The Mirror in the Mikveh

Can a Jewish Purity Rite Be Adapted for Teens?

Kurt Hoffman

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Published May 23, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

“The stated goal is for the older women to come as role models and supporters for the younger ones, who are dealing with major changes to their bodies,” Malka explained. But there is an unstated aim, as well: for the older women to unpack and deal with the baggage they carry about mikveh.

It’s the older women, not the younger ones, who come with preconceived — and misconceived — notions, often about concepts of purity and impurity. There is also the mistaken belief that a woman will be scrutinized by a mikveh attendant before being allowed to immerse.

“Mikveh is not just about blood and sex. It’s about health, decision-making, transitions and ritual,” Malka said. The idea is to introduce girls and women to the ancient Jewish ritual of immersion in “living waters” (either a natural body of water or captured rainwater, if indoors). Mikveh is meant to help them understand and experience the body’s inherent holiness, and they learn how to be truly inside their own skin, rather than scrutinize their appearances from the outside — a pernicious norm in our society.

Participants do mindful eating exercises led by Lisa Himmelfarb, a licensed clinical social worker and registered dietician specializing in body image and eating disorders, such as taking as long as five minutes to consume a single grape, using all of one’s senses. They also try out Jewish-values-inspired yoga poses taught by Lauren Rubenstein, who begins her session by reading “A Prayer for the Body” by Rabbi Naomi Levy. “When I am critical of my appearance, remind me, God, that I am created in Your holy image. If I become jealous of someone else’s appearance, teach me to treasure my unique form,” it reads.

When it comes time to go to the mikveh, the participants don’t immerse on the first visit; they are meant to learn about the practice first and then decide later whether or not they will try it on their own. Malka leads groups, divided by age, into the mikveh room. There, they light candles and observe an actress (wearing a bathing suit) play the role of a 15-year-old girl trying to feel a sense of wholeness with her body. She sings some of the traditional immersion blessings, recites a prayer of healing and then immerses. “The message we are imparting is, ‘your body is holy and you are complete when you are here,’” Malka said.

The group then files out and gathers to read creative liturgy compiled by the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh in Newton, Mass., the first center to offer mikveh education in an inclusive, pluralistic way. These are blessings for different life-cycle events, and “light bulbs go off they come up with their own ideas about when they could see themselves using the mikveh,” said to Malka. Girls have suggested immersing to mark key milestones like earning a driver’s license, graduating from high school or leaving for or returning from a first trip to Israel.

Emily plans to immerse for the first time in June, to mark the end of an intense school year. Ellie intends to make mikveh part of her becoming a bat mitzvah. “That would be a good time to start, when I become a woman,” she said. “The biggest challenge at my age is that everybody is different, and everyone is trying to be like a nonexistent normal. Mikveh teaches us to be ourselves.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.