegrown pumpkins.)
When I met her many months later as the mikvah lady, I also marveled at her catering ability, only this time, she was helping me prepare for immersion. It may sound ritualistic to think that by my following a checklist that includes removing makeup and cutting my nails (the mikvah’s waters should reach every part of the body without impediment) I am protecting the holiness of the Jewish nation, but that’s how important the details of mikvah observance are. If I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. I don’t have to tell you how long I took or how often I second-guessed my scrupulousness, but Mrs. Markovic never got rattled by my mishhegas.
On Friday nights, when I walked to the mikvah before nightfall (immersion for women is always after dark), we always ended up discussing her life. Her voice was matter-of-fact as she described the line-up when she arrived at the concentration camp, complete with details of seeing women go crazy when their babies were pulled from their arms and shot before their eyes. These could be unsettling images in the moments before I’m supposed to connect to G-d as the source of all life and all goodness, but Mrs. Markovic was somehow living proof that, in her case, He is. How many eighty-something-year old Jewish ladies would insist on taking apart the bathroom sink pipe just so she could find the back of your earring? I learned that when a woman emerges from the mikvah in her new, spiritually pure state, she’s supposed to touch something holy before facing the world. I could never imagine a better way to do that than to kiss Mrs. Markovic good-bye as I left.
Will one Jewish woman want to experience the mikvah based on the newspaper’s description of this “ancient Orthodox Jewish ritual”? I doubt it. (For the record, one immersion is better than none and a post-menopausal woman gets a one-time-only deal that sanctifies her entire marriage retroactively.) And even though there aren’t many “mikvah ladies” like Mrs. Markovic, the mikvah’s not the place to go to meet inspiring people. It’s a place to go to meet G-d, to bring Him into my marriage, and to be reminded that everything comes from Him, mysterious as all that is.